5 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.
He said: 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’s text follows last week’s instructions from Jesus to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Last Sunday I encouraged you to not hear this as a condemnatory “Turn or burn” statement, but rather a word of encouragement to make adjustments in our lives because we are not far from this kingdom from above. Jesus then went on to call his disciples and begin teaching, preaching, and healing as he went from town to town.
So we pick back up with Jesus noticing that a crowd is following him, which is quite understandable. The people are coming to see if this great teacher and healer might be the Messiah, the one that would free their people. And come on, who doesn’t want to see a good healing every now and then!
Matthew tells us in verse one that Jesus went up the mountainside. I mentioned several weeks ago that Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus was the prophet like Moses that was promised in Deuteronomy 18. And when a Jewish person heard that Jesus went up the mountainside, they likely would have thought of Moses, who often ascended Mount Saini where he received special revelations from God. Matthew just loves to put in these little bits that reaffirm Jesus’ messianic identity.
So Jesus climbs the mountain and then he sits, which was the normal position for a teacher to take in the 1st century (I could never hold still that long, as anyone who has ever seen me preach knows). Matthew then tells us that the disciples gathered around him to hear what he was going to say. There is some question as to just who actually heard these things from Jesus, whether it was just the disciples or if the entire crowd heard him. It is clear that by the end of this sermon that the crowds have found their way to Jesus because we are told in Matthew 7:28 that the crowds were amazed at his teachings. I assume Jesus sat down with his disciples, began teaching, and the rest of the crowd came to hear what he had to say. Whom Jesus intended to address may be significant as it might help to answer the question of who these teachings are intended for, whether it is just for “disciples” or if this is meant for all people. But that is a topic for another day. We do know that these teachings apply to everyone who has chosen to follow Jesus.
Jesus sits down and he begins his most challenging sermon on what it means to be his disciple. The first word out of his mouth is “blessed.” I think that this word suffers a bit from overfamiliarity. We hear it when someone wins an award, we hear it when someone has a child. We use the word “blessed” to describe someone with an outstanding gift in athletics, music, or academics. And of course, we hear it when things aren’t going as well as someone would like for them to be going, yet they want to sound pious, so they say, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.”
When we use “blessed” in this way, we are speaking of grace. This kind of blessing is a gift from God. But there are actually multiple words in the Hebrew language that we translate into English as “blessed.” Think about it like this. This morning we sang, “Blessed be Your Name.” This song title is biblical as it comes from Psalm 113, but to use blessed as we often do makes no sense in this context. What about “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul?” Can I give God a gift from God?
And what does it mean to “bless your food” before you eat it? Or to say, “Bless you” when someone sneezes? For those who were wondering, your heart does not stop beating when you sneeze!
I think that Scot McKnight gets it right in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount when he notes the importance of understanding the word “blessed.” He writes,
An adventurous journey across the terrains of possible English words would be fun if this term were found in a subordinate clause in an otherwise insignificant verse in the Bible. But on this one word the entire passage stands and from this one word the whole list hangs. Get this word right, the rest falls into place; get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart. We need to drill down to get it right (32).
So drill down we will.
The Greek word that Jesus uses in Matthew’s text is an attempt to capture a wide range of meaning for the words that we translate as “blessed.” The Greek word “makarios” can be translated as fortunate, happy, and privileged. Some have said that blessed in this situation means that God is on your side and others that it is a reminder of God’s unconditional regard for us. I believe that is how the Psalmist is using “bless” where the idea is that the Psalmist is offering his unconditional regard for God. But I’m not sold on any of these interpretations for the Beatitudes.
If we go with the first definition in the dictionary, which is “fortunate,” you would have to assume that Jesus is a little off here. Fortunate are the poor in spirit, the ones that don’t have a lot of hope and connection with God. Fortunate are those who mourn. Fortunate are the persecuted, the insulted. Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense.
Others have tried to interpret these as the “Be-happy Attitudes,” saying that one who strives for these things will be happy. And sure, this works for some of the beatitudes, but I don’t really think someone is supposed to strive to be poor in spirit or to mourn. This still doesn’t quite fit. Especially because makarios is a noun and it is used to describe some present realities, not just something that will one day be.
Instead, I want to offer my own interpretation of how Jesus is using “blessed” in this situation. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I believe Jesus is saying that those who are poor in spirit are the closest to God and the closest to his kingdom. Close to God are those who are poor in spirit. Close to God are those who mourn.
“But how can someone who is poor in spirit be close to God” you may ask. Ahh, the word that is translated here as “poor” is the word for a beggar. You are close to God when you realize your spiritual poverty and cry out for help. You are close to God when you mourn, for God knows your pain. To be blessed means that God is at your side.
I come to this definition of blessed because of the way it is used and where it is positioned in the text. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes we find these statements of blessings immediately followed by their antitheses, the “woes.” “Woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are well fed now…”
Now Matthew tells the story a little bit differently. He saves the woes for chapter 23. It could be that Jesus said these things more than once, because, as we all know, itinerant preachers tend to reuse their material when they have a new audience. Or as some have suggested, Matthew may have chosen to take these statements from Jesus concerning those who are blessed and those who are woe-ed and bookend Jesus’ ministry with these teachings (That there’s what you call Redaction Criticism). The blessed ones are the closest to finding God and his kingdom, the woe-ed ones are the furthest from his kingdom. And this isn’t by God’s choice, but it is those who are woe-ed who choose to distance themselves from God.
This is not a statement of who is loved more than another. It is a statement of who is going to be the most receptive to Jesus’ kingdom message. I note Matthew 21:31b-32: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.’”
When I say that these “blessed” ones are close to God, I’m not saying that they are necessarily close like friends, all buddy/buddy with the Lord. But they are closest to turning toward God’s kingdom and God’s vision for humanity.
Later today millions of people will gather together to watch one of the largest spectacles in all of entertainment: The Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos will take on the Seattle Seahawks for the title of the best professional football team in the National Football League.
Those who know me are aware that I love football (college more so than professional, but that’s a rant for another day). So if I sound too critical, please know that I will be one of those millions gathered around a television at 6:30 tonight. Some are gathered to watch the football. Others gather to eat the buffalo chicken dip. And even more come together because we know that the things that take place when the game is not being played can be just as entertaining. Of course, I am talking about those 4 million dollar, 30 seconds-long commercials that everyone talks about long after the game is over.
I simply want to ask the question, What do we find so attractive about the Super Bowl? Please allow me to offer a few suggestions.
When I look at the players, I see the grown version of what many of us wanted to be in high school: the star athlete. The Super Bowl is a collection of the biggest, strongest, fastest people on the face of the earth. And just like the star athlete who always dated the homecoming queen in high school, some of these athletes literally date models (yes, Tom Brady, we are talking about you).
Most of these players are millionaires. The minimum salary for an NFL player is just under $300,000 per year. The highest paid player makes over $50 million. And this doesn’t even compare to the money the owners and the advertisers make. There is so much money made in professional football I can’t even begin to comprehend it.
Many of us have seen, and been disgusted by, Richard Sherman’s recent post-game interview with Erin Andrews where Sherman proclaimed his superiority over all other players in his position. If nothing else, you gotta admit, Sherman has confidence!
Finally, I think one of the reasons why so many people are attracted to the Super Bowl is because it is a legal form of violence. It seems that human beings are attracted to violence. It makes a good movie, as we can see in the gross income from box office hits over the years. Violence has attracted people to the gladiator areas of ancient Greece and to the gladiator areas of New Jersey. Popular Mechanics recently reported that an average defensive back, weighing around 200 lbs and running a 4.56 40 yard dash — which is the average speed at that position — can produce an impact of up to 1600 pounds of force. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds painful!
I don’t mention all of this to be critical of the Super Bowl, but to note that this is what our society values. We value size, strength, and beauty. We value money and power. We value confidence. We enjoy watching people get hurt. And the same can be said about Jesus’ day as well.
Now notice who Jesus claims is blessed. The poor in spirit, the meek, the humble, the persecuted, the peacemakers. I’ve got to assume that when Jesus said this, many people turned around and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
I’m not saying that the NFL is far from the kingdom of God, but it seems clear that the things we as a collective society value would tend to be more in line with the woes than the blessed. It is the poor, the weak, the powerless, the persecuted, and the peacemakers that are closest to the kingdom of heaven because it is those very people who lack the characteristics that our society values who realize their dependence upon God and his grace.
I believe this is good news.
This is good news, no, Good News because though society values strength, beauty, money, power, and confidence, I know that I often find myself on the other end of the spectrum.
Not many of us will know what it feels like to play in a Super Bowl, but we all will know what it feels like to mourn or to be poor in spirit. The Good News is that during those times we can be assured that God is near, God is close, God is by our side.