(Reading Matthew 5:1-12)
Who is the happiest person you have every known?
The happiest person I think I ever knew was an old lady living in the African Township of Duduza just South East of Johannesburg. Her name was Gogo Moghali. Gogo means old lady or granny. Gogo Moghali lived in a small 4 roomed house with a small garden and an outdoor toilet. She had married late in life and had no children or grandchildren of her own. When I first met her, she must have been in her 80’s. She had a little dog, a fox terrier called Billy. Billy would spend a lot of his time wandering the neighbourhood, but he knew where home was. Every morning Gogo Moghali would make herself some breakfast which consisted of a bowl of firm mielie porridge which in Zulu is called Phutu and a cup of tea which she would share with Billy before he was off on his daily rounds.
Gogo Moghali’s knees gave her problems. Knees in Zulu are amadolo. Every time I saw her, I was aware that her amadolo were giving her problems. Too many birthdays as people would say here in Northern Ireland. Possibly also too much bending down and kneeling keeping her vinyl tiled floor in her home spotlessly clean.
But despite her bothersome amadolo, her painful knees, and her very very modest home, she radiated a happiness that was infectious. Not all the old ladies living alone in Duduza were happy as she was happy. Some homes were dark and depressing, and some of the old Gogo’s I visited were weighed down by emotional scars and wounds that they had clearly carried for many many years, abusive marriages, oppressive working conditions.
But Gogo Moghali had a lightness and a brightness about her, a happiness that I don’t think I will ever forget. It was a gift to all who knew her and met her.
At her funeral we sang her favourite hymn in Sotho…
I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee,
For cleansing in Thy precious blood
That flowed on Calvary.
I am coming, Lord,
Coming now to Thee:
Wash me, cleanse me in the blood
That flowed on Calvary.
And the Bible text I preached from was from Isaiah 35:3-6
3Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come...
he will come to save you.”
5Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6Then will the lame leap like a deer
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.”
The text not only gave hope for one who had suffered with failing knees, but also captured something of the joy that radiated from her that gushed forth from her like streams in a desert.
Needless to say, her funeral was large and it was a celebration. And as the chorus to her favourite hymn was sung, the congregation in true African style couldn’t help but dance:
“I am coming Lord, coming now to thee. Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood that flowed on calvary”.
Who is the happiest person you have ever known? What was/is the source of their happiness?
Today I would like to start a preaching series examining the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. The word beatitude comes from the word beati in Latin. In the Latin version of Matthew 5:1-12, the word that is translated in English as Blessed is the Latin word beati and means ‘to be happy’, ‘to be rich’, or ‘to be blessed’. The original Greek word makarioi includes these meanings, but goes one step further with the meaning ‘enviable’.
It raises the question: Who do you envy in life? Who are those that you regard as blessed, rich and happy?
Our culture teaches us that those who are blessed, who are rich, happy and to be envied are those with lots of material possessions. The more possessions you have, the bigger your house we are told, the more happy you should be… that is the voice of our cultural conditioning. And so, those who are envied the most in our culture are the millionaires and the billionaires. The way to true happiness comes when you have lots of money and no longer need to depend on anyone else. You can even jet yourself off on your own private mission into space. This is the way to happiness we are told.
This was the general belief also in the Jewish culture of Jesus day. Those who were blessed by God were those with lots of possessions and lots of money lots of fields. But is this necessarily true?
Isn’t it interesting that the first time Jesus is portrayed as teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing he teaches are about how to be truly happy, how to be truly rich and how to be truly blessed.
Jesus wishes to teach qualities that are enviable. But as we shall see over the next few weeks, Jesus teaching takes us by surprise! The way to happiness that Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel is a little different from the way our culture teaches as the way to happiness.
As we will be exploring the beatitudes over the next few weeks, I would like to reflect briefly on the opening verses of the text:
It begins in verse 1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
The word for seen in the phrase “Having seen the crowds” is the Greek word Idon. It is a word that encompasses both a physical seeing as well as an inner knowing or perception. It suggests that to truly see is not just to see the surface of things with the physical eyes, but rather to see with an inner knowledge and perception – to see with understanding.
In my first year of University a fellow student had the name Bekabona. When I asked him what it meant, he said it means to look and see. Beka – means look and Bona means see. It is possible to look but not to truly see.
But when Jesus sees the crowds, he not only looks but also sees. When Jesus sees the crowds, he sees not just the surface of things, seeing them not just as physical beings, but as spiritual beings with inner depth and inner needs.
This sense of Jesus looking and seeing beneath the surface of things comes through later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus looks at the crowds and is moved with compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
Having looked and seen the crowds, we read that Jesus goes up a mountain. In Matthew’s Gospel this is significant. One of the things that Matthew wishes us to see about Jesus is that he is like a New Moses. Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Law or the Teachings, for a bunch of slaves who had just been rescued from Egypt, so Jesus goes up the mountain to provide teaching for the crowds whose deep spiritual need he has just seen. Jesus is a New Moses.
But Matthew wishes us to see that Jesus is not just like Moses, he is greater than Moses. Moses waits to receive the law from God before taking it to the people. But according to verse2 the words of Teaching come from Jesus’ own mouth. He opens his mouth and begins to teach them himself.
What is interesting however is that on this occasion, although Jesus sees the need of the crowds, he does not call the crowds up the mountain. He calls his disciples. The word that is used is Mathetai…. It means learners, or pupils. The word Math, from which we get our English word Mathematics, means to think things through.
The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in these beatitudes is directed not to the crowds, but to learners, pupils, who Jesus invites to think more deeply about the true meaning and purpose of life than the surface explanations that our culture often gives us.
The word mathetai / disciple occurs more in Matthew’s Gospel than any of the other 3 gospels. Some suggest that Matthew’s Gospel was the earliest manual for Christian discipleship. Some have even suggested that the title of Matthew’s Gospel is a play on words. Mathetai meaning disciple sounds very similar to Mathaious. Is it possible that Mathews Gospel got it’s name as a play on words of one of it’s central themes… the making of Mathetai – or disciples?
The name Matthew could be interpreted in more than one way. But the most popular meaning or understanding of the name means ‘Gift of God’. (Matheyahu – in Hebrew). I wonder if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel wishes us to see that as we become learners of the way of Jesus. He we respond to his invitation to ponder and think more deeply about life, to think more deeply about the true meaning and purpose of life than the surface explanations that our culture gives us, the goal is that disciples become transformed into gifts of God. We become transformed from Mathetai (disciples and learners) into Mathaios Gifts of God, bearers of Good News to the world and sharers of true joy and happiness with others.