According to Matthew, this isn’t Jesus’s first sermon, but it is the first one that Matthew records.
Jesus is in Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing, and drawing crowds from all over—mostly of the sick and those in need of healing. Imagine the people and their needs that Jesus has encountered—both those who he healed, and those who brought their loved ones to be healed. As many of us know very well, the circle of suffering is not contained to the patient. But what is unclear is who is actually listening to this sermon: is it the crowds, or just the disciples? Matthew says that Jesus went up the mountain when he saw the crowds and his disciples came to him, but he doesn’t mention if the crowd was also hiking up the mountain. Either way, his experience among the crowd appears to be the spark for this sermon, and thus it makes sense to think of at least some of them being there.
By mentioning the disciples, Matthew seems to be emphasizing that disciples of Jesus need to remember what Jesus is teaching here—who is blessed and what being blessed looks like. It’s a good reminder of how Jesus, as God, sees and takes account. Jesus does not ignore our needs (the first four beatitudes), but nor does he ignore how we share what we have (the second set of four beatitudes). And he knows the trouble we will see (the last beatitude).
In fact, John Stott calls the beatitudes the “privileges” and “responsibilities” of citizenship in the kingdom of God. (Christ-Counter Culture) Though it isn’t a way that Stott talks about it, one of the reasons I like this frame is because Jesus first speaks to those who might wonder whether they belong, measure up, ruin the image with their neediness. It’s an emphatic yes from the very beginning. In fact, Jesus says to the poor in spirit, the kingdom is (present tense) already theirs.
And part of that sense of belonging that Jesus gives to those in need involves taking what is negative and planting in them something steadfast: deep inner joy, trusting the promises (how we might understand the implication of “blessed.”) When we hear what Jesus speaks, we can say to ourselves and one another, “Yes, we might be poor in spirit when we look around us at the state of the world, but the kingdom of heaven is ours! Yes, we are mourning, but God will comfort us! Yes, we are meek in a world built on ‘getting ahead,’ but God is giving us the world! Yes, we might know the pain of seeing our efforts to do what is right hit dead ends, but Jesus’s righteousness will fill us!” Jesus’s first four beatitudes remind us that there is more than one thing true about our situations, and that we can cling to and build our lives upon the deep hope implanted in us by the Holy Spirit in order to live in the midst of the struggles and difficulties we face in this world.
After speaking about those who feel empty, Jesus speaks of those who are full of beautiful things. We might be tempted to think of these as two different groups of those who in need and those with something to give, but that’s more dichotomous that it needs to be. To honestly know our needs does not mean we have nothing to offer. So, just like the first set, these beatitudes are general descriptions of life in God’s kingdom (Stott’s “responsibilities of citizenship”). Showing mercy, having a pure heart, being peacemakers, and enduring persecution for doing what is right stand as high callings in their own right.
Though it doesn’t mean that these pairs of beatitudes are exclusive, there seems to be an internal pattern to these two sets. The poor in spirit and have the kingdom of heaven, and as such, have all that they need to be merciful towards others. Those who mourn and look to future comfort, by looking to God for comfort, are able to strive towards a pure heart turned towards God. The meek, to whom the earth belongs, preserve that earth by being true peacemakers, showing that they are the children of God who follow in Jesus’s very own footsteps. And those who hunger and thirst for what is right, they will be filled even though they are persecuted for it, because they, like the poor in spirit, already have the kingdom of heaven.
That’s the secret, isn’t it? Knowing what is already yours even as you look at your circumstances that seem to communicate a different truth. Jesus isn’t preaching that we’re wrong when we name our sufferings and challenges, he isn’t telling us not to mourn or saying it is bad to be meek. Nor is he telling us to go look for these sorts of troubles in order to be able to claim some sort of benefit. And by repeating the reality that those who do right will have a difficult time on this earth, will face persecution and hatred and isolation, Jesus is definitely not trying to turn our attention away from reality. His first sermon begins with “yes, and.” Yes to all of what you are experiencing, and think of what else is true: there is reason to rejoice because you belong to a long line of people who have sought to tell the truth about God and God’s ways to the people God loves.
All of these beatitudes name truth—both the external truth of circumstances, and the eternal truth that we can hold onto internally. The kingdom of heaven is already ours—there is no earning it, just living it. The gift of the kingdom is not a guarantee to the #blessed life we see plastered all over the internet, nor do we have to concoct reasons why we are being persecuted. Choosing how to show up in and speak about our circumstances, how we will seek God in the midst of them, will reveal enough about who and what we cling to.
In Luke, the great reversal is a key theme throughout the gospel account; not so much with Matthew. But these first four beatitudes have a bit of an “upside-down” feel to them as the circumstances and experiences that make up the first clause are met by a greater circumstance or experience in the second. Though spiritual in nature, they have immense impact on everyday life—even if only in the psyche of the one who is poor in spirit, mourning, meek, or hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
I looked online and you can buy wall art that quotes the beatitudes, but you’ve got to search a little more diligently to find them. Much more likely, of course, are the same kind of messages you’ll find as #blessed on social media: messages and images about how beautiful and good (and sometimes shiny) life is—how you’re so happy to be blessed. The messages can be so potently positive that one wonders how truthful they are. When I imagine the scene up on the mountain, I imagine some weary folks who, when they hear a description of their aching heart, lift their heads a little at hearing what will be/is theirs: the kingdom, comfort, the earth, and their fill. Their form of #blessed comes to those who are honest about what is really going on in their lives, and the road, Jesus promises, will contain more hardship. Our #blessed-ness is a “yes, and.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2023
Matthew 5:1-12 Commentary