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. 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 is week four of our five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. We have been looking at how God blesses people at their lowest points, and how God blesses people who don’t push others around. God blesses those who feel deep down inside that this world is not how it ought to be. And God blesses those who act upon their compassion. Next week we will wrap up this series by looking at persecution, and what good Mennonite doesn’t like to talk about persecution?
But today’s beatitudes are not completely foreign to us Mennonites, either. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Throughout this sermon series, I have read a beatitude and asked “What does that even mean?” What does it even mean to be meek? What does it mean to be merciful? To hunger and thirst for righteousness? And now, who are the pure in heart? If it is the pure in heart who get to see God, I guess you can count me out because I’ve got a little bit of a sick sense of humor.
I came across a video the other day on a website called 11foot8.com where a man living near Boston mounted a video camera on the outside of his home and pointed it toward a bridge with low clearance of 11 feet, 8 inches. This bridge is affectionately called “The Can Opener” because people tend to underestimate the height of their vehicles, and in a competition between U-Haul and bridge, the bridge always wins. The man frequently posts video compilations of trucks, campers, and U-Hauls crashing into the overpass, turning them into convertibles. You didn’t know they made convertible U-Hauls, did you? The bridge essentially opens the can. For those who speak a little German, I suffer from a condition known as schadenfreude, which means I get joy out of other people’s failures. I’m not pure in heart.
Throughout the Beatitudes, I find myself waiting on Jesus to give us more, to tell us what this looks like. I’m gearing up, expecting to hear a parable, or another story, or even for Jesus to answer with a question, as he often does. But he doesn’t. Instead, it is like popcorn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. I mean, what a strange way to present a sermon!
But maybe that’s the key to understanding the Beatitudes. We need to remember that this was a part of a sermon. And when you learn how to preach, you learn that there is a very basic structure to most sermons. You tell them what you are going to tell them; you tell them; and then you tell them what you told them. In other words, you give an introduction, you go into more details, and then you summarize your point in the ending. And at least for today’s beatitudes, Jesus seems to do just that. He gives us these beatitudes, he goes on to expound upon them, and then he gives a brief summary.
Jesus tells us that the pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. We have already established that I am not pure in heart. So what does it even mean to be pure of heart? At the end of Matthew 5 we find what is often referred to as the six antitheses. These are the passages that start out with “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Each antitheses names an outward practice and gives some specific instructions from the Hebrew Bible. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not break your oath.
So what does Jesus say about these ancient Hebrew teachings? He doesn’t say that now it is okay to commit adultery and murder. Instead, he makes these teachings more intense. Don’t get angry. Don’t look at a person with lust. What Jesus seems to be saying is that these outward actions, sure, they are important. But what really matters is the root of these actions. You might say that what Jesus is saying is that rather than simply focusing on outward actions, his followers will focus on changing their hearts.
Later in Matthew’s gospel we read about Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees in the form of seven “woes.” The Pharisees are some of the most pious, and outwardly-religious members of the entire Jewish faith. But Jesus compares their actions to washing the outside of a cup or a dish while allowing the inside to mold and collect dust. He says that they are like freshly-painted tombs: they look nice on the outside, but what is inside is just bones and rotting flesh.
Do you think Jesus is interested in how we live, our actions, and how we conduct ourselves? Absolutely. But it must start with a changed heart. This isn’t just about how people perceive us and how we conduct ourselves in polite company. This is a radical way of reorienting our lives. We change from the inside out, not the other way around.
So what about these peacemakers? I think this beatitude will probably benefit more by reading further into the Sermon on the Mount than others. Consider everywhere you have seen or heard this beatitude. I’ve seen it used by law enforcement agents and military personnel. I’ve heard it used by pacifists and people who work in conflict transformation. There is obviously a wide understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. There is even a nickname for the Colt .45 handgun, it’s called a peacemaker.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think that we Mennonites have always got this one just right. We have been the quiet in the land, refusing to participate in war, refusing to fight when someone threatens us. And while I think that is good, I don’t think that is what it means to be a peacemaker. Being a peacemaker requires that we be active, not simply uninvolved in violence. Blessed are the peacemakers, not just the peace keepers.
I know that I have shared this story before, but it still seems very appropriate. I recall a few years back when I was out for a stroll with my young son in the park. Paxton was probably 2 or 3 at the time, so he was walking some and just really starting to pick up on things that were happening in the world around him. We were at the Gypsy Hill Duck Pond, minding our own business, feeding the ducks when I noticed some young women sitting at the next bench down. They were probably high schoolers and they were African American. I noticed that there were some young men talking to these young women, and I thought that there was some casual flirting going on. But I soon realized how wrong I was.
The boys weren’t flirting, they were using racial slurs, saying things like, “You ain’t nothing but an n#$$@%. You’re just a stupid n#$$@%. You ain’t good for nothin’.”
I’m a peacemaker, I know what I should do in such a situation! I should rush in there and tell those boys what’s up. Maybe I could even intimidate them a little bit, I’m a good-sized guy. Even if I didn’t plan to engage them physically, maybe my physicality would cause them to head to the hills!
So what did I do? I pushed the stroller the other way. Maybe I left because I didn’t want my toddler exposed to that kind of hatred. Maybe I left because I didn’t want him to learn those ugly words. I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that I left.
I still look back on that day, which was probably 4 years ago, and see it as one of my greatest failures as a Christian. And I’ve had many. Yes, I did not fight. I did not raise my fist or draw a gun. But was I a peacemaker? Absolutely not. It probably seems obvious to you, but to be a peacemaker means that in those times when there is no peace, you create peace. I did not create peace.
When I think about how I might have handled that one differently, I ask how I might have disarmed those young men with my words and actions. What would Jesus do? The first thing that I would want to do is look at how Jesus expounds upon this beatitude in Matthew 5. And Jesus says in one of those antitheses that I mentioned earlier, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
There is an invitation to do good to those who seek to do bad. And the first thing I need to remember is that those young men didn’t learn those words out of nowhere. They surely inherited racist tendencies from their parents and those around them. Realizing that is a loving thing to do.
What would Jesus do? Jesus often made friends with those who were persecuted. So what if rather than walking away, I pushed that stroller right up to those young women and started talking to them as the boys were calling out their slurs? What if I just said, “Hi, I’m Kevin and this is my son, Paxton. I think I’ve seen you here before. Do you live close by? It sure is a nice day out?” And what if I turned and introduced myself to the young men as well? Notice what I did, I spoke with respect and dignity to the women that they were picking on, and then offered the same respect to the young men. I placed them on the same level, because we are all people created in the image of God and deserve respect and deserve to be loved. That would have been being a peacemaker.
Now notice what the reward is for the peacemakers. Many of these beatitudes come with a promise. The meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. What is the reward for being a peacemaker? The peacemakers will be called children of God. Now this metaphor is used differently in different parts of the Bible, but I want to offer what I have found to be helpful for understanding what it means to be a child of God.
When I look at my children, I see a lot of both me and my wife in them. Not only in their physical appearance, but also in their personalities. Someone recently commented on a picture of our family by saying that our children are a good combination of the two of us. Paxton has my dimples and his mother’s brown eyes. Hadley has her mother’s dark hair and her attitude. But there is no doubt whose children they are. They look like us, they act like us. They are our children.
Jesus says that the peacemakers will be called children of God, and then again in those antitheses, he says those who love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them will be children of their Father in heaven. When you actively seek peace, shalom, the well-being of your community, you look like God. When you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, you look like God. Some of Jesus’s last words on the cross were a prayer for those who were persecuting him, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”
When you are a peacemaker, loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you, you look like God, for you are a child of God. It is my prayer that we can all look a little more like God this week.