The Gospel of Matthew has been called the most Jewish of all the Gospels. Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish, mind you. I think that simple truth alone has been subtly buried by the crushing tide of our popular, Western expressions of Christianity. Jesus was Jewish, as were his disciples. The Gospel of Matthew reflects this Jewishness more so than any other canonical Gospel. This is very important. The Jewishness of Mathew is very, very important.
You see, in Matthew, the author is writing specifically to Jewish people who are well trained in Jewish Law or Torah. That’s why the Gospel begins immediately with a long and tough to read genealogy. Yeah, we may as well admit it, we all skip that part of Matthew, right! Right. It is, however, a very important feature of this Gospel. The author of Matthew includes it because he is writing to a Jewish audience and he wants to show his audience that the redemptive work God began with Israel is completed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. So, in this long and tedious genealogy, Matthew not only links Jesus’ heritage with King David, but also with Abraham. Jesus of Nazareth is Son of David, Son of Abraham, Son of God. That’s pretty important info., not only for Matthew’s Jewish audience, but for all of us Gentiles too.
It doesn’t stop there. The Jewishness of this Gospel raises a few other very, very important points for us.
In Jewish history, God rescued the nation of Israel from Egyptian slavery and then established a covenant with its people. Two key events followed this covenant: 1. Israel journeyed into the desert, where they wandered around lost much of the time - and worse yet - actually strayed from God and broke the covenant when they gave into the temptation and worshiped other gods (i.e., the golden calf); 2. They later - much, much later - followed Joshua across the Jordan River and settled the promised land.
Matthew’s Gospel is framed - from the outset - upon this very, very Jewish story. You see, in Matthew, Jesus too journeys into the Jordan River, but to be baptized. Then he too wanders into the desert and is sorely tempted to stray away from God. Jesus, however, triumphs over the temptations; Israel did not. Unlike Israel, Jesus hold true and remains faithful to God. Jesus defeats the adversary of God.
Why is this important for us? For this reason: Matthew’s gospel is a proclamation of a new movement led by Jesus. It is a movement that invites all people into a new covenant with God - a new beginning. Jesus’ movement is the culmination of all that God promised and did through Israel. The rest of the world would in turn be blessed by Israel through Jesus Christ. The author of Matthew lays it all out there, immediately, by showing us the connections between the redemptive history of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is Israel’s renewal. Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of God’s covenant to the world. The story written in ancient times remains with us to this very day. It’s our story; it is still being written. You are integral characters in this story.
When Jesus returned from his baptism and desert journeys, according to Matthew’s gospel, he began preaching, teaching, healing, and telling people God’s Kingdom was right here, right now. Then, very soon afterwards - very, very soon afterwards - he went up on a mountain side and preached a sermon known today as The Sermon on the Mount, or The Beatitudes (Matthew 5).
Chapter 5, verse 2 tells us why he preached to the crowds: to teach them. He preached to teach them.
This teaching points us towards a different way of living and being in the world. Truth? You want some truth? Right here is where it can be found, as Jesus himself taught it:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
I think it’s safe to say, given the redemptive Jewish history Matthew is building upon, and Jesus’ seriously quick teaching of our morning’s passage, that this portion of scripture represents the core of Christian faith and practice.
I also don’t want you to miss the radical and dangerous nature of Jesus’ teaching. Seriously.
In Jesus’ day - a day riddled with social, religious, and political injustice - this is a gauntlet thrown down in full view! Jesus, when he said these words out loud, from the side of a mountain no less, literally throws down the gauntlet! He is taking direct aim at unjust religious brokers, religious zealots, socially stratified structures and cultural norms, and, perhaps most dangerously of all, Rome. Jesus kicked over all of their apple carts. He did all of this non-violently too, mind you. This teaching is as dangerous today, as it was in the 1st century, because not a whole lot has changed in 2000 plus years. There are plenty of apple carts out there. And this teaching goes against almost all of their celebrated and ordinary standards and values.
Is this teaching simple? Yes. Is it easy to live? No. Is it ordinary or normative? Hardly. In fact, it seems to have been buried by our penchant for the ordinary, normative, popular and ever-present standards of the world and its soft spiritual prose. These are not mere words; Jesus actually expected us to live them. But we first have to understand them, and wrestle with them, before we actually take to living them in real-time.
Jesus’ words here are most clearly understood when set against the ordinary, or profane, as they were meant to be. Remember, Jesus was taking direct aim at all he had witnessed in his own day as regards social, religious, and political injustices. In fact, if you want to summarize this teaching with a single word, “subversive” would do just fine.