1/29/23 “Those Who Can”

Matthew 4:23-5:16

I wonder how many of you are or have ever been a teacher (professional or volunteer)? How many are related to a teacher or former teacher? How many have had had at least one teacher who inspired you or made a positive impact on your life? And how many of you agree with this statement: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

I wondered who on earth would say such a thing, so I went searching for the origin of that phrase. I learned that it’s in an appendix to a play called “Man and Superman” by George Bernard Shaw. The appendix is described as a “handbook” called “Maxims for Revolutionists,” written by a character in the play named Jack Tanner. In the section about “Education,” we find this maxim, among others: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

Tanner scandalizes another character with ideas like this and his theories about social and political reform. But, while he talks a good game, Tanner does absolutely nothing but talk about the social ills he supposedly wants to change. Tanner himself is a great example of someone who could act, but doesn’t, instead professing to teach others through his handbook. The handbook is really pretty funny, if you read it as satire on people who are great at talking the talk but never get around to walking the walk.

If you’re like me and think that Tanner’s comment is utter baloney, you’re in good company. I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t much like it, either. We know many stories about things that Jesus did, but in our readings from Matthew during this season of Epiphany, Jesus is also revealed as a great teacher. For Matthew, teaching and doing are inextricably linked in Jesus’ ministry, and doing, learning, and teaching are inextricably linked for anyone who is a disciple of Jesus. For Matthew, and Jesus as Matthew portrays him, disciples are people who, by the power of their faith in Jesus, ­can. Because they can, they do. And, as they do, they teach.

Our reading for this week actually begins with the end of last weeks’ passage. That’s intentional, because it shows how important teaching was to Jesus. Before he does his kingdom works, he offers kingdom words. Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the Galilean synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Jesus taught first, and then he did—curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

His fame spreads and the crowds gather. Jesus sees the crowds and goes up on the mountainside and sits down, as Jewish teachers typically did. His disciples gather around him. And then, Matthew tells us, Jesus began to speak and taught them, with the crowd listening in. Jesus will teach all of them—and us—a lot in what we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus starts with the Beatitudes. Jesus didn’t call them the Beatitudes. That name comes from the word that begins each verse: “blessed.” Matthew’s Greek word for “blessed” was translated into Latin, and the Latin was translated into French and Middle English, and voila! We have the word “Beatitude.”

Often, the words of the Beatitudes are read merely as comforting platitudes for those who are in a bad way. But they are not simply consoling statements. They are revolutionary statements about who is to be included in the kingdom of heaven. They are a wake-up call that alerts the disciples of Jesus to where Jesus’ ministry is to take place, and among whom. The Beatitudes teach, but they are also a call to do—a call to action which will further the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry, and so the ministry of his disciples, will not be among those whose comfortable lives would suggest that they are God’s favorites—that they are the de facto recipients of God’s blessing. instead, Jesus announces the God’s blessing is to be found among people who are the last ones thought to be eligible. Who are those people? They are the poor in spirit—those who are crushed by poverty, stunted by a society that ignores their needs and their gifts, and whose daily struggle for survival trumps the life of the soul. They are the people who are weighed down by grief—who mourn the loss of loved ones to death, who mourn the loss of their homeland to an occupying power, who mourn the loss of the lives they once had, stolen from them by forces outside their control. They are the meek in the Old Testament sense: people who suffer from injustice and rely only on God to save them. They are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: not those work for a more just society but those who are pushed to and kept at the margins of society because of injustice.

Jesus teaches his disciples that they must be in solidarity with these—the ones the world would prefer to ignore. Jesus’ ministry—and, so, the disciples’ ministry—won’t be among the privileged. It will be among the poor, the sick, the bereft, the marginalized. His disciples shouldn’t expect to be any different.

The Beatitudes also include a call to action. “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says. “Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.” These aren’t descriptions of lovely feelings. They are words that call us to do something. They call us to do more than feel sorry for people in need. they call us to show mercy, by meeting needs both material and spiritual. They call us to live with pure hearts. Oh, that any of us were as pure of heart as we’d like to be! But the pure hearts Jesus calls us to are ones that strive to live according to God’s will, as best we can, in our thinking and in our doing. We set our sights on allowing the same mind to be in us that was in Christ Jesus. Then, we live as that mind guides us.

The Beatitudes call us to do the things that make for peace. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the peace of shalom, the peace of wholeness. To be a peacemaker means healing division and restoring relationships that have been broken. It means practicing what makes for peace—respect for others, a willingness to live, as Paul prescribed, “doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves, looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.”

There are so many places in the world where we can be peacemakers. We can begin in our own families, in our workplaces, in our classrooms, and even, at times, in our church. But there is so much division in the world today, and Jesus calls us to be peacemakers there, too, among those we may least want to have relationships with. Jesus calls us to be respectful—of people with different political or theological views, or lifestyles we don’t understand. Jesus calls us to listen and see what is happening in the lives of others—to understand what makes them celebrate and what them grieve, and then work with them to bring about more opportunities for celebration and fewer causes of grief.

This peacemaking can put the peacemaker in the line of fire. Standing up for what’s right in the face of opposition is rarely easy. Speaking up for those who are in the minority can draw criticism. And, in this day and age of social media, peacemaking by calling out injustice and falsehood can attract trolls and stalkers and conspiracy peddlers—persecution of a kind that Jesus couldn’t have imagined. But there is blessing for those who are willing to step out in faith and step up for the sake of righteousness in Jesus’ name.

Jesus was one who could—could heal, could cure—and he did. He was also one who could, and did, teach. In the Beatitudes, he sets the stage for all that he will teach in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and, indeed, in the rest of Matthew’s gospel. But there is something else he could do, and did, in the Beatitudes. As Jesus taught his disciples about God’s blessings, he literally called those blessings into being. He wasn’t just talking about the blessings. He was doing the blessing. That moment of teaching was also a moment of doing as he blessed the grief-stricken, the needy, those who had been trampled by the socially and economically and politically powerful, and those who stood up for them and with them in Jesus’ name.

Jesus makes the blessings of the Beatitudes a reality in the present. He also points the way to the future, when the kingdom is complete. The kingdom of heaven will be free of all that crushes the spirit and leaves grief and longing in its wake. In the words of the Revelation, in that day when the home of God is among mortals, God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

The kingdom may not yet be here in its completeness, but Jesus inaugurated it. The kingdom of heaven came near in Jesus and, in the Beatitudes, Jesus made its good news a reality: by his word, the people whom the world deems unworthy of God’s blessing are blessed now, and they will see that blessing fulfilled when the kingdom comes in all its completion. And, as disciples of Jesus align their lives and their work and their interests with those of the already-blessed ones, they too are blessed.

There is power in this blessing. Those who join in Jesus’ ministry share in his blessing, and we are empowered to do the very things he teaches us to do. We are empowered to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, to risk ourselves for the sake of righteousness.

As we share in Jesus’ ministry of doing, we are also called to share in his ministry of teaching. This brings us to the end of our passage—those familiar words of salt and light and a city on a hill—the things we are blessed to be for the world. We may be great learners as we sit at the feet of Jesus. We learn the stories of Jesus. We learn about God. We learn about what the Spirit does. But if all we do is learn without acting on what we learn, we are not fulfilling our call as disciples. We are no better than Jack Tanner of Bernard Shaw’s play—full of good ideas but doing nothing. We can know a lot, but it is little better than fodder for trivia night at your local watering hole if we don’t share how Jesus has made a difference in our lives and how he can make a difference in someone else’s.

Jesus has blessed us. Jesus has told us where our mission field is. Jesus has called us and empowered us to share in his ministry by giving us an identity. It’s not an identity that will be conferred on us after we’ve done enough Bible study or straightened out some bad habits or adopted a more regular regimen of prayer and devotion. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. “You are the light of the world, a beacon as easily seen as a city on a hill.” This is who we are now. We have only to decide whether we will live into that identity.

In the ancient world, salt was a healing agent. Jesus tells us that we are salt and calls us into healing the world. Salt never becomes less salty, but it can be contaminated. We are salt that heals and restores, but we must take care not to allow impurities to lessen our effectiveness. Self-righteousness, judgmental attitudes, a rigid adherence to the way things have always been, a reluctance to hear and honor the stories of others—these can make us useless as salt for the world.

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. We have been blessed with the light of Christ, and we empowered to let it shine before others. We might feel a little uncomfortable about this. I know how many of you have quietly given anonymous gifts or devoted uncounted hours to this church, without expecting notice or reward. Jesus would approve of that, in that nothing we do should draw attention to ourselves and away from him. Instead, our good works should be like the beams from a lighthouse—beams that lead others from darkness to the kingdom of heaven.

Many years ago, Marc and I were driving at night from Denver to Vail, in Colorado. It was so dark! It was actually kind of creepy; we started imagining ghost stories inspired by how alone we felt out there. But eventually, we were relieved to see the lights of the village of Vail shining on the side of the mountain. That is what we are to be others—lights that draw others to the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ ministry was one of both words and works. Because we share in his ministry, ours is, too. Jesus has made it possible for us to do the work of the kingdom of heaven—to be merciful and to be peacemakers in all their dimensions. Because of his blessing, we can and we do. But we are also commissioned to share the words and the works of Jesus with others.

That old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” is so wrong. Jesus’ words are evidence of how wrong it is. So is Matthew’s revelation of Jesus as a teacher. Jesus has invited us share in the work of teaching others, not as people who can’t, but as disciples who can.  With Jesus’ blessing, we can make peace, we can be merciful, we can stand up for righteousness, and we can strive to follow God’s will. Empowered by his blessing, we can and do carry out that work among the people Jesus blessed and teach others what he has taught us. We can, we do, and we teach so that others may see and give glory to our Father in heaven. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young