Sermon, November 2, 2014

St. Paul’s
Fr. Larry Ort

For the past several weeks, we have been focusing on the challenges which confronted Jesus and his authority – challenges designed to entrap him in blasphemy. For example, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Mat. 22.17b; NRSV) and “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mat. 22.36; NRSV)

Now, “We interrupt our regular broadcast to bring you an update on the Saints.” Yesterday was All Saints Day which we often celebrate on Sunday. Were it not for this special celebration, we would focus on Matthew 23. Rather than choose one or the other, let’s look at both.

At the end of Matthew 22, Jesus has reduced his critics to silence. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells it like it is! What does he call the scribes and Pharisees? “Hypocrites!” And for good measure, he says, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” If they weren’t already angry, that should help!

Today’s Gospel reading, the beatitudes of Matthew 5, sets forth the vision of a new reality – a reality depicted in the life of the Saints. And who is a saint? Anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a saint. If you have been baptized into new life, and if you are living in that new life, you are a saint. Of course, we also recognize that the lives of some saints have been, or are, so exemplary that we give them the title; we often name our churches after such Saints and hold that the church falls under that Saint’s patronage. St. Paul is our patron saint.

There are eight beatitudes, or nine if one counts separately the two verses which reference persecution. I am going to stick with eight. The first beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) and the last beatitude, (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.),  are stated in the present tense – they reference present conditions. The poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake already possess the kingdom of heaven. The other six beatitudes use the future tense, for example, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mat. 5.4; NRSV).

This new vision of reality may be contrasted with the reality which Jesus addresses in Matthew 23.  Please attend to the reading:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.


After having said this, Jesus pronounces seven woes on the scribes and the Pharisees.

Contrasting these two realities is instructive. Each of the beatitudes begins with “blessed,” which can also be translated as “happy.” In honor-shame societies, this may be better translated as “’How honorable…,’ ‘How full of honor…,’ ‘How honor bringing…’” In contrast, “‘Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…’” may “be translated: ‘How shameless you are…’”  We should also note the honor ascribed in the beatitudes comes from God, not from persons. (Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, p. 97. In ).

Using “how honorable” for “blessed,” the first beatitude reads, “How honorable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” In contrast, using “How shameless you are” for “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” the first woe becomes, “How shameless you are for locking people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”

Again, in the beatitudes we read “How honorable are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mat. 5.6; NRSV) and “How honorable are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Mat. 5.7; NRSV). In contrast one of Jesus’ woes condemns the absence of righteousness and mercy: “How shameless you are for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mat. 23.23-24; NRSV).

The seventh beatitude reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Mat. 5. 9; NRSV). Another of the woes recognizes the opposite of peace, for “prophets, sages, and scribes” will be sent, some of whom will be crucified, others flogged in the synagogues and others pursued from town to town such that righteous blood is spilled (Mat. 23.34-35; NRSV).

We must remember that the woes, as harsh as they were, were pronounced in love, for at the conclusion of the woes, Jesus says:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Mat. 23.37-39; NRSV).


Jesus cared enough to confront.


Not every beatitude aligns with a woe, but reading the beatitudes provides us a vision of a new reality which stands in stark contrast to the reality Jesus condemns when setting forth these woes. What is truly unfortunate is that Jesus had to address the woes to the religious leaders of the day and age. Were the message delivered today, would it be addressed to the religious leaders?

Which reality do our own actions portray – the reality of the beatitudes or the reality which calls forth the woes? If we are saints, we portray the reality of the beatitudes. We are, and will be, the salt and light which Jesus talks about after preaching the beatitudes.

The vision of the new reality set forth in the beatitudes is expanded in John’s vision of the liturgy as it is described in the Book of Revelation. John describes a multitude too great to count which comes from every nation, tribe, peoples, and language, a multitude dressed in white standing before the throne and the Lamb of God, a multitude which is singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Rev. 7.9-12; NRSV).

One of the elders then asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” John replies, “You are the one that knows.” The elder then said:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 7.14-17; NRSV).


These are the saints of God who have gone before us. These are the saints of God with whom we celebrate the Eucharist, for we acknowledge: “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth….Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangel and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest” (BCP, pp. 361-362).

Let us celebrate the Saints, let us experience the joy of being a saint, and, in worship to God, let us aspire to become even more saintly!  Amen




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