TEXTS: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-3)
Here we have the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew offers to us as a concise summary of Jesus’ message—“Jesus in a nutshell,” as someone has said. It begins with promises and with blessings. Nine blessings—nine “beatitudes.”
There’s a parallel sermon in Luke’s gospel (6:20-23), and it also has beatitudes—but it has only four. They are about the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are persecuted; and they all begin, “Blessed are you …”
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you because of me … for surely your reward is great in heaven …”
In Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking about human need, proclaiming that when God’s Kingdom comes, there will be change—and it will be good news for people who are poor, hungry, sorrowful, and downtrodden. In Luke, we hear Jesus speaking to the victims.
However, in Matthew’s account—which is before us today—we find not only more beatitudes, but also a different tone. Here, the focus is less upon the needy to whom promises are made, and more upon the disciples in Jesus’ audience—including us. In Matthew, the beatitudes are not so much promises as they are challenges.
Here, Jesus challenges us to be “poor in spirit” and to ourselves “hunger after righteousness.” The kingdom of heaven will be for people like this, Jesus tells us—and if you want to enter it, here’s a glimpse of the citizenship exam.
This emphasis on attitude and behaviour is central to Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ message. In this gospel, your status—whether as an Israelite or as a Christian—is of no consequence if you ignore the will of God.
Matthew’s nine beatitudes are good news, to be sure—but they also put forth nine hefty challenges. And on this day in particular … in this particular world … perhaps the most challenging is number seven: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel is best-known today for the prizes which bear his name, including—and perhaps especially—the Nobel Peace Prize. In his day, Alfred Nobel was a prolific inventor, filing hundreds of patents during his career—for everything from synthetic rubber to artificial leather to the gas meter.
He was also an arms manufacturer and the man who came up with dynamite.
Nobel developed the new explosive after a series of experiments in Sweden in the 1860s, adding to humankind’s arsenal an easily usable—and profoundly destructive—weapon. Fenian terrorists in Ireland were among the first to use it.
When his brother Ludvig died in 1888, Nobel got a copy of the newspaper to see what was said about his brother. He was shocked to discover that a dreadful error had been made. The death notice he was reading was not for his brother Ludvig—but for Alfred himself!
Calling him a “merchant of death,” his premature obituary went on to say: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Nobel was devastated. He quickly realized that if his obituary was to be rewritten, he would have to do it himself by changing the nature of his life.
So Alfred Nobel did just that.
When he signed his last will and testament, he set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will allocated 94% of his total assets for that specific purpose—more than 31.2 million Swedish kronor!
Alfred Nobel died on the 10th of December in 1896, and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in December of 1901—including the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize. According to the terms of his will, the Peace Prize is awarded to the person who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
I dare say that Alfred Nobel is better known today for his contribution to peace than for any other thing he did in his life. And the fact that he provided for several categories of awards—covering fields like chemistry, physics, medicine, and literature … this points to a broader understanding of peace.
For the old Swedish industrialist, “peacemaking” was about much more than simply telling nations to lay down their arms—it encompassed all those areas of human endeavour which improve and enrich our earthly existence. In fact, it was very much like the idea of shalom.
Shalom is a Hebrew word meaning “peace.” However, it is a conception of peace that implies and presupposes a wide range of other ideas, such as harmony, wholeness, prosperity, health, tranquility, divine justice, compassion, and—especially—completeness. Certainly, it describes a state of affairs where there is no dispute or conflict—but shalom is about much more than that.
When Jesus calls the peacemakers blessed, it’s because they follow in his footsteps. It’s not peacemaking that causes us to be children of God; it’s being children of God that causes us to be peacemakers.
When we love God, we are drawn into God’s family business. And the family business is shalom—real peace, the restoration of all things into the shalom of God’s love.
It occurs to me that when we gather on a day like this one to remember and give thanks for the sacrifices that others have made on our behalf, we are in very large part honouring their hope. It also seems to me that this was—and is—a hope of shalom. Not simply a hope of victory, or hope merely for the cessation of war, but something much grander and larger: hope for a better world—for a freer and more just and more humane world. That is what so many fought and died for—and it is that for which so many more continue to struggle, even to this present day.
Our part, if we would be peacemakers, is to honour their hope by taking up their cause—taking up their quarrel with the foes of freedom and justice and peace. To do that, we must become planters of shalom.
Few of us will ever be in a position to champion world peace in such a high-profile manner as did Alfred Nobel. However, we are called to strive for peace in small ways as well as big ones. We are called to plant the seeds of peace wherever God has planted us.
Therefore, my friends, let us seek the good of all our neighbours—whether they be homeless persons in our great cities, or frightened refugees newly arrived in our midst; whether they are starving children on another continent or the working poor who rely upon our food banks to feed their own children.
The legacy of those whom we honour this day is a legacy of hope—hope for a better future. It is a legacy of shalom for all humankind. It is a brilliant torch. Let’s hold it high.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more … come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:3b-4, 5b)