Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 2, 2020
Matthew 5:1-12 Commentary
Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one person. What would Mr. or Miss 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 she 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.
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 person who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. She’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 opioids or pornography.
In short, Mr. or Miss Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs. As often as not she’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in her eye; she’d rather talk about substantive issues of global climate change or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. She might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at her 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.)
Mr. Beatitude or Miss Beatitude might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his or her restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying this person–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. or Miss 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 mudpies 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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