In today’s gospel we hear Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted… (Mt 5:1-12) They are words familiar to all Christians. They are words that have been parsed and prodded for meaning since the time of Christ.
They are words that in the 1880s became the “line in the sand” for Protestant and Reformed Christianity. It is a complex history with sides being drawn into what we today might call Fundamentalism and Progressives. Walter Rauschenbusch’s writing, Christianity and the Social Gospel (1907) drew a fine a line as any writings of the day. One sentence does not do it justice, but perhaps its trajectory can be summarized as this:
- The Sermon on the Mount is a call of faith to the individual that, with faith in Jesus as Savior, the individual will be saved.
- The Sermon on the Mount is a call of faith to the community of believers to believe in Jesus, to live thusly, and to reveal the Kingdom of God, where all are saved.
Pick one. There is something fundamental in our religious praxis that favors the individualistic reading – which I would suggest has merit and worth. But too often we only hear the Sermon with that perspective. Listen again to the Words of the Sermon as a call of faith to the community – which also has merit and worth. Without further elaboration I note that it is long in the Catholic tradition: “both/and.”
Let that individual-community distinctions stir and settle. Then, in time, listen again to the Sermon in the light of the current protests against racial injustice.
In listening I am taken with images of those at the forefront of protests – not the famous lending their voices, but the community organizers and the ones who have built alliances, networks and are now calling upon the people to galvanize what they have long held. If you know them, you know the poor, you see them mourning, you feel their passion for righteousness, you hear their calls for mercy, you sense their clean hearts, you know their persecutions, and understand their stance as peace makers.
The Prophet Elisha, in the first reading knew the cost of calling the community to be the qahal Yahewh, the community of God. In our day the words of the Sermon ring true, “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In my study of Scripture over a lifetime, I know this. When prophets speaks, listen, it is the voice of God.