“Prescriptions or Descriptions?” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine on the weekend of January 22, 2023 — the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. the text upon which it is based is the Beatitudes — as recorded in Matthew 5:1-20. To access a copy of this week’s worship bulletin, click here: Worship Order 20230122
Prescriptions or Descriptions?
Epiphany 3 (NL1) John B. Valentine
Matthew 5:1-20 January 22,2023
“PRESCRIPTIONS OR DESCRIPTIONS?”
This morning’s gospel lesson is a familiar one ... isn’t it?
It’s the Beatitudes ....... those opening verses of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”
In fact ... as I was reminded recently ... this morning’s gospel lesson is like the one part of the gospels that is ‘authorized’ by the Curriculum Developers of the State of California to be included as an example of Jesus’ teaching in junior high textbooks paid for with our tax dollars!
So ... if it’s familiar to middle schoolers ... it ought to be familiar to us:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.".
Those words are so familiar ... and peaceful ... and calm ... and inviting ... and encouraging ...
UNTIL YOU STOP TO THINK ABOUT THEM ... AND CONSIDER WHAT IT IS THAT THEY ASSERT ... AND CONTEMPLATE WHAT A LIFE LIVED INTO THEM WOULD LOOK LIKE!!!
Because then they’re not so familiar and peaceful and inviting anymore ....
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Actually ... one only needs to get one word into the Beatitudes to begin to feel uncomfortable with them.
Think about that first word ... “Blessed.”
“Blessed’ sounds all pious and religious and other-worldly ... doesn’t it?
In fact ... if I’m not mistaken ... we as a society have come up with a number of different pronunciations for the word ‘b-l-e-s-s-e-d’ to fit with different situations and different connotations of that word:
• There’s “bless-ED” ... which is how we read it when it applies to the Beatitudes ... like how we intoned “Bless-ED are the poor” in the song “Be Not Afraid” that we just sung ...
• There’s the sweetly enunciated “BLESS-ed” that you hear professional athletes using all the time to talk about how they’re graced with particular teammates and particular athletic abilities and particular opportunities ...
• There’s the sharper “BLEST” version ... one that you might use to talk about how an ancient relic was blessed by a group of monks ...
• Not to mention the “bless-ID” version that your Grandma may have used to say “Curse this blessed thing, I just can’t make it work!”
In any event ... though ... that word “blessed” ... ‘makarioi’ in the original Greek text ... only gets translated as “blessed” when it comes to the Beatitudes.
In most every other context ... ‘makarioi’ translated “fortunate” or “happy” or “privileged” ... as in “the privileged recipient of divine favor” ...
And I’m not so sure that many of us ... maybe any of us ... would say that people who are persecuted or reviled or mournful or hungry or most of those other words are “fortunate.”
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Seriously ... whom do we call the “fortunate” in our society?
• The wealthy ...
• The well-to-do ...
• Those who win the Lottery ...
• The healthy ...
• Those with intact nuclear families ...
• Those whose kids and/or parents and/or spouses truly appreciate them ...
• Those with clear skin ...
• Those with a different winter coat for each day of the week ...
• Those who don’t have trouble getting pregnant ...
• Those whose biopsies come back negative.
Fact is ... most of what the world defines as “fortunate” has to do with being graced with an abundance of limited resources.
Be it money or power or success or wellness or abundance of some sort or another.
Of having something that other people aren’t so “lucky” or “blessed” or “fortunate” to have.
But ... as true as it is that all good things around us are gifts from the One True God ... I’m not thinking that Jesus really has that sort of thing in mind in voicing these things we call the Beatitudes.
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Let’s face it ... folks.
These behaviors and attitudes which Jesus described at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as being avenues of blessedness AREN’T the sorts of things to which most of us aspire.
• We don’t want to have to mourn the pain of our own losses ... or mourn the injustice and hurt of others for that matter.
• We don’t want to be poor in spirit ... acknowledging that we can’t do it all ourselves and that our only help and salvation come from God.
• We don’t want to be meek ... patiently waiting for God’s time that will come.
• We don’t want to be peacemakers ... because that may require us to insert ourselves into some awkward and dangerous situations.
• We don’t want to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake because we know that the powers of this world work hard to keep the world unjust. Speaking against injustice can put you in harm’s way ... after all!
But that’s okay ...
Because it seems to me that those “blessings” statements in the Beatitudes are less about intentionally setting our minds to become mourners or persecuted or poor in spirit ...
Than they are about recognize that God is present in the midst of situations that the world might call “God forsaken.”
In a certain way ... these Beatitudes are a reminder
That people aren’t truly blessed because of their success, their wealth, or their power ... their particular abundance of limited resources ...
Rather ... they are blessed ... WE are blessed ... because God abundantly chooses to be with them and for them ... with us and for us.
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Now ... maybe it bugs me ... and only me ... but it seems to me that a whole lot of well-meaning preachers and theologians down through the ages have done the Church of Jesus Christ a GREAT disservice by misapplying the Beatitudes.
I can’t tell you the number of people whom I’ve heard and/or read who have really misappropriated these words of Jesus.
Do you know what the difference is between “descriptive” speech and “prescriptive” speech?
Descriptive speech ... as it applies to human behavior ... is telling about what IS going on.
Prescriptive speech is about telling you what SHOULD be going on.
Descriptive speech says “You’re driving twenty miles an hour over the speed limit.”
Prescriptive speech says “You should try to drive twenty miles an hour over the speed limit.”
Descriptive speaking is about describing what’s going on.
Prescriptive speaking is about prescribing what should be going on.
If we read the words of the Beatitudes PRESCRIPTIVELY ... they become a suffer-fest!!!
• Be poor ... be sad ... be sorrowful ...
• Put yourselves in positions where you invite persecution and suffering and sorrow and accusation to rain down on you ...
• Try like the dickens to be the most down-trodden person you can possibly be.
If we read the words of the Beatitudes DESCRIPTIVELY ...
They are a beautiful series of promises ... about how God promises to be with people in pain ... and about how God works through the simple and the down-trodden.
The sad thing is ... we’ve taken these amazingly beautiful promises of Jesus ... descriptors of how God may be with us amid all things ... and turned them into a guilt trip like not other ...
Because we’ve twisted them from being a description to a prescription.
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Think about it this way ...
How many of you have ever tried to hit a golf ball?
And how many of you have ever tried to hit a golf ball HARD?
Is it just me or is this true of any of the rest of you as well???
• If you try to hit a golf ball well ... you MAY hit it hard ...
• But if you try to hit a golf ball HARD ... you will NEVER hit it well.
You’ve noticed that too??
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come up to some hole on the golf course ... figuring ... just this once ... I’m going to hit it HARD and really try to rip it ...
And ... inevitably ... it goes forty yards to the right ... or straight up in the air ... or maybe it just becomes one of those dreaded ‘worm-burners’.
But ... occasionally at least ... if I try to hit it WELL ... and just concentrate on getting through the ball ... sometimes I can hit it two-hundred and fifty yards ... right down the middle of the fairway.
Not often ... mind you ... but occasionally.
If “Hit the golf ball hard” is understood as a description of something that may well happen ... hearing it can help but put a smile on my face.
If “Hit the golf ball hard” is understood as a prescription ... it’s a recipe for disaster.
And ... similarly ...
If we understand the Beatitudes to be DE-scriptions of ways in which our lives may be blessed by the Lord our God ... we may hear them as Jesus intended them ... as words of promise and comfort and Gospel ...
But if we understand the Beatitudes to be PRE-scriptions of how life ought to be lived ... they become a recipe for disaster.
Make no mistake about it ... folks.
These words of Jesus are intended to be GOOD NEWS ... make sure that they are also good news FOR YOU!