“I’ve Been So Blessed” Matthew 5:1-12

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9pAXflnRcs

“I’ve been so blessed.”   

          That is what she said to me.  

          There was nothing about the situation that looked like much of a blessing.  

She was gasping for breath, in the latter stages of ALS, struggling to find enough breath support to speak. 

          Her world had now collapsed down to the room in the care facility.

          She could not hold a book anymore or work a television remote.

          On the ceiling of her room the nursing staff had taken to posting different pictures, posters, outdoor scenes,  or vibrant flowers so that she would have something to look at as she could no longer even turn her head to change her view of the world.

          “I’ve been so blessed.”  She insisted and persisted. 

          What, I wondered, could make a woman who was captive to her own failing body insist on that?

          It took me the better part of my Internship year to get to know her, and little by little over the course of that year I learned that she had led an extraordinary life before her illness.  

She told me of travels, of family, of work and things done.

She told me about serving in the war, and her job afterward, all in short, halting phrases.  

The stories and memories were all the more precious now that even the ability to convey them had all been slowly stripped away. 

          Reduced now to the confines of her mind and not distracted by other things, she could revisit her life through memory and make this kind of pronouncement.  When she looked inside, all that she could say was:

          “I’ve been so blessed.”

          I think we often scratch our heads over Jesus’ beatitudes.   Just how does this work?  

Jesus looks out at the crowd and says “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

          On and on he goes pronouncing blessing upon one group after another, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the meek…

          I often wonder how those words were received by the crowd?   

          Did they strike the crowd as good news, or as “pie in the sky” pronouncements?  How did the crowds hear them on that day?

          If you had been hungering physically or for justice, would Jesus’ “blessed are those” have sounded like a deep promise or a hollow platitude?

          Then it occurred to me that maybe I had missed two important details about this story.

          The first detail is that although Jesus is on the mountaintop and the crowd is assembled around him, he is teaching is actually his disciples.

          “his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 

          So then, these aren’t pronouncements made to the assembled crowd so much as they are meant for the disciples.

          But, (and here is the important thing!) this is a teaching that is being done as Jesus surveys the crowd before him, and who does he see?

          He sees people who he knows are mourning, grieving the loss of loved ones, of their livelihood, and a myriad of other things because grief comes, and strikes deep and does not know a timetable.

          He sees people who are meek, subjugated under Roman occupation, feeling the loss of their own agency.   Jesus recognizes the helpless feeling of not being sure if raising your voice would do any good, or whether it may bring further suffering upon you and your loved ones.

          He sees people who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness.   People who are tired of the games played by those in power, the presence of troops on the village street, and the endless transactional nature of life where those with little power live at the whim of those who can move, shake and marshal resources.

          How does Jesus know all that?  

Well, it is because Jesus has spent time with the crowd.   He has been out in their towns and streets.

He as spent time healing those in the crowd, and hearing their stories and concerns.

He has spent time listening to them and living with them.

He has been in their midst feeding and walking the dusty back roads of Galilee, enough so that when the people hear that Jesus is going up to the mountain, they follow him.

          And as the crowds follow Jesus, the disciples see the crowds assembling and they probably have some thoughts of their own.

          We are, after all, usually eager to make assumptions about crowds.

          Maybe they are charitable assumptions.

          Maybe they are less than kind.

          We’ve actually had quite a bit of practice in that recently, from protests to political rallies, from people camping out to force the resignation of a police chief to armed militia gathering on  courthouse steps to make a statement about mandates against masks and closures.

          When you see a crowd, you tend to make an assessment pretty quickly, form an opinion, and generalize about those gathered.

          I would guess that it would be no different for the disciples of Jesus’ day.  They survey the crowd assembling and make assessments, generalize their views, are probably quick to adopt or to dismiss.

          Which is what Jesus chooses to do all the more important.

          Jesus surveys the crowd, with all of their competing interests and loyalties, all of their pain and smugness, and pronounces them “blessed.” 

          Take note of this, disciples, this is how Jesus sees the crowd. 

          He does not see them for their outward appearance, but he sees them for the story they have lived and are living.

          He sees them for what is going on inside.

          He sees them for their mourning, and their meekness, and the struggling with persecution and then reminds his disciples, “You see these people, … they are blessed.”  

          They are blessed because God sees them and is at work in the crowd through me, and through you, to bring about hope and change and a promised Kingdom.   

          A place where mourning finds comfort, and the meek a portion.

          There will be crowds on Tuesday, and I am pretty sure that we will look upon them and be tempted to make some assumptions.

          Some will be charitable.

          Some will be less so.

          But I have a new set of eyes to see those crowds now, because  I hear Jesus remind me that in those crowds reside the “Blessed.”  

          May I see people with the same compassion and understanding that Jesus does, for that is what he teaches his disciples this day.  They are blessed.

“A Matter of Image” Matthew 22:15-22

“Tell us then, what you think?”  

          Sometimes there is literally no space between a question raised in biblical times and one raised in our everyday life, and “Tell us what you think?” is certain such a question!

          You can sense that this is a mousetrap with a hair trigger even before the real question is put to Jesus.

          It is a trap we’ve stepped into ourselves, only to have it spring and snap on us in unexpected ways.

          It happens to us on social media.

          It happens in the casual conversation.

          It happens when the microphone is thrust into the public official’s face for what seems like an innocent query or opinion.

          “Tell us what you think….”

          BOOM!   Suddenly we’re put on the spot!

          In the Gospel today a trap is being set which two opposing groups hope will prove to be the undoing of Jesus and his popularity among the people.

          “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” That is the question asked with just enough “buttering up” ahead of time of Jesus to hope that he will make an “off the cuff” remark that will come back to bite him.

          We don’t know much about the Herodians, but their name probably tells us everything we need to know. 

They were adherents loyal to the local Judean government who depend upon tax revenue and their political connections for power and influence.  

If Jesus makes a statement against paying taxes, they will surely make that known to Herod and to the local Roman officials. They would treat such words as those of an insurrectionist, speaking against the Emperor, maybe a threat for inciting rebellion.

Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem will be short lived if political opponents are aroused.

          We do know a great deal about the Pharisees, who were strict adherents and interpreters of the religious laws and leaders of the people, and they don’t much like the way Jesus is supplanting their spotlight. 

If Jesus says “You have to pay your taxes” they will circulate that word among the people and paint Jesus as just another leader of failed promises who will do nothing at all to throw off Roman occupation. 

“He’s no “Messiah”” they will say. “Not if he is unwilling to engage in revolt against the oppressor!”

          “Tell us what you think…”  There is supposed to be no right or safe answer. 

          A politician in our day would employ the tactic of changing the question, “here’s what I wish you would have asked me.”

          Jesus however doesn’t do that.  What he does is far more confounding and interesting.  He enters the question on a deeper level.

          You need to know a bit about coinage in Jesus’ day to catch what he is doing.  

First of all, coins were not just representative of the economy, they were “weight measures.”  

One Denarius is a measure of a particular quantity of silver, which is then struck and inscribed with a mark showing the reliability of that measure.  This is what it is “worth”, as attested to by this official mark.

          There were all kinds of coins floating around in the economy.  The Shekel, the mite all  were simply weight measures of silver, gold or bronze, precious metals used in trade, all bearing a strike mark that guaranteed its weight, and showed you were it came from.

          The Temple had its own coinage, the Shekel, weighed and struck with images of the temple, lamps, or scripture.

          In the case of the coin Jesus asks for, it is inscribed with “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus, High Priest.”   This is who guarantees its weight and value.   This is therefore, who guarantees the coin, and to whom it rightfully belongs.

          But then Jesus pivots the conversation.  

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

          What things belong to God?  

Well, in whose image are we “struck?”

          Who gives us worth and value?

          Who is it that has measured us, determined our worth, and see us as precious enough to mark us, strike us with the seal of Baptism and mark us with the Cross of Christ forever?

          It is God to whom we belong!  All of humanity, all of creation!

          Jesus, by asking for the coin and asking about the inscription has pushed the conversation into a new and deeper direction.

          He’s made us acknowledge the realities of this world.   Taxes do have to paid, the Emperor does have say and sway by virtue of his title and ability to set value on things, but the Emperor’s values are not the only ones to be considered!

          And, while Tiberius may claim the title of “divine one”, is that really the case in your mind?  Herodians?  Disciples of the Pharisees?

          You do have to acknowledge that getting along in this world does mean doing business with the powers that have influence and control.  

          But this question of what Jesus thinks?    That pushes us down another level, because it pushes us down to considering what ALL of us really think!

          Jesus thinks everyone has intrinsic value!

          God so loves the world that he sends Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save the world!

          If you want to know what God thinks about people, look at what Jesus thinks about people!

Watch Jesus’ actions as he gathers the poor, the lame, the dispossessed, women, children, and those with no portion in life and gives them good things, honor, a voice, and respect.

He feeds them.

He heals them.

He listens to them, converses with them, forgives and restores them.

Commends them for their faith and calls them to follow him as valued disciples.

          If you want to know what God thinks about those created in God’s image then you need to look at what the whole of scripture reveals, how God comes time and time again to God’s people throughout history to gather them, to heal them, to call them out of slavery and into freedom.

          If you want to know what God thinks of people, then watch the divine drama unfold as God calls Abram and Sarai and gives them promises.  

Watch as God uses evil for good in the story of Joseph.

Watch as God sends the Prophets to call God’s people back from their running after idolatry and injustice to begin to work again for justice and to have consideration for the widow, the sojourner, the orphan and to provide hospitality to the stranger in their midst.

          If you want to know what God thinks about God’s creation, then you have to look at how time and again God calls for creation to be cared for, how the Psalms point to creation as the sign of God’s delight and how the heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the depths attest to God’s power and majesty.  

          God does not think of the world as disposable, God thinks of it as something worth saving, preserving, delighting in and protecting!

          And now, Jesus comes to proclaim the Kingdom of God and that Kingdom breaking in upon this world, granting a different vision of how we might live together in justice and in peace.

          And in the face of that, you’re worried about paying taxes?  

          Tell me what you think?  They ask Jesus, those hoping to trip him up, and instead Jesus flips it all around!

          Give the Emperor this pittance of a coin  —  but give to God the glory of creation and your very own self, for you belong to God!

          Give to God the glory of all that God has created and care for it as the precious gift that it is, more precious than silver or gold!

          Give to God the praise God deserves for having made this world and all that is in it.  Begin to see the value and worth of one another instead of measuring everything by denarius or dollar.

          You see what Jesus does here, and why the Herodians and Disciples of the Pharisees walk away amazed?

          They have been shown a much wider world, and a vision of the Kingdom of God where Emperors no longer have any real power.

          They have been reminded in whose image they are struck, and now are shaken to the core at the shallowness and pettiness of their own thinking, plotting to trip up the God who commands the winds and the waves with a silly question about taxes??!

          They leave amazed because of this answer to the question, “What do you think?”

It has opened their hearts and minds to the fullness of God’s love for this world and the call to transform it into something more than a mere transaction of precious metals.

          And now, the question that looms before them, before you, before us all is this:

          “Tell me what you think?”

          Would you rather live in the world that bickers over taxes, or join the Kingdom where all of the glory and grandeur of God’s love is opened up for you?

          Well, tell me what you think?   Do you want to stay here in the world where we bicker over taxes, or do you want to enter the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to reveal?