Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 29, 2023
Matthew 5:1-12 “The Foolishness of Christianity”
“The message about the cross is foolishness.” So says Paul in his opening to the first letter to the Corinthian church. That entire passage in his letter is colloquially known as the ‘foolishness of the cross’ passage and in it Paul makes no pretenses that the Christian belief system and lifestyle are anything other than foolish or ridiculous by human standards. He goes on to say, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (1 Cor. 1:21-23). What Paul is saying to the early Christian community in Corinth is, “what we are proclaiming makes no sense. We are saying the savior of humanity, God incarnate, was executed by the Roman state, and inexplicably rose again. And we are trying to share this Good News with both Jews and Gentiles – one group whose idea of the Messiah is far different from Jesus, and another group who says it makes no logical sense. But, hey, we are doing it anyway!”
Despite my complicated relationship with Paul and many of his teachings, I do applaud the honesty of this. He doesn’t pretend that the entire Jesus movement, from the earliest teachings and miracles, all the way to an empty tomb, makes much sense. And much of the world, he acknowledged, called it foolishness. And not only that, but the teachings of Jesus that the people were trying to follow did not conform to any of the world’s expectations. Jews and Gentiles were called to share a belief system together. Master and slave sat a table together. Women, in the early church anyway, were allowed to be leaders of the community. Resources were shared abundantly, without expectation of return. It was, for Paul’s time, utterly ridiculous. And continues to be ridiculous today. Because, in our hyper-driven, consumerist culture, punctuated by rampant cynicism and apathy, all swirled up in 24-hour news cycles and political affiliations that have devolved into tribalism – to claim ourselves to be Easter people and cry Alleluia into that whirlwind – well, Paul was right. It is foolishness.
But it was foolishness that Jesus taught. In his ministry as described in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins by preaching foolish things. The scripture we read today, commonly known as the Beatitudes, is his first public sermon in Matthew. The Gospel says Jesus had four disciples at this point, and had performed healing miracles and that a crowd was starting to gather around him wherever he went. Jesus sits down, the stance of a teacher, and begins to speak. He starts with a series of upside-down blessings, with their reversed value system. These nine blessings, even though they have become over-familiar and tamed to us today, would have sounded utterly ridiculous to those early followers. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth? Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted? Come on now, Jesus, that makes no sense.” These were people to be pitied, or looked down upon. They were people who had no value in the world and should be brushed aside, because our human culture values strength and power and money. And here comes Jesus saying that while human society may value that, God does not. God’s favor rests with those for whom the rest of the world has dismissed.
But, if you pay careful attention, Jesus is not creating a new value system – a new hierarchy. He is not creating a to-do list of personality traits, or making pie-in-the-sky promises. Jesus is offering a blessing. He is blessing the very people to whom he will go on to minister. He offers them his blessing first and then puts that blessing into practice by living those blessings and helping people to claim them for themselves.
These blessings are the words of hope he offers to prepare and strengthen people for the work ahead. It is unfortunate that the Beatitudes are presented as separate from the rest of Jesus’ sermon today. Because the Beatitudes are just the very beginning of a lengthy, and at times direct, sermon that goes on for a couple of chapters in Matthew. He begins with the blessings, but he then goes on to outline the expectations of the faithful. He mostly just reiterates the Jewish laws, that at their best are meant to provide equity and fairness to the people. In the rest of the sermon Jesus does not placate or dodge the difficult work of what living a life devoted to God means. He is clear that to follow God’s ways do not align with the human inclinations of selfishness and capitalism. He makes it clear that to do this is to stand opposed to the forces of the world, including the forces of religious institutions which have subverted the laws to maintain and grow their own power. The Sermon on the Mount is not a gentle, happy sermon – what I call a ‘fluffy unicorn sermon’ designed to just make everyone feel better. Those types of sermons have their place, but Jesus does not offer one to begin his public teaching.
Instead, he first offers blessings as a way to extend hope. Hope that is not a sedative, but rather hope that is meant to push people. Hope that is meant get people up and out of the door, to share the Good News and do the work of God with no expectation of reward. And that is not foolish. Yes, human society may say it is foolish to begin with a blessing before it was earned, but, as Paul says, “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” (1 Cor. 1:25a). God’s foolishness means that we do not have to earn God’s blessings, they are freely given. We do not have to first prove ourselves worthy, instead we are worthy because of our creation. There is no capitalistic tendencies in God’s Kingdom – it is not about buying God’s love, it is about accepting that love which has already been given. And as Christians we are expected to go and do likewise. To bless first, and then serve. To see and treat and minister to everyone equally because they are all perfect reflections of God. And to give and give abundantly without any expectation of rewards.
Christianity is foolish in that way. The world wants us to believe that it is wasteful to give without expecting something, anything in return. The world wants us to believe that love and value must be earned. The world wants us to believe that we all need to raise ourselves up by our bootstraps, and if we are not successful that must be our own failings and not because of a world built upon systems of oppression. So, Christianity, at its best, is foolish. But Jesus has called us to live the upside-down Kingdom of God into existence. Not only by giving freely, but by accepting our blessings first. To accept our blessings knowing that they are given without assumptions or payment. To accept our blessings and use them as our inspiration to go and do likewise.
Paul was right when he said the message of the cross is foolishness. To be an Easter people, a people who proclaim life in the face of death, a people who hope in the face of despair, a people who cry alleluia into the whirlwind – may be considered foolish. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Rejoice and be glad, Jesus says, because to be Easter people is to accept those foolish blessings and the hope they contain. Amen.
God of grace and love, you have foolishly given us all we need to live life abundantly, filled with blessings and service and hope. For these gifts freely given, we give you great thanks and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
These blessings which you have surrounded us by are sometimes difficult to accept. We can feel that we must first earn them and prove ourselves worthy to you. When we find ourselves caught up in that, we ask that you remind us of your Kingdom’s upside-down power, and provide for us once again the hope that you offer.
One of the ways that we accept your love and freely offer it is through our prayers. In these moments of silence we open our spirits to you, breathing in your blessings and offering out our prayers knowing that you hear and respond…
Loving God, you have such high hopes for who we can be as your people. You know what we can do, and you have shown us the way to follow you through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We pray all of this in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…