“The Beatitudes” on Matthew 5:1-12 by Joe Ellis – Sept. 18, 2022
If you’re joining us for the first time this Sunday, we are beginning a walk through of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” This is the title given to one of Jesus’ most famous collection of sayings found in chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew.
For the past few weeks we’ve been looking at the events that happened right before Jesus preached his famous sermon. The reason we did so, was because those stories help us understand what the people listening to Jesus would have been expecting him to say. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ answer to many of their questions.
This is the background to the questions the people would have been asking as they followed him up the mountain. The Jews in Jesus’ day believed that they were in Exile for their sins. That means that they believed that they were being punished by God for the sins of their ancestors. The proof was that the person ruling their land wasn’t Jewish. Caesar ruled over them, and he ruled them in a way that was utterly opposed to God’s rule. The Jews ached for the day when they would be freed from that humiliation. They ached for the day when their enemies, the foreign rulers, would finally be crushed. They longed for the day when God would forgive the nation their sins — proof of that forgiveness would be when God finally restored the land to Israel. The Jews had expectations of what that would look like: God’s King would show up — He was called the Messiah. He would lead the people into battle and they would vanquish Rome. The Messiah would restore holiness to the land and God Himself would then return the people of Israel to that land. Thereafter, they would live under God’s perfect rule forever and ever. The shorthand way of talking about that sort of hope is ‘the New Exodus.’
The stories you read in the beginning of Matthew set the stage for that sort of thing to happen, and it would happen really soon. At least that’s what John the Baptist was telling everyone when he said, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is coming.” That’s why John was baptizing people in the Jordan River — he was inviting people to play-act the first Exodus, when the Israelites crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. John is saying, "People get ready for the next chapter in this story. Our story is about to reach its climax! The person who comes after me is more powerful than me. He’s the one we’ve been waiting for.” Then Jesus arrives on the scene. He wades into the water to receive John’s baptism. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open, the Spirit comes upon Him, and a voice comes out from heaven saying, “This my Son, my beloved one. I am delighted with Him.” Now things are getting more serious. It's not just playacting. The heavenly voice is a powerful confirmation that God’s Son has arrived. The title “God’s Son,” is code for the Messiah. The long awaited for King has arrived. Those who heard John and the heavenly voice are now watching Jesus very closely. They see Him healing people, casting out demons, and preaching the same sermon as John: “Repent, The Kingdom of Heaven is Arriving.”
How would you feel if you knew a revolution was about to begin? Would you join the large crowds and follow Jesus up the mountainside, wondering what he’s going to say, what sort of speech he’ll give to inaugurate the coming Kingdom of God? Jesus knew exactly the sort of expectations people had following Him up that mountain. The crowds may have been a strange mixture of people, those hurting and in need of healing, and people ready to march in God’s army. They were waiting for the Messiah to say the word and they’d march against Rome and reclaim the land.
We can forget this when we listen to Jesus’ teaching. Often we can imagine that when Jesus speaks, he’s sort of floating in space, nowhere in particular, detached from any real historical context, speaking to the universal church. Of course, His words apply to us, but we need to hear Him through the ears of the people He was speaking to on that mountainside. Those were people who had very specific questions and were expecting very specific answers. They wanted to know about His plan for bringing about the Kingdom.
With that we can began talking about the passage we heard today, the Beatitudes. You’ll notice that when I recited the Beatitudes I didn’t use the Word ‘blessed.’ That’s the way most translations translate the Greek Word — the Makarios. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted,” etc. I used “Good on those who are poor in spirit.”
‘Blessed’ is not the primary meaning of that word. Jesus isn’t primarily saying that God will bless you if you are poor in Spirit, or if you mourn, have a pure heart, and are a peacemaker. Although it probably is true that God will bless such people, that’s not what Jesus is saying to those who are listening. The word Makarios has a different sense. Jesus is more saying, “these are the type of people who will flourish in God’s Kingdom.”
Peacemakers will flourish in God’s Kingdom. The pure in heart will flourish in God’s Kingdom. The persecuted will flourish in God’s Kingdom. In other words, Jesus is saying if you want to thrive in the Kingdom of God, these are the ways you go about it — be a peacemaker, mourn for the way things are, purify your heart. Live in these ways, and you will thrive in the Kingdom.
Now, this is significant. Remember, those who followed Jesus up the mountain had their own ideas about what living for God’s Kingdom looks like. If asked, they might have had their own set of Beatitudes. They might have said, “Good on those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice — God will give them victory. Good on those whose battle cry is ‘For God and His Kingdom,’ they will inherit the land. Good on those who run their sword through God’s enemies, they will be called God’s children. Good on those who refuse mercy to their vanquished foe, they will execute God’s justice. Good on those who march in God’s army, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to you.”
Jesus words are quite different. You can almost hear the minds of those listening grinding to a halt. This is not what they anticipated! It's not those who take up weapons who will be called God’s children; no, it’s those who are peacemakers. It's not those who refuse mercy that will thrive in God’s Kingdom; no, it’s the merciful. It's not those who take up arms against Caesar who will inherit the land; no, it’s the meek, the ones who will turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It’s not those who march in God’s army that the Kingdom belongs to; no, it’s those who are persecuted because of their commitment to God’s way.
Jesus’ voice rang out, saying, “If you want to thrive in God’s Kingdom, if you want to flourish in God’s Kingdom, this is how you must live. Be poor in Spirit. Mourn for the state of the world’s affairs. Be meek. Hunger and thirst for God’s justice. If you want to thrive in God’s Kingdom, be merciful, pure of heart, and a peacemaker. If you want to thrive in God’s Kingdom, renounce the sword and embrace the cross, be prepared to undergo persecution because of your commitment to God’s way.”
I imagine the silence after Jesus said these words was quite deafening. It was not at all what they were expecting. Perhaps some were on the verge of saying, “You’ve got this totally backwards. Don’t you know how the real world works? If you want to regain the Kingdom, you can’t be meek! You can’t be merciful! You don’t reclaim the Kingdom through being peacemakers! Weapons and wrath are what we need!”
Now is a good time to pause and recognize that the Jews weren’t the only ones who feel a tension with Jesus’ teaching in what we might call ‘the real world,’ or with what we want to see happen in ‘the real world.’ God calls us to live for His Kingdom, but he doesn’t always call us to leave the other tiny little kingdoms we are apart of. I’m thinking of smaller communities that we’re apart of like church, school, family, the places we work, our country, our town, our political affiliation, and the places we play. The list goes on. As you think about these tiny kingdoms, start thinking about the Beatitudes that work for them that might be in tension with God’s Kingdom. Remember, in the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying, “You’ll thrive if you do this. Good on you if you do that. This is the way to the good life in the Kingdom.”
Every group we’re apart of has these sorts of ‘Beatitudes.’ ‘Beatitudes for school’ might look like this: “Good on the attractive and athletic, they will be popular,” and “Good on people who study and get good grades, they’ll get into a good college,” or “Good on those who work Instagram, they won’t be forgotten.”
At work, it might be, “Good on those who show up early and stay late, they will get ahead," and “Good on those who can see the quick profit, they will get a good return."
At home maybe it’s, “Good on those who finish their dinner, they will get dessert.” Or maybe “Good on those who don’t tell their family secrets, they won’t be ostracized." Or “Good on those who don’t rock the boat, you’ll be accepted."
Of course, what it means to thrive in those places does actually have some overlap with how Jesus tells us to flourish in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the Kingdom way of living that Jesus talks about does bring about thriving in the places we live, work and play. In family, work and school, it is often good to be a peacemaker. Doing so can often bring about a joyful harmony. But then again, there can often be tension between the way of life that Jesus calls for and what it takes to flourish in ‘the real world.’ Sometimes what it looks like to thrive in ‘the real world’ seems the polar opposite to what it look like to thrive in the Kingdom. After all, keeping your mouth shut and compromising might look like the best way to thrive in ‘the real world,’ but Jesus says thriving in His Kingdom might look like loving your enemy and praying for people who persecute you. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us how to flourish in God’s Kingdom — that does not always mean thriving in ‘the real world.’
Let’s talk for a moment when we use language about “heaven” and “God’s Kingdom”, and contrast it with ‘the real world.’ As I mentioned, the Jews were expecting that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive in 'the real world' with the overthrow of Rome, they could reclaim the land, and they’d have a Jewish King on the throne. Jesus had a different vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, but we’ve lost touch with how that vision connects to the real world.
There’s a story that when the first human, a Russian Astronaut, went into space, he said, “I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” We laugh, recognizing that God and heaven are in an altogether different dimension. But many of us do see heaven and earth as basically separate, non-overlapping places. We can think, “Heaven and ‘the real world’ don’t really overlap. Earth is earth and heaven is where we go when we die.” That’s not the picture the Bible paints. Biblically, heaven is God’s domain, but this heaven overlaps, interlocks and interpenetrates Earth through and through— we just don’t have the eyes to see.
There is an old story in the Bible when one of Israel’s kings was under attack. The king was terrified, but Elisha the prophet prayed: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that the king may see. Then the Lord opened the king’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” That king got a glimpse into the heavenly realm. Most of the time we can’t see the way that God’s kingdom is powerfully present in this world — but it is present more powerfully than we can imagine. God’s Kingdom overlaps, interlocks and penetrates the land, no matter how things feel in ‘the real world.’
This means that we are challenged to trust and believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is always powerfully present all around us. The Kingdom of Heaven is a deeper reality than the ground beneath our feet. The reality of the Kingdom is unstoppable. The powers in this world are nothing against the power of the Kingdom. God is not simply hoping that we will make the best of it in ‘the real world’ and finally escape to the Kingdom Heaven when we die. No, through the teachings of Jesus, God is transforming us into emissaries of the Kingdom. Through us and through His Power, He is transforming ‘the real world’ into the Kingdom of heaven. That’s why we pray, “Your Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.” We join in. We practice living the way Jesus taught us with the belief that as we do so, God’s Kingdom will take shape in ‘the real world.’ God’s people thrive in that world. The way we live here and now becomes a forecast of the great and beautiful day when Jesus returns and the Kingdom of Heaven totally and completely transforms the world itself. The ‘real world’ and the Kingdom of Heaven will be one. Until then, as we live for God’s Kingdom, we transforming 'the real world' into His Kingdom.
This can be hard. Sometimes, perhaps often, the way Jesus tells us to flourish in the Kingdom seem totally at odds with how to flourish in ‘the real world.’ The challenge of Jesus is to make our top priority God’s Kingdom and His way of life. Even when it hurts. Even when it costs us. Even when it doesn’t make sense. God tells us that as we trust His way of flourishing, God will take care of us. He will look after us. But this calls for trust, because sometimes we might be flourishing in God’s Kingdom, but those same choices result in floundering at school, or work, or church, or home, or town, or country. As we practice living in the Kingdom, even when it hurts, we will see that flourishing in God’s Kingdom is more beautiful, true and good than what any other kingdom has to offer. That’s why Jesus says “Good on you,” when we practice living in these ways — they are the way to true flourishing.
So, let’s close with hearing them one more time:
Flourishing are the poor in Spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is yours.
Flourishing are the mourners; you will be comforted.
Flourishing are the meek; you will inherit the land.
Flourishing are people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice; you will be satisfied.
Flourishing are the merciful; you’ll receive mercy yourselves.
Flourishing are the pure in heart; you will see God
Flourishing are the peacemakers; you’ll be called God’s children.
Flourishing are people who are persecuted because of God’s way; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to you.