Over the next few weeks (with the exception of Palm Sunday and Easter) we are going to find out what the Sermon of the Mount says and what it means. The first part we will be discussing is the Beatitudes.
A beatitude is a “blessing” statement, where we are pronouncing God’s blessing on people. They are found all through the Scriptures. It is a statement that God is on someone’s side.
Scholars who study beatitudes say that they fall into two groups. The first group describes the blessing of people who are blessed because of what they have done or perceived. Psalm 1 for example, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.” In this case we are blessed, because we aren’t among the wicked. It also describes the blessing of those who work hard, live clean, and prosper because of it. It’s easy to see why a person who eats healthy and exercises an hour a day will be blessed with good health. We say that if we tithe, go to church, or get baptized, then God will bless us
The second group of beatitudes describes people who are blessed in spite of what they have done or how they are perceived. In these statements what comes after the blessed doesn’t cause the blessing, but just the opposite. It is ordinarily something that means we are not blessed. When Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us, He does not mean we bless people because they curse us, but in spite of the way they treat us. When God says, “Blessed is the man whose transgression is covered.” He doesn’t mean we should go out and commit some whopping big sin, so we can be blessed. A person who sins against God doesn’t deserve a blessing, but we should bless them anyway. Neither is a person who is sick “blessed,” because of sickness. The blessing of God is in spite of our condition, not because of it. It is rather in spite of our sins that God blesses us as an act of grace.
So, which kind of blessing are the Beatitudes? Are the poor blessed because of their poverty, or in spite of it? Does being poor, bereaved, or persecuted make us blessed?
Consider the people who were hearing Jesus on that day. They were a crowd who knew how unblessed they were. If they didn’t, then their rabbis would have informed them. Most rabbis of the day believed in a form of the “prosperity” gospel. If you had money and health, then it was because you did something to deserve it. If you were poor or sick, then you must have sinned. Since most people were poor and sick, they believed that God was against them. They had to endure the self-satisfied smugness of the elite, who were assured of their own righteousness, because they were blessed. Their smugness was like salt poured into the wounds of the poor and downcast. It still is, for the have-nots who live in the presence of the haves. There is no way these people could have seen themselves as blessed. But now the Kingdom of God had come and things were going to be different.
Now the people who were not blessed would have something that the others didn’t. They would have the Kingdom, and the Kingdom was going to be different and better than anything the rich ever had.
Most interpreters of the beatitudes infer that there is some connection between the things mentioned and the blessing of God. But the blessing of God isn’t because we are poor or meek, or mourning but in spite of it.
Some people teach, that being poor is somehow a blessing. If we can’t be poor, then we need to be poor “in spirit.” But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean we ought to think we are poor, even if we aren’t? But if you’ve ever been poor, you know that’s nonsense. There is nothing blessed about being homeless, or not having money to eat or pay your bills. As far as the “In spirit” part that Matthew includes, which some confuse with humility disappears when we look at Luke 6, where Jesus just says “poor”. Poverty is a wretched state—it isn’t a blessing. Those who try to convince you that somehow poverty itself is a blessing have in all likelihood never had to endure it.
I worked as a volunteer in an emergency assistance center interviewing people who needed help with food and rent. On the first day, I met an elderly woman who had worked hard all her life. Her husband had died and her social security was not enough to support her. According to the laws of the state, she was allotted only sixteen dollars a month in food stamps. It broke her heart to even ask for help, and it broke my heart, too. We cried together, I’ll never forget the hurt pride of that woman--the utter despair on her face to come begging for food. There was nothing “blessed” about that.
But who is to say who suffers most--a person who is poor through poverty, or a rich person who suffers from addiction, depression, or mental illness?
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Have you ever lost a loved one? Did you enjoy it? I don’t think so! It would be cruel to say that we have to go around emulating people who have lost their parents or their spouses so that God will comfort us!
In Jesus’ day, the life expectancy was around thirty-five years of age. Most of that was due to an infant mortality rate close to fifty percent. Half of all women died in childbirth. If you lived past birth, sixty was considered a ripe old age. Grief and mourning was an almost constant state in that society. The prayer, “If I die before I wake” was a serious prayer, even for young children. It was made worse by a religious community which taught that death in childhood was a curse on the parents.
“Blessed are the meek.” Don’t confuse this with the spiritual virtue of humility. He was talking about those who were low on the socio-economic scale. If you were a peasant, or if you not a Roman citizen, you had no protection under the law.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” We could read this as saying that this is a blessing, because instead of a blessing in spite of, but I don’t think so. Being a peacemaker is dangerous—when you try it, both sides shoot at you! There is a reason that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Being a peacemaker means that people on both sides hate you.
“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Have you ever known the difficulty of trying to be pure in heart? The Pharisees tried to be pure in heart, but they failed miserably. When a person tries to be holier than the people around them, they are ridiculed, reviled, and held up as “holy Joes” “hypocrites” or “holier than thou”. There is no one more unpopular in any group than people who want to stay pure when everyone else is sullying themselves with sin. It doesn’t matter whether or not they really are doing this, it is the perception that is so painful. It doesn’t even matter whether or not they are right in the way they are doing it. Can you imagine how hard it is for a devout Muslim woman to wear a hijab, when all her Christian neighbors think she is a terrorist for doing it? It’s a hard life.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst.” Which person hungers and thirsts for righteousness more—a saint or a sinner? When we really mess up, it’s like being thrown into a cesspool of regret. Don’t tell me it’s a blessing to be there—it’s not. Self-proclaimed saints don’t hunger for righteousness.
Prostitutes, drug addicts, and alcoholics do. “Good” people think they know what it is like to be sinners, but we really have no idea! But even if we are so sanctified that we agonize inside every time we miss church, we are pitiful people. It is no blessing to be so obsessed with our own sins that we can’t get over them.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted.” I cannot imagine how many Christians would keep their faith if being a Christian meant losing the freedom or the right to keep their families. Many would fall away. Those who are persecuted are certainly not happy. Right now, there is a missionary named Andrew Brunson, sitting in a Turkish prison with twenty Muslims awaiting trial on a trumped-up charge, when his only crime is being a Christian missionary. Just one country away in northern Iraq Christians are being decapitated and crucified. I would hardly call them blessed, though.
The conditions of life are not what causes us to be blessed or not blessed, but our participation in the Kingdom is. Jesus does not raise the question of how we got into our present state of misery, but he promises that the Kingdom of God can be ours, even when we are suffering. This is the opposite of the Pharisees, who claimed that contentment, popularity and financial ease are a sign of God’s blessings, and that those who have them are in God’s favor. Such people are living in the kingdom of men, not the kingdom of God. Wherever you are in life, whatever you are going though, you can find help, when you enter the kingdom of God. When you enter the Kingdom by making Jesus your ruler, you will find a whole new way of living that doesn’t depend on what you had before. The kingdom of God can be yours.
Rich people already think they have the kingdom. They feel great! Poor people think they have been denied the kingdom, because they don’t have what rich men have, so they try to take it from the rich. But Jesus says it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. This is a new world order, not a continuation of the old one.
It isn’t where we come from, that causes God to bless us, but where we are going. It isn’t the place where we now live that makes us blessed or not blessed. It is the place of Christ in our hearts. The kingdom of God has come to establish God’s peace in our hearts, despite our current circumstances.
If Jesus were speaking to us today, He might not talk in the same categories. He may say “Blessed are the fat, because in the Kingdom, they will have their appetites satisfied.” “Blessed are the divorced, because in the Kingdom, they will have their loneliness met.” “Blessed are the addicted, because in the Kingdom, they can find freedom from addiction.” “Blessed are the outlaws, because they can find their way back to being law-abiding.” “Blessed are the refugees and the homeless, because they can find a home in Christ.”
Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God. It is His kingdom to offer. Peace will not come until we are inside the Kingdom. Without obedience to the Lord, none of the blessings of the Kingdom is ours. But when we make Jesus our Lord, He will give us a life that will keep blessing us, no matter what.