Epiphany IV - January 29, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Micah 6:1-8 + Psalm 15 + 1 Cor. 1:18-31 + Matthew 5:1-12
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel today inaugurates what is among the most famous and lengthy collection of Jesus’ teachings to be found among the four gospels. A series of teachings we have come to collectively call the Sermon on the Mount.
The solemnity with which Matthew endows the entire Sermon is signaled by a triple description that Jesus is about to speak as we see in verse 2: “Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying…” In fact, the Greek here reads a bit more graphically: the phrase which our lectionary renders “began to speak” is literally “opened his mouth” (ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα): A familiar Old Testament idiom used to introduce a significant pronouncement. (See, R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 158. See: Job 3:1; 33:2; Ps. 78:2; Dan 10:16, etc.).
The image Matthew presents here is of a classic rabbinical posture as one might see in a synagogue: Jesus is seated, surrounded by his disciples. He opens his mouth, and teaches them, by saying…” and so on. Famous frescoes, paintings, and icons of this sermon often depict Jesus surrounded not by an intimate gathering or disciples, but by large crowds, which give the impression that he perched himself atop a mountain (or at least what would have been a prominent hillside in Capernaum) so that he might be better heard by the masses. But a more careful reading of the text makes clear he did not ascend the mountain in order teach the masses but to get away from them. Matthew tells us in 5:1 “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” So, he sees the crowds, escapes them by climbing atop the mountain where, in short order, we are told only his disciples come to join him.
Thus, the sermon is intended as a much more intimate rather than public teaching. Its purpose is not so much to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to all who would listen, but rather to describe what life in the Kingdom looks like for those who have already embraced it. It is only at the very end of the sermon that we will learn others had slowly scrambled up the hill to listen in from the background, and from what they heard, were decidedly impressed. Matthew tells us: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matt. 7:28)
The intimate nature intended by Jesus then in directing his sermon primarily to his disciples, makes clear that the beatitudes are not prescriptive, that is to say they are not a series of injunctions: “do this, do that.” Rather they are descriptive: “This is what it looks like to live in the counter-cultural Kingdom I have come to inaugurate:”
5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And so on…
We should notice the “Divine Passive” voice here – “theirs is the kingdom,” “they will be comforted,” “they will inherit the earth….” The implication is, of course, that it is God who bestows the kingdom, comforts the mourning, and gives the inheritance, and so on. Thus, “The church,” as Nicolás Dávila explains: “…is not here to accommodate Christianity to the world, not even to accommodate the world to Christianity; instead, its task is to preserve within the world, a counter world.” (Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Es genügt, dass die Schönheit unseren Überdruss streift…Aphorisms (Stuttgart, 2010), 111; Scholia to an Implicit Text (Columbia, 2013).
A counter-world whose blessings are tangible: Comfort, righteousness, mercy, peace… yet which will undoubtedly result in persecution among those whose allegiances are not with the power structures of the Empire, but with those who are alienated, oppressed, or crushed by imperial power.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matt. 5:10)
Again, as a description of what it means to live in the counter-culture of God’s Kingdom, nuance is important here. The Beatitudes are not saying that persecution or being reviled is in itself a blessing, but that being persecuted or reviled for the sake of righteousness…for the sake of the kingdom is part and parcel of the state of blessedness among those who embody the kingdom in the world. This is an especially poignant nuance for us to hold in our hearts in a week in which the video footage of Tyre Nichols has shocked the nation, and no doubt the globe.
Let us be clear, Tyre Nichols was not persecuted “for righteousness sake,” nor reviled “on Jesus’ account.” As any objective, straightforward observation of the police cameras will demonstrate, Tyre Nichols was unambiguously murdered in cold blood. Perhaps the only point in my sermon today that needs no nuancing.
I am not one to typically subject myself to the release of sensational and disturbing videos such as those that have recorded this brutal murder. But in preparation for my reflections yesterday, I risked viewing them even for just a few minutes (which I can assure you was more than enough) and for the sole purpose of informing my comments today. While admittedly I could not sustain an extended viewing, I can assure you just as clearly, I did not need to. There is absolutely no question about the fact he was brutally and unjustly murdered. Every action on his part was without question an act of self-defense from the brutality of being tasered, kicked, beaten, and crushed, under the brute strength of five police officers. And any suggestion that their use of force was a response to his “resisting arrest” is an insult to human intelligence.
Moreover, the fact that all the officers involved were, like Tyre, African American, raises complex questions about the intersection of race and police brutality. As one of the local officials poignantly described it: this beating opens the conversation beyond the question of black and white to an examination of the color “blue,” by which he was pointing to a culture of brutality endemic in so much of our police enforcement today. It is the system that is broke, not merely individuals within it. Having both a brother-in-law and a nephew in law enforcement I can hardly imagine the humiliation this causes them – to have a profession which they serve faithfully and nobly, maligned by such violence done in their name.
But make no mistake, this is what imperial power looks like today. And it is this power – this brutality – that the counter-culture of God’s kingdom remains in diametrical opposition. The implied question beneath the beatitudes today is simple: Are you in or are you out?
Because if we are to take the beatitudes seriously, the persecution they describe as being “for the sake of righteousness” is not – let me be clear – is NOT the persecution that victimized Tyre. Rather, it is the persecution that those of us living in the counter-cultural kingdom must be willing to accept for standing in solidarity with him, and with those like him, who are brutalized by the imperial power of our own day. Being abused as Tyre was, being unjustly murdered as he was, is not a virtue. Its crime against humanity. It should not be romanticized or glorified as anything but sin on behalf of his perpetrators. But the willingness to risk standing with those who are so inhumanely killed is a virtue, indeed a blessing, even, and perhaps especially when doing so puts us in direct confrontation with the powers that be.
The beatitudes do not call us to victimhood, but to stand with those who are victimized no matter the cost to us. They call us to ally with all the innocents who are marginalized, oppressed, brutalize, indeed murdered – even, and most especially, in the name of today’s imperial power. The question is: what does that alliance look like for each of us? For all of us collectively as a beloved community.
What does it look like to stand with a mother who will have to live with the unimaginable cruelty of learning only too late that she was just beyond earshot of her own son calling to her for help in his final moments? What does it mean to stand with her and not just pity her from afar? What does it mean to keep vigil with her, as she mournfully holds out the image of her son for all the world to see in this new Pieta?
It's been said that, “When Christ died, he did not leave documents but disciples (cf. Dávila, 111). And perhaps that is precisely what this sermon encapsulates better than any of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament: That is, the very meaning of discipleship and its sometimes beautiful…sometimes painful consequences. But let us be clear: the church will hardly begin to understand the Sermon on the Mount as a description of the kingdom of God until she comes to realize discipleship does not merely consist in treating Jesus as if he were God, but in treat each other as if we were human.
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.