There are several ways to approach the Beatitudes. You could fruitfully consider them one at a time or you could look at the overall sweep and direction of these blessings. Since the Lectionary gives us the whole smack for just one Sunday, our best option is to look at the bigger picture and consider, in aggregate, what these Beatitude behaviors and mindsets add up to. That is, seen in context and taken all together, what is Jesus telling us about kingdom living just generally in Matthew 5?
Before we answer that, let’s notice the curious way in which Matthew launches the Sermon on the Mount. According to Matthew 4:25, Jesus’ ministry has just recently taken off like a rocket with his reputation as a healer spreading quickly. Within days he had throngs of people following him in the hopes that they could get something from Jesus.
But then in Matthew 5 Jesus suddenly interrupts his successful healing ministry. Make no mistake: the miracles Jesus did were important signs of his power and of God’s kingdom, but over and again Jesus makes clear that the main event of his ministry is teaching. So Jesus is not adverse to stopping the juggernaut of enthusiasm that was building around him in order to do the far less impressive-looking act of sitting down and just talking.
“He began to teach,” Matthew says in verse 2 because teaching was one of the main reasons why Jesus had come to this earth. In fact, it is even possible that one of the reasons Jesus applies the brakes to his successful healing tour was precisely because he knew that this was the kind of phenomenon that made people want to turn Jesus into yet one more icon of political power. The people wanted a successful, charismatic leader to help end Roman occupation and restore Israel to its former glory. And so the people started to follow Jesus in the hopes that they would be there when history was made as the Caesar was defeated.
Perhaps that prospect unsettled Jesus. Did you notice how Matthew 5:1 begins? “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up to a mountain and sat down with the disciples.” It is as though the very crowds are what drove him into this private teaching session with the disciples. It is as though Jesus looked around him, saw that things were taking off quickly in the direction of a “successful” career in the worldly sense of that term, and so he quickly backs off, retreats to a less accessible place, and says to his disciples, “Whoa! We need to slow down long enough for me to tell you what the real shape of life in my kingdom is. Because if we’re not careful, people are going to start to think I’m here to conduct business as usual when really I’m here to turn the world upside-down.”
Then, to prove his point, Jesus begins to turn the world upside-down. In the face of those who were hoping Jesus would be a bold and brash political leader who would take the world by storm, Jesus blesses the meek, the demure, the people who look like they’ll never accomplish anything. In the face of those who were hoping Jesus would rally the powerful and confident to his side, Jesus blesses the destitute and the quietly pious folks huddled on the fringes of the business world. Instead of promising swift liberation from Rome, Jesus blesses those who mourn over things like the Roman occupation!
In other words, Jesus says that he has not come to establish just one more political kingdom in which the powerful win, the confident grin, and the rich pull all the strings. He has come to usher in a new order where the last are first and where the truly excellent are the ones who get sneered at by the rest of the world.
So what would a Beatitude-filled person look like? Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one man (or into one woman, but we’ll go with a man for now).
What would Mr. Beatitude look like?
Well, he would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight. He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, and so we might conclude he has a bad self image.
This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time he hears a news story about an oil spill off the Louisiana coast or after seeing pictures of children gassed to death in Syria–this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything. Lester Holt might always end newscasts with a smile and the winning words, “I’ll see you all back here tomorrow, good night.” But Mr. Beatitude generally finds the news to be desolating–just watching such broadcasts yields anything but a smiling “good night” for him!
This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that most everything he did would come off looking like an offering. This would be a man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. He’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to drugs or pornography.
In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs. As often as not he’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in his eye; he’d rather talk about substantive issues of global climate change or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. He might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at him as someone who was naively “out to save the world.” (All of this is why it was such a travesty years ago when a certain TV preacher published a book titled “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” Happiness is not necessarily in the mix for those who follow Jesus’ words here.)
He might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying the guy–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. Beatitude would be ridiculed.
You see, the life of Mr. (or Miss) Beatitude will be a busy and restless and maybe even a nettlesome one not because he or she is trying to get to heaven but because folks like this have seen the kingdom in Jesus and they’re not going to settle for less ever again. As such, there is a curious paradox running through the Beatitudes. On the one hand it is clear that graced followers of Jesus don’t really “fit” in this world. In this sense Matthew 5 seems to validate the old spiritual that says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.”
If, as Jesus predicts, we get ridiculed and persecuted, part of the reason will be because we’re not hewing to the world’s agenda. We’re going to challenge a lot of conventional wisdom and shake up the powers that be. On the other hand, though, the Beatitudes do not call us to be world-shunning folks. We are not to pretend that society or culture don’t matter, that politics is beneath our notice, that the environment can slide into a hell of pollution because this world isn’t our home anyway seeing as we’re headed for heaven.
No, instead the Beatitudes make clear that we are to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness not in the sweet by-and-by but right here, right now. We are to make for shalom here. We are to be meek right here and if we are, we are promised to inherit the earth–the earth, you may notice, is what Jesus promises.
Jesus easily mixes up his talk about “the kingdom of heaven” with his talk about this earth. Apparently in Jesus’ mind there is no dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between heaven and earth because down the line, the two are going to merge. In sum, blessed are you if you can see the world the way Jesus sees it. Congratulations to you if you already feel and act and live in these ways because it shows that when it comes to God’s kingdom, you “get it.”
There is a long-standing biblical debate as to whom Jesus taught: were these words addressed to everybody or to just Jesus’ inner circle of disciples? Many scholars believe that although some in the crowd may have overheard Jesus, it does appear that Jesus is forming a circle around him of only the disciples and that he is now teaching them. Recognizing that helps us to remember two things: first of all, the fact that these words were for the disciples reminds us that the Beatitudes are not entrance requirements for kingdom membership but instead are a description of what kingdom living is like after you have been saved by grace.
If Jesus had spoken these words to the crowds, then it is possible you could read the Beatitudes this way: “People, listen up! If you want to be on my good side, if you expect for me to take you to heaven, then here’s what you have to do: you have to be nice and merciful, work toward peace and only then will you be good enough for me.” But that’s not how it goes in Matthew 5. Jesus has already called the disciples through the out-of-the-blue invitation of grace. They are already kingdom insiders.
In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how you earn grace (which you can’t do anyway, of course).
To the world, the Beatitudes look like a formula for a disastrously dull and melancholy life. Instead, as C.S. Lewis wrote, the people around us think that money and sex and booze and the high life are as good as it gets. To folks like this the Beatitudes sound roaringly stupid. But such people are like an ignorant little child who says that he’d rather just go on making mud pies in some slaggy alley in the slums simply because he can’t imagine what it means that you just invited him to go to the beach for the weekend. People in this world are far too easily pleased. They think mud pies is as good as it gets when really they and we all have been made for joy! Blessed are you if you know the joy that is our God in Christ for it changes everything!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2017
Matthew 5:1-12 Commentary