I was reading an interesting article by Bishop Kallistos Ware on reading Scripture from an Eastern Orthodox point of view, in which (as part of the section on “understanding the Bible through the church”) he describes how to “interpret Scripture in a liturgical way”: in other words, being guided in our interpretation by how a text is used in the church’s feasts.
Some might regard the example he uses of supposedly Marian texts as an example of the dangers of this approach – in particular the risk of reading meanings into the text that aren’t actually there – but what is indisputable is that the use of texts for a church’s festivals tells us a lot about how the church understands those texts, whether rightly or wrongly.
Take, for example, the appointed gospel reading for All Saints’ Day in the Lutheran lectionary: Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes. Most Christian traditions regard the Beatitudes as a model for Christian living; a description of what the kingdom of God should look like in practice. Lutherans, by contrast, tend to emphasise the “second use” of the law in relation to the Beatitudes, arguing that Jesus’ intention in declaring these blessings is to drive his listeners to despair of their own righteousness by showing how they fail to live up to the criteria for “blessedness”.
However, the use of this text for All Saints’ Day would seem to support the former approach more than the latter, especially when we look at the other texts for that day. First, we have Revelation 7:9-17, describing the “great multitude that no one could count” of those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. Then we have 1 John 3:1-3, speaking of how God’s children “will be like him, for we will see him as he is”.
In that context, Matthew 5:1-12 is a further description of the saints whose witness we celebrate on All Saints’ Day: those who have, however imperfectly, modelled something of the qualities described by Jesus. The Beatitudes tell us something of what it means to “be like him”.
I’m inclined to link the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 with the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. The Beatitudes describe the qualities that the saints don’t realise they have, just as the “sheep” in Matthew 25 are surprised by the good deeds they have done unawares. These are the qualities that are left behind after sin has finally been washed away.
Another thought: it’s interesting to note that most of the Beatitudes are in the third person; “blessed are those“. In a sense, these statements are not addressed to us, as if we would claim them for ourselves or take them as an agenda for how to live. Instead, we see them exhibited in the lives of others (“those”): supremely in the life of Jesus himself, but also in the lives of the saints throughout the ages, whose witness we call to mind on All Saints’.
The only Beatitude addressed in the second person is the last: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”. The only one of these qualities which we can claim for ourselves – the only one of which we can expect to be aware in our own lives – is that of being reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake.