FINDINGS V By Harry T. Cook

Epiphany IV - A - February 2, 2014 

Matthew 5: 1-12



Harry T. CookBy Harry T. Cook



[See below for a brief exegesis and exposition of the Gospel lection for the Feast of the Presentation - February 2.]   


Matthew 5: 1-12

Seeing the crowds [from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan] Jesus took to the hills; he sat down and his close followers sat down with him, and he began to speak [to them], teaching them thus: How fortunate like the gods are those who are humble in spirit, for the [benign and salvific] governance of heaven shall be theirs; how fortunate like the gods are those in mourning, for consolation will be theirs;  how fortunate like the gods are those who are gentle, for they will have the earth as their inheritance; how fortunate like the gods are those who hunger and thirst for conformity to the governance of benign justice, for they shall be satisfied; how fortunate like the gods are those who give alms to the needy, for when their time of need comes, they will be taken care of; how fortunate like the gods are those whose hearts are free of  guile, for they shall see God [that is, when pigs fly]; how fortunate like the gods are those who work for peace, for they will be known as children of God; how fortunate like the gods are those who are persecuted because they hold out for benign justice, for to them will belong that very governance; [likewise] how happy like the gods you will be when people revile and persecute you and speak all sort of evil against you [falsely] on account of your connection with me. Rejoice, though, and be glad for in the same ways they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Translated and paraphrased by Harry T. Cook.)



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To retranslate and paraphrase a well-known and beloved text is to risk the very kind of persecution referenced in the text itself. For one thing, it would make obsolete a good many petit-point versions of the so-called Beatitudes similar to the one that was displayed on the wall of my mother's dining room -- and on the walls of tens of thousands of pious women of a certain age and time. Nevertheless, biblical passages have different uses. FINDINGS uses them to illuminate their provenance, their original meaning insofar as it can be known and to render them in language that is accessible to the 21st century English speaker. While some liberties have been taken in the paraphrase, I have tried to remain faithful to the translation of words and phrases, often going to meanings that have been lost in the strange efforts to render such words and phrases in a churchy patois.

In the above translation:

  • "blessed" (μακαριoi) becomes "how fortunate like the gods," which is the actual meaning of the Greek. The beatitude had its origin in Greek cultic and dramatic ritual, as in this from Persephone: "Happy are you, you will be god instead of human." In Sirach 48:11 we find a Beatitude: "How happy are they who saw you (Elijah) and were adorned in your love, for we shall surely live." The Jesus Seminar's translation is "Congratulations to . . ." My Jewish friends might well say, "Mazel tov to . . ."
  • "kingdom of heaven(s)" (βασιλειατων ουρανων) becomes "benign and salvific governance," a somewhat clunky term, to be sure, but close to a contemporary understanding of "kingdom of heaven." Kingdoms are a thing of the past where governance is concerned, at least in the English-speaking world. And "heaven" is at best a poetic word meaning "up there." The Greek βασιλεια means "sovereignty" or "dominion," i.e. a form of governance. The Greek ουρανους means the aerial regions of the sky thought in antiquity to be the place of the gods. Jesus is credited with the idea that "the kingdom (or governance) of heaven" is within and among human beings. We take our cue from that and suggest that "kingdom of heaven" can connote benign and salvific governance that can be formed and maintained in good faith by human beings.
  • "meek" (παρεις) becomes "gentle," as "gentle" refers to how or in what manner a person relates to others (gently) rather than to some intrinsic characteristic. "Meek" in common parlance has come to mean "withdrawn, unresponsive, inward"). A variation on the Greek term is in most English translations of Matthew 11:20 and 21:29 rendered "gentle" as it is in I Peter 3:4.
  • "merciful" becomes "giving alms to the need," because the Greek (ελεημοσυνη) which in English becomes "eleemosynary" meaning "of alms" and related to the idea of supporting by charitable giving.
  • "pure in heart" becomes (καθαροι τη καρδια) "hearts free of guile," remembering Søren Kierkegaard's locution (and book by the same title) "purity of heart is to will one thing"). I added a parenthetical "when pigs fly" after "they shall see God." Why? Because Matthew was ever attentive to the Jewish sentiments of his audience for whom "seeing God" was an impossibility along with speaking the holy name. I think Matthew was tweaking his audience by promising anyone a glimpse of God, meaning that no human heart is ever completely free of guile. The humanist approach would be to say that a guileless heart is as close to divinity as one can come.
  • "righteousness" (δικαιοσυνη) becomes "benign justice," as the Greek suggests conformity to the divine will in purpose, thought and deed. And since we are locating "the divine will" in the same place Jesus located "the kingdom of God," i.e. within and amongst us, that governance is one of benign justice -- righteousness being its manifestation.

While I think Matthew was not trying overtly to present Jesus as the new Moses, he did evoke the Mosaic theme of a godly word being spoken on or from a mountain. Luke, in a parallel passage, locates the speaking of the beatitudes on "a level place" to which "Jesus came down." Matthew seems to be saying that the audience for 5: 3-12 was "the disciples" while Luke includes "a great crowd" in the hearing. What significance, if any, the difference between "the disciples" (Matthew) and "the crowd" (Luke) means is wholly up to the interpreter. Withal, the entirety of Matthew 5, 6 and 7 constitutes the ethical basis of Jesus Judaism -- the catechism or course of study for those who (having been called as disciples in 4:18-22) will have the responsibility of teaching and exemplifying.


Few scholars think Jesus actually laid out the beatitudes -- much less the entire oration of ch. 5,6 and 7 -- in the form we see them in Matthew or in Luke. They are thought to have been part of a collection of discrete sayings attributed to Jesus known as "Q" or "source," which, in turn, may have been part of an oral tradition dating from as early as the late 30s and early 40s CE and which were eventually incorporated by Matthew and Luke in their narrative gospels. See also Thomas 54, 58 and 68.   


The first two and the fourth Matthean beatitudes (in re poverty, mourning and hunger) are first seen in the Q material. Matthew has nine beatitudes, recalling perhaps the sentiment found in Sirach 25:7: "I can think of nine whom I would call blessed . . ." Luke includes four (in re poverty, hunger, mourning and hatred/exclusion-Luke 6: 20-22) to which are appended four accompanying "woes" that are only implicit in Matthew.


The beatitude is not per se a promise or guarantee but rather seems to be a statement that under a benign governance or dispensation the one thing should anticipate the other, e.g. hunger-saiety, poverty-completeness.


One puzzle in it all is in the usual translation of the phrase "poor (or "humble") in spirit." Some who work with these texts are convinced that an earlier version of the saying simply stops with the word "poor" as we see it in Luke, and that Matthew added "in spirit" either to soften the edge or to de-politicize the saying, or, better, perhaps because the general membership of his Syrian community was not, in fact, poor -- or, for that matter, humble. That might account for the addition "for righteousness" in the beatitude that has to do with hunger.


The beginnings of the Sermon on the Mount -- the Beatitudes -- are rich in homiletic and biblical study possibilities. Any one of them can be devoted to a single sermon or to a good hour or so of give-and-take in a seminar. Perhaps the most challenging of all the Beatitudes is the one in which the common translation "pure in heart" appears. I have translated it "hearts free of guile" and made reference in that respect to Søren Kierkegaard's book Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing* in which he wrote: "The one who truly loves does not love once for all. Nor does he use a part of his love, and then another part. For to change it into small coins is not to use it rightly. No, he loves with all his love . . . When the lover gives away his whole love, he keeps it entire -- in the purity of heart . . . To will one thing, therefore, cannot mean to will that which only appears to be one thing." There is a launching pad for a sermon, the preparation and delivery of which, if executed with skill and conviction, could be an eye- and mind-opener for the preacher and the hearer.


* Kierkegaard, Søren, Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, tr. from Danish by Douglas V. Stere, 1938 and 1948, Harper & Row.



The Feast of the Presentation (February 2)


Luke 2: 21-40


The first thing we might notice about this familiar text is that Luke depicts a procedure for Jesus similar to that depicted for John the Baptist in ch. 1:59ff. Reasons proposed to explain that doublet are many. One that seems possible is that Luke perceived a need - theological, political or pastoral -- to give the Baptist major billing with Jesus. We have seen elsewhere that the Baptist was a major figure in the first third of the first century CE and appeared to have had a posthumous following. Reading between the lines of the Baptist material in the canonical gospels it is possible to see that it may have been that a good many people thought John was the sought-for messiah.


The second thing to notice is that Luke is at considerable pains to show that Jesus' parents honored Jewish custom by following the commandments of Leviticus 12: 2-8 and Exodus 13: 2 and 12. The quotation from Leviticus 12 makes another telling point, as Luke translates it: "Every male that opens the womb shall be called 'holy to the Lord.'" Lest there be any doubt in the minds of Luke's readers, Jesus, for all that he is and will be proclaimed to be, came into the world in the same way other human beings came, i.e. via the female birth canal. That makes at least a couple of points: 1) that any idea that Jesus merely seemed to be human is wrong, and 2) you can't have Anselm's deus homo without a woman. Luke does make a further point of depicting the angel of the annunciation speak to Mary, whereas Matthew depicts the appearance being made to Joseph.


It is left to Simeon to say (2:29-32) that the infant or child Jesus is the one of whom Isaiah at 42:6b and 49: 6 had spoken. It is curious at v. 33 that Luke depicts Jesus' parents being amazed at Simeon's paean. It is as if nothing of what is depicted earlier in ch. 2 and the annunciation to Mary at 1:26ff had thus far been mentioned. This suggests that the passage at hand may have its origins in a tradition separate from the advent and nativity narratives of 2: 1-21 - though there is no unanimity on this score. The presence of "the Holy Spirit" in the text is a fairly obvious clue that we are dealing with a late first century theological document.


The homilist on the Feast of the Presentation has some rich literary stuff with which to deal: the idea of fulfilling the customs of the ages and the requirements of the "law." For Luke, it is because Jesus' parents do the right thing that Simeon and then Anna are enabled and empowered to speak the truth as Luke saw it. Often enough, ritual and custom can take on the appearance of going through the motions and rote repetition. It can make the eyes roll and the yawns come. And yet there can be strength derived from doing and saying what one's forebears have done for so long, a sense of continuity and solidarity with a tribal or family or community history. That is the sense of what is going on in Luke 2: 2-40. Luke is telling us that, in doing the customary thing yet again, sometimes new disclosures can come.



Copyright 2014 Harry T. Cook. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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