“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.
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 righteousness’ sake, 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.” – Matthew 5:1-12
Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible. It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible. So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.
So starting with context. The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7. So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.
In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
These photos show what the mountain looks like today. Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.
But you can still get a feel for what it was like. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot. I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee. The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.
So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty. In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.
Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him. As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching. And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.
I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text. One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on. What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.
So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.
First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.
So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit. This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty. The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen. You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone. He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo. If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’. So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.
Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.
Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.
Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.
Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.
Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker. Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!) Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God. We are being God’s children.
Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right. I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job. Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.
And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.
So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.
The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us. But they’re also more than that. There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.
Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain. Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters. Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered. But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.
So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’. Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others. And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)
Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.
The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)
King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)
Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.
Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth. If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!
All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect. As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power. To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)
After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life. So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.
So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.
How do we do this? Start with prayer. The opportunities will come. In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.
Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17