Matthew 5:1-12 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Today we are beginning an eight-week series on Matthew chapter 5. I have wanted for a while to do a series on the Sermon on the Mount, and we have eight weeks yet until the beginning of Lent. So in these eight weeks we will cover 1/3 of the chapters that contain Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. After Lent I hope to pick back up with chapters 6 & 7.
Today’s passage is commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes”. We call this passage the beatitudes because beatitude is the Latin word for blessing. So these are the blessings. We are very early in Jesus’ public ministry at this point in Matthew, and Jesus is gaining a sizable following. Matthew says that Jesus saw the crowds that had come to hear him. And these people were likely drawn to Jesus because of the testimony of John the Baptist, who said that Jesus was more powerful than he was and that John was not worthy of untying Jesus’ sandal. Matthew also tells us that Jesus has gone through Galilee teaching and healing the sick. He has drawn to himself people from Syria, Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. All of this is to say that Jesus immediately has a diverse following, comprised of Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, powerful and weak.
So all of these people are flocking to Jesus and he climbs up the side of a mountain and sits down. This is likely because he needs to take advantage of the acoustics of his surroundings so that everyone could hear him. He wouldn’t have had the advantage of having access to a lapel microphone.
So Jesus sits down in a place where every person in this large crowd can hear him and he begins to preach a powerful message. And like so many other powerful messages, I believe that a lot of Jesus’ followers went home disappointed. They probably turned and went back where they came from a little discouraged and confused. John was building this man up as the Messiah, the chosen one who would free the Jews once and for all. The people had witnessed miraculous healings. And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
I imagine that a few people probably got confused right there and then. And it gets better. He follows that up by saying that the poor in spirit are in possession of the kingdom of heaven. It is theirs. Not it will be, but it is theirs. The next line isn’t too intimidating. He says Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Maybe the people sit back down when they hear that. There is nothing wrong with comforting those who are mourning. But then he says the meek will inherit the earth and half of the people get up and head for the nearest exit (off the mountain?). Those that hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. That isn’t too unsettling. But then he says the merciful will receive mercy. The pure in heart will see God. The peacemakers will be called children of God. Wait…just…one…second. There were surely zealots there that were looking for the messiah to lead an army against the Roman army. So the zealots get up and leave.
Then Jesus says something “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And those that are paying really close attention, the lawyers and those on the constitutional revision committee say, “Didn’t he give the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit?” So those legalists get up and leave. And finally Jesus gives the last of his beatitudes and says, “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 the persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
I have to imagine that by the time that Jesus got through those first 12 verses of Matthew chapter 5 that the large group of people that had traveled to hear him had either left or already dismissed this Jesus guy as a heretic or anything but the Messiah. What Jesus is proclaiming is so backwards of the way of thinking of the average person in Jesus’ day or in our own. It is counterintuitive and just doesn’t match up to our expectations. But maybe we should have seen this coming.
Jesus was born to a teenage virgin and her betrothed husband in a stable. From the beginning, we should have realized that God was doing something different. The first visitors that the baby Jesus is said to have received is a group of shepherds that come straight from the fields, with their staffs in hand and probably smelling a little bit of the field where they had been staying. Of course they did ask the shepherds to at least use Purell before holding the baby. We would hate for the son of God to catch the swine flu, or sheep flu, from the shepherds. From the very beginning, this person named Jesus was a little different. And now as he pronounces these blessings upon the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers, we can see that Jesus is already not shaping up to be the person that so many people were expecting him to be. And that is a description that will identify Jesus for all of his ministry. Jesus and the kingdom that he came proclaiming just don’t seem to match the expectations of the people. They are indeed counterintuitive.
I don’t know if there is a more politically correct name for this device, but are you familiar with the Chinese finger trap? The Chinese finger trap is a braided cylinder often made of thin pieces of bamboo or ribbon. It is approximately the length of two adult fingers.
When you put two of your fingers into a Chinese finger trap, it is difficult to get them out. That is why it is called a trap. Your initial instinct tells you to pull your fingers away from each other to free them from the paper cylinder. But as you pull them away, they just get tighter and tighter. The harder you pull, the tighter they get.
To escape the Chinese finger trap, you actually need to do something counterintuitive. To get your fingers out, you have to push them in. When you push your fingers together, it loosens the woven cylinder and you can easily twist your fingers out.
Who hasn’t thought of the kingdom of God as a Chinese finger trap? The kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming throughout his ministry is a lot like the Chinese finger trap because if you want to escape from the ways of the kingdoms of this world, you must do some things that are counterintuitive. When the rest of the world around you is pulling, you are called to push. And it may not make sense, but that is what kingdom life will look like. We are called to be a part of a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed.
So what does it mean to be blessed? It is indeed a little bit confusing, especially because we use the word pretty frequently today without thinking twice about it. When someone sneezes we might say, “God bless you.” Before we eat, we might say a blessing. When a child is born or a promotion at work has been given, we often say that these people have been blessed.
The Greek word that we translate as “blessed” is makarios, which literally means, blessedJ. It can also be translated as “happy”. But happy really doesn’t make sense in this context: Happy are those who mourn? Yeah, the beatitudes are counterintuitive enough without trying to translate makarios as happy. No, the best way to understand “blessed” comes to us from a pastor in Michigan named Rob Bell. Rob Bell says that when you are blessed, it means that God is on your side. God is supporting you, encouraging you, and cheering you on. Blessed are the poor in spirit? Yes, because God is on your side.
Some of the beatitudes make perfect sense and I believe that these are things that we should be working toward. But that isn’t the case for all of the beatitudes. I think that we make a mistake if we look at the beatitudes as ethical teaching. Yes, I believe that we are called to be peacemakers. Yes, I think that it is a good thing to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should strive to be pure in heart. But should we strive to mourn? You might say that we should be the kind of people who care deeply about others so that when we lose someone that we care about we mourn their loss. But what about the very first beatitude out of Jesus’ mouth? What about this whole poor in spirit thing? Should we strive to be poor in spirit? What does it even mean?
To be poor in spirit means that you don’t have very much spirit. There is a fair amount of disagreement in just what this means, but I would say that being poor in spirit is the opposite to being in good spirit. Others have said that to be poor in spirit is comparable to what we might call being a loser. If you are a loser, you are an outcast, a misfit, a nobody. People don’t care about you. You didn’t make the team, you didn’t even make the JV squad. You are socially and spiritually bankrupt. That is what it means to be poor in spirit.
In Jesus’ day the poor in spirit would have been the people on the outside of the rest of society. They would be people like the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners. The very people that we find Jesus spending time with throughout the New Testament would be the poor in spirit. And Jesus is pronouncing that if you are that kind of person, when you have no friends, when your own family has abandoned you, God is on your side. And Jesus shows this throughout his lifetime by spending time with those who are poor in spirit.
So this is why I say that not all of the beatitudes are ethical teachings that we are to strive for. We are not supposed to try to be poor in spirit. The point of the beatitudes is to say that if you are poor in spirit, if you are mourning, if you are meek, then God is on your side.
I love the way that Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon say it in their book Resident Aliens. I am paraphrasing here, but essentially they say The beatitudes are not primarily about what we are supposed to do. They are about who God is. We aren’t necessarily called to be the things outlined in the beatitudes. Instead, they tell us who God is.
God is the kind of god who is on the side of the down and out. God is the kind of god who is on the side of the one who is mourning. God is the kind of god who is on the side of the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and those who are reviled because of him. That is the kind of God I can worship!
I think that it is important to start off our series on the Sermon on the Mount with this understanding of the beatitudes and this understanding of God. Over the next eight weeks we are going to hear some very tough teachings from Jesus. We will struggle through the issues of divorce and remarriage; we will struggle through the issues of nonviolence, anger, and adultery. The Sermon on the Mount is not for the faint of heart. This is some tough ethical teaching. And I believe that is why Jesus starts out by saying, If you are poor in spirit, if you are a failure by the world’s standards, if you are a loser, if you are spiritually and socially bankrupt, God is on your side. The beatitudes are a preparation for all those that have ears to hear Jesus to know before he gets into this difficult teaching that God is on your side. God is there cheering you on through it all. Or as Paul writes in Romans 8:31b, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
We need to remember that the Sermon on the Mount is not some sort of works-based theology. The beatitudes are not eight points on how to earn God’s blessings. No, Jesus shows up on the side of this mountain and he says when you are down and out, when you fail, God is on your side. God is with you. I do not think that it is an accident that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with blessed are the poor in spirit. Jesus starts with a pep talk and encourages his hearers so that they are ready to hear the teaching that he is about to deliver. And yes, it will be difficult. It was difficult in Jesus’ day and it is difficult for us today as well. But let us band together, to walk through the Sermon on the Mount, knowing that God is on our side. God has called us blessed. God will never leave us nor forsake us.
Rob Bell, the Michigan pastor whom I quoted early, has written his own paraphrase for the 21st century of the beatitudes. I invite you to read through these with me, and live into the promise that Jesus has given that God is on our side:
- Blessed are those who don’t have it all together.
- Blessed are those who have run out of strength, ideas, will power, resolve, or energy.
- Blessed are those who ache because of how severely out of whack the world is.
- Blessed are those stumble, trip, and fall in the same place again and again.
- Blessed are those who on a regular basis have a dark day in which despair seems to be a step behind them wherever they go.
- Blessed are you, for God is with you, God is on your side, God meets you in that place.
- The gospel is the counter-intuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us.
We have been given the secret. We know how to escape the Chinese finger trap that is the world around us. May we live into the counterintuitive plan that Jesus has laid before us. Amen.