20. Blessings and Meetings: Matthew 5 and 25

by Graham Kings

Date added: 29/06/2024

Based on a paper I read at the All Souls Club in London on June 5. Published originally on Covenant 18 and 19 June 2024.

This article grew out of two long silent retreats at St. Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales. My wife, Alison, and I usually go there in August, every two years.

I sometimes feel that entering into, and emerging from, deep silence with God for eight days resembles diving into a pool and swimming underwater for a length and then surfacing again.

We both keep notes in our spiritual journals and, during a few days of holiday afterwards, catch up with each other about our meetings with God in the silence.

In August 2019, two of the passages my spiritual director asked me to contemplate for the week were the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5 and the surprising meetings with Christ in “the least of these my brothers” in Matthew chapter 25.

In August 2023, in the silence, I wrote some poems and I will be interspersing my reflections on “Blessings” and “Meetings” with four of those poems. Today we shall focus on the blessings, turning tomorrow to the meetings.

As an introduction to “Blessings,” I begin with the poem “Christ the Oboe,” which I hope has positive echoes for ecumenism.

Christ the Oboe

For an orchestra tuning up,
The oboe plays the note of A.
Instruments, in their variegation,
Tune themselves to Alpha.

In tune with each other,
They are ready and waiting,
Attentive, well-tempered,
A consort for concert.

 

A. Blessings: Matthew 5

In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 four-part TV film, Jesus of Nazareth, Robert Powell played the part of Jesus. Powell reported that when it came to the scene of the Beatitudes, they had to do several takes. He said this was because he kept breaking down and crying as he pronounced these extraordinarily simple but powerful words.

We shall be looking at each of the eight beatitudes, at my suggested synonyms and antonyms, at the instruments in an orchestra that seems to me to resonate with them, at how they are resolved, at a one-word focus of resolution, and finally at an illustration in one of the parables of Jesus.

We hear the indicative mood at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount before the imperative mood in the rest of chapters 5-7. “This is who you are,” before “this is then how you should live,” comes out even more dramatically in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in Luke chapter 6. Grace and justification come before ethics. We notice a similar order in Paul’s letters.

Joachim Jeremias, a scholar of Aramaic, discovered a particular way of speaking preferred by Jesus and outlined these in his New Testament Theology, Volume 1. He translated many of Jesus’ words in the Greek New Testament back into his mother tongue and found that many of the memorable passages, including the Beatitudes, had a particular rhythm or beat.

One of my favorite commentaries on Matthew is by H. Benedict Green, The Gospel According to Matthew. In his Introduction, he discussed the importance of Matthew’s use of chaismus (a “sandwich arrangement of his material ABBA”), and on the Beatitudes he commented:

These are arranged in pairs, not in simple juxtaposition but dovetailed: the poor and the meek, the mourners and the hungry, the merciful and the peacemakers, the single-hearted and the sufferers for righteousness.

The result is a rhythmical hymn in eight lines, ABABCDCD, tied together by the use of righteousness in the last line of each quatrain, and by the repetition of for theirs is the kingdom of heaven from the first line to the last (Green, p. 76).

  1. Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My suggested synonym is humble and antonym is proud. My orchestral instrument is the double bass. The blessing is resolved in the kingdom and a one-word focus of resolution is harmony. The parable is the Seed Growing Secretly in Mark 4:26-29.

  1. Sorrowful

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

My synonym is bereaved and antonym is all is fine. My instrument is the cello. The blessing is resolved in consolation and a one-word focus is comfort. The parable is of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

  1. Gentle

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I like the graffiti that was added to a church poster headlining this beatitude: “If that’s OK with the rest of you.”

My synonyms are reverentpliable, and absorbing and antonyms are reactivehard, and harsh. My instrument is the viola. The blessing is resolved in the earth and a one-word focus is home. The parable is the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.

  1. Hunger for Justice

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

My synonyms include focuseddetermined, and persevering and antonym is laissez-faire. My instrument is the violin. The blessing is resolved in satisfied and the focus word is full. The parable is the Importunate Widow in Luke 18:1-8.

  1. Show Mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

My synonym is compassionate and antonym is strict. My instrument is the clarinet.

This choice was influenced by the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, in which he describes being in a café and in a state of despair. He heard, as background music, the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and felt the mercy of God. Spufford then quotes another writer:

The novelist Richard Powers has written that the Clarinet Concerto sounds the way mercy would sound, and that’s exactly how I experienced it in 1997.

The blessing is resolved in receiving mercy and the focus word is relieved. The obvious parable is the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, when Jesus, typically at the end, reverses the lawyer’s question “And who is my neighbor?” with his own question: “Who acted as a neighbor?”

  1. Hearts Pure

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

My synonyms are integrated and unalloyed and of a bell giving off a pure note of clarity. My antonyms are fake and split. My instrument is the French horn. The blessing is resolved in seeing God and the focus word is delight. The parable is The Sower in Mark 4:1-9: “… and other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

  1. Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

My synonym is reconcilers and antonym is warmongers. My instrument is the flute. The blessing is resolved in being called children of God and the focus word is belonging. The parable is the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the generosity of which is bracketed at the beginning and the end with Jesus’ summary of the gospel. We do not usually notice this clever bracketing by Matthew, because of the chapter division.

Matthew 19:30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Matthew 20:16, “So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

  1. Persecuted

Blessed are those who are persecuted for rightousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My synonym is stressed and antonym is attacker. In the Anglican Communion book that I edited, Out of the Depths: Hope in Times of Suffering (2016), we suggested the following spectrum of persecution, which may be delineated from “squeeze” to “smash”:

‘Harassment’, where people have subtle consistent pressure put upon them. ‘Subjugation’, where they are kept down, as a lower class in law. ‘Persecution’, where they are physically and violently attacked, by individuals or the State. ‘Martyrdom’, where they are killed for their faith or for standing for justice. ‘Annihilation’, where whole peoples are wiped out. ‘Obliteration’, where the original existence of the annihilated peoples is denied, or they are ‘airbrushed’ out of the picture, such as the destruction of Armenian churches and artefacts in Turkey, holocaust denial and the destruction of churches by the so-called Islamic State.

The instrument is the tympani drum. The last blessing is resolved, as in the first blessing, in the kingdom and the one-word focus of resolution is the same as the first blessing, harmony. The parable is of the Wicked Tenants in the Vineyard, Matthew 21:33-44, “But the tenants seized his slaves, and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”

As we conclude this installment on “Blessings,” with “Meetings” to follow tomorrow, I offer a second poem as a bridge between the two.

Have you noticed that the Beatitudes actually describe the character of Jesus?

Herbert’s Hilary” emanated from noticing the confluence between the reticence portrayed in George Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” which begins, “Love bade me welcome,” and the subtle gift of Hilary — a friend of mine for 40 years — of drawing people out. I published it on my site, and quote it here, with her permission.

Helen Vendler, the Harvard scholar of English literature, who died earlier this year, concludes her book The Poetry of George Herbert with comments on Love (III):

The observant “quick-ey’d”, courteous, conversational, and smiling Love is himself at first a mysterious creation, quite unlike any other literary version of God … Like some decorous minuet, the poem leads its character through steps in a delicate hovering: a pace forward, a hanging back, a slackening, a drawing nearer, a lack, a fullness, a dropping of the eyes, a glance, a touch, a reluctance, a proffer, a refusal, a demurrer, an insistence— and the final seating at the feast … To think that such a poem could be constructed on a “source” of only nine words— “He shall make them sit down to meat” (Luke 12:37)— is to stand astonished at Herbert’s powers.

Love

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I, the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, Who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, ‘and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert’s Hilary

In her psychotherapy, I imagine,
Hilary performs the role
She typically plays at parties.

“Quick-ey’d Love,”
Noticing the unnoticed,
Gently welcoming,
Releases the reticent.

Loved by Love, she loves.

Simone Weil, in her spiritual autobiography Waiting for God, describes how Herbert’s Love (III) helped her come to faith in Christ. Here are excerpts from a letter written in Marseilles, France, about May 15, 1942, to Weil’s close friend, Father Perrin:

In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches …

There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance — for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence — made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love”. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me…Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

B. Meetings: Matthew 25

This passage is sometimes headed “The Judgement of the Nations” and is known popularly as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

How do we match verse 32, which mentions, “All the nations will be gathered before him,” with the fact that the judgment in the parable will be on particular individuals, rather than nations?

It seems to me that “all the nations” refers to the Gentiles and that these are individual Gentiles who are responding to the hidden Christ in the missionary disciples.

I agree with H. Benedict Green in his commentary, The Gospel According to Matthew, that the “least of these” referred originally to the disciples of Jesus, rather than to every poor and marginalized person in the world, which has become part of the tradition of interpretation of this passage, including the inspiration for charity work, notably of Mother Teresa.

Green commented:

In the light of [verse 32] and of 24.14 [“And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations”] and 28.19 [“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”], the reference [to the least of these my brothers] must not be to nations as opposed to individuals, but to Gentiles as opposed to Jews (whose judgement as a people has already been pronounced at 23.38f [“See, your house is left to you desolate.”].

Gentiles who have not encountered Christ himself will be judged on the basis of their behaviour towards him in the persons of his disciples. That ‘least’ means these, and not suffering humanity in general (an edifying thought often read into the text), is borne out by the “little ones” of 18.6, 10, and 14 [“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me”; “take care that you do not despise one of these little ones”; “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost”] … and above all by 10.42 [“and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple— truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.].

Green then developed an interesting point of ecclesiology:

‘the whole scene’ [in Matthew 25.31-46] is really an extended dramatization’ [of Matthew 10.42.] It is the nearest that Matthew, or the synoptic tradition generally, comes to the conception of the Church as the Body of Christ.

We saw earlier that Helen Vendler described Herbert’s poem “Love (III)” as being constructed on a “source” of only nine words in one verse — “He shall make them sit down to meat” (Luke 12:37): here, we see Benedict Green also imagining the parable of the sheep and goats as an extended dramatization of one verse, Matthew 10:42.

We shall be looking at the six descriptions of the king hidden incognito in his disciples and consider how they match six experiences of Christ on the cross and six events in his ministry leading up to Good Friday.

  1. Hungry

I was hungry and you gave me food.

On the cross Jesus was given no food, and in the feeding of the 5,000 he provided food for the multitudes.

  1. Thirsty

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

On the cross Jesus cried out, “‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth” (John 19:28-29). At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus provided abundant supplies of wine.

  1. Stranger

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

On the Cross, Jesus was an outsider in Jerusalem because he came from the north of Palestine, from Galilee. Zaccheus the Jewish tax collector, who knew what it felt like to be shunned, welcomed Jesus into his house in Jericho, en route to Jerusalem (Luke 19:1-10)

  1. Naked

I was naked and you gave me clothing.

On the cross, Jesus was naked, an awkwardness scrupulously obscured in most paintings of the cross. In Matthew 6:28-30, Jesus asks the rhetorical question,

Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith?

  1. Sick

I was sick and you took care of me.

Before and after his trial, Jesus’ body was beaten and on the cross, he was in excruciating pain. The mocking irony of his previous multiple healings across Galilee and in Jerusalem was not lost on the bystanders. “He saved others. Himself he cannot save” (Matt. 27:42).

  1. Prison

I was in prison and you visited me.

Jesus was arrested and imprisoned and, after his death, he was locked in a borrowed grave. But you cannot keep a good man down.

Jesus visited the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).

He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had strength to subdue him.

After exorcism and healing, the people “came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.”

We conclude our second part, “Meetings,” with another of my poems that references George Herbert.

Consecration” surfaced from the personal appropriation of a line in Herbert’s poem “Church-musick,” “God help poore kings’. Helen Wilcox, in her magisterial book The English Poems of George Herbert, says this line “has aroused considerable critical interest” and implies that scholars are at a loss to agree on its meaning. But I know its meaning — at least for me. For my name is Kings and, as a bishop, I need all the help God can give me.

My poem is located in three places: in a famous Oxford bookshop; in Westminster Abbey; and on my episcopal ring. I was consecrated bishop in the Church of God on June 24, 2009, in Westminster Abbey.

Consecration

In Blackwell’s, on the Broad,
Between appointment and announcement,
Contemplating coping as a bishop,
I laugh out loud,
Disturbing book-browsers.
In Herbert’s “Church Music,”
I read the enigmatic plea:
“God help poore kings.”

In Westminster Abbey,
Inundated by the Spirit,
Hilaritas mingles with gravitas.
Laying on of hands,
Anointing with oil,
Giving of the Bible
And a ring, engraved:
“God help poore Kings.”

Conclusion

Matthew’s use of chiasmus in his gospel includes its whole design. We can see how he shaped the teaching of Jesus into five sermons, which resonate deliberately with the five sermons of Moses in Deuteronomy.

Chapters 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), chapter 10 (on mission), chapter 13 (on the parables — and chapter 13 have a chiasmic structure, as David Wenham has outlined in a New Testament Studies article in 1979),[i] chapter 18 (on the church), and chapters 24 to 25 (on the end times).

So Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 do, in effect, mirror each other at the beginning and the end of the sermons.

Christ’s character may be seen in his Beatitudes: Christ is hidden, unseen, in his missionary disciples.

My final poem is “Concealed in a Comma.” Have you noticed that the chapters in Matthew between chapter 5 and 25 (actually between chapter 3 and chapter 25) are not mentioned at all in the Nicene Creed?

Next year will be the 1,700th anniversary of the first edition of what we call the Nicene Creed. It jumps straight from the birth of Jesus to his crucifixion, with a comma in between.

Concealed in a Comma

Where does the common-or-garden comma
Guard the life of Christ?

In the Nicene Creed,
Between “and was made man”
And “was crucified for us.”

Three-quarters of the Gospels
Hidden in a comma.

The grounded life of the Controversialist,
Three centuries later,
Was not dissected, divided, and debated
As much as his eternal life as God,
His conception by the Virgin,
And his bodily resurrection.

Our life is hid with Christ in God:
His life — concealed in a comma.

Preaching “Kingdom is now,”
Healing the sick with power,
Teaching crowds with parables,
Walking hills and valleys,
Contradicting sneers of scribes,
Abiding with sidelined:
Diminishing the lofty, raising the lowly.

Come on, theologians of Nicaea,
Seventeen hundred years ago,
Expand your comma.

Have a heart and harken.
Give space to the life on earth
Of the Life of the Universe:
Intermediate time of Intermediary,
Between eternity and eternity,
Son of Man contracted to a span.

Express the compressed:
Point to the tale of the point with a tail.


[i] Wenham, David. “The Structure of Matthew XIII.” New Testament Studies 25, no. 4 (1979), pp. 516–22.

 
Graham Kings

Graham Kings

 
 
Wood panel

Wood panel

A bronze

Interweavings