*Post 1 in a 4-post limited series on the Sermon on the Mount*
An icon depicting the Sermon on the Mount.
Three full chapters of the Gospel of Matthew constitute the longest teaching of Jesus in the Scriptures. From the start of chapter 5 to the end of chapter 7 in Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Three chapters is a mighty long sermon, which is why scholars are in agreement that it’s not one single, continuous sermon, but rather a collection, a sort of omnibus of all that Jesus taught the people. Nobody would’ve been able to stay awake for the whole thing! Most Episcopalians are ready walk out if a sermon starts to creep, toward 15 minutes, after all! With that in mind, our Revised Common Lectionary breaks the Sermon on the mount up in these final Sundays leading up to Lent. As such, these blog posts will also be broken up over the course of four weeks. Yes, an actual blog series by an Episcopal prist, if you can believe that! You'd think I've turned Methodist!
Matthew’s Gospel is often called “the Teaching Gospel.” In it Jesus is grounded in his role as rabbi, even more so than the other Gospels, and he is constantly teaching the people—either by calling them back to what the prophets and Moses had said before, or by giving them a new interpretation, as we'll see later in on. As he goes up the mount we find Jesus taking his position for the “sermon," and it's not a pulpit, rather it’s a seat. Rabbis and philosophers and all other kinds of ancient teachers sat down whenever they were about to offer something important. So when Jesus sits, we know he means business and that we should pay attention.
Because it is the "Teaching Gospel," and because Jesus really embodies the role of rabbi—the Jewish teacher—it is no coincidence that Jesus goes up on a mountainside to teach and preach. If it looks or sounds familiar it’s because it’s meant to invoke Moses going up on Mount Sinai to give the Law to the Israelites. Just as Moses took his place on the mountain and spoke to the people about their relationship with God and one another, so does Jesus. Rather than give the people a set of commandments, however, Jesus gives them 10 messages that define what blessedness looks like. We call these sayings the Beatitudes, meaning "supreme blessedness."
So here we have Jesus the rabbi teaching and preaching blessedness to a huge crowd, which might have featured a handful of wealthy folks or Temple officials, but for the most part it was a crowd made up of poor folks. These were the least of these, the ones on the margins. They were women and men whom society wanted to forget. They were the sick, the prisoners, and others who were considered notorious sinners. All of them were desperately wanting to hear a piece of Good News from Jesus. And this is what he gave them:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit. That is, those of you whose faith has been shattered. Those who question your faith or who have had your faith ridiculed. Those who long to know God but don’t even know how to begin. Yours is the kingdom of God.
- Blessed are those who mourn, those who know what it is like to lose, those who know sorrow and pain. You will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek. In our lexicon meekness is associated with gentleness or passivity, but that’s not what is meant here. Rather, the Greek that is used is meant to invoke humility and the ability to keep one's emotions in-check. Jesus is saying blessed are those who check their egos at the door and do not give in to the “futility of unyielding anger” as Preston Epps put it. You will inherit the earth with your meekness, which is an attack on those in authority who have used their military might, manipulative personalities, and political prestige to gain power.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We may not know what it REALLY means to be hungry, but folks in Jesus’ crowds sure did, and heaven knows there are plenty of folks now who still do. Too many folks are comfortable with what they have, so they don’t bother fighting for the righteousness of others. It’s what Robert Louis Stephenson called “the malady of not wanting.” Blessed, then, are those who yearn for righteousness, justice, and equality—not just for themselves but for others—and who do so with the same ferocity as one who longs for even a morsel of bread to satisfy the hunger. Those folks who have that kind of desire and work for God’s righteousness with that kind of abandon will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. If you want to get mercy, you have to show it. If you want to be forgiven, you have to forgive. If you want to be respected, you have to show respect. It's about being empathetic and actually attempting to reach out to someone else, to try and understand their motivations and hear their story. Having this sense of empathy is the only way we can every truly live and work with others. But if we want to get it, we have to first be willing to step out and give it.
- Blessed are the pure in heart; that is, those whose motivations are unmixed, clear, and undivided by agenda. Why do you do what you do? Is it for personal gain? Is it for some kind of praise? Blessed, Jesus says, are those of you who speak up for others or do some kind of good, not because they're gonna get something in return, but because it’s simply the right thing to do. Blessed are those whose motivations are clear. We preachers are not immune to this, either. The English preacher John Bunyan once gave a sermon after which someone said, “You did a great job!” and he responded, “Yes I know. The devil told me so as I walked down the pulpit steps!” Those with pure intensions will see God, Jesus says.
- Blessed are the peacemakers. Notice Jesus doesn't say “peacelovers.” It’s not enough to just want peace, you gotta do something about it. It’s not a passive act! Jesus certainly wasn’t passive, look at the cleansing of the Temple. He did something about it. Many folks say they love peace, that they want peace, but they don't do anything about it; they are just refusing to face a situation and take action because they're afraid of what might happen if they stepped out. Being a peacemaker isn't about singing Kumbaya around a campfire. Peace does not come from the evasion of issues but from facing them, dealing with them, and conquering them. In our own day we need to be reminded of that. Making peace is not about accepting things because we are afraid of the trouble of doing something, but making peace is about actively facing things, even when the way to peace is through struggle.
The next two Beatitudes build off of that:
- Blessed are those who are persecuted, who have understood that the path to peace often results in struggle.
- Blessed are any of you when people revile you, those of you who have lost family, friends, or jobs because you dared to seek God’s righteousness and be a peacemaker. We could also say that blessed are the members of the Church (with a capital C) who know such persecutions. Those persecutions are inevitable because the Church, when she really is the Church, is bound to be the conscience of a society. Where there is good, the Church should praise, and when there is evil, the Church should decry. Inevitably, there will be folks who will try to silence the troublesome voice of conscience, but the Church must never let that fear of persecution hold her back from doing with is right.
- Finally, he wraps it all up by telling the people around him to rejoice and be glad. Rejoice and be glad when all of these things occur. Let’s be honest, folks, this makes little sense. How many of us would rejoice at being poor? At being in mourning? At being hungry? At being persecuted for doing what was right? Yet all of this, Jesus says, is the path to supreme blessedness, to the kingdom of God.
Why are the Beatitudes the path to supreme blessedness? Because Jesus experienced all of them. Moreover, God experienced all of them! For us, then, to experience them, for us to model our lives on them, means that we are modeling our lives on Christ himself, on the path that God walked on this earth. Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness for all God’s people, especially those on the margins. Jesus was persecuted, obviously. And yes, even Jesus had his moments of being poor in spirit, like when he cried in agony in the garden or asked God why he had been forsaken on the cross. Jesus’ life is reflected in the Beatitudes, which is why I don’t think it’s a stretch to say they are his greatest teaching, and our greatest heritage as Christians, because if we want to know how to live like Christ, we needn’t look anywhere else but to the Beatiotudes.
For decades now there have been debates over whether to post the 10 Commandments in public spheres. They are the foundation of our society, folks say; after all, we are a country of overwhelmingly Christian peoples. I would like to offer a counter proposal: let’s publish the Beatitudes instead. The 10 were the foundation of the Law for the people of Israel. We are not the people of Israel. We are the people of Christ. The 10 were given as part of the Law to a people who didn't know who they were. We know who we are because we belong to Christ, who himself is the fulfillment of the Law, as we will hear him tell us later in the Sermon on the Mount. If that is the case, then it is the Beatitudes, not the 10 Commandments, that should be at the foundation of our faith. I wonder, then, what would our society look like if we actually practiced them? Maybe then we would me more merciful and truly strive for justice for people on the margins. Maybe then we would be quicker to call out the evils of society and actually do the hard work necessary to make true and lasting peace. Maybe then we really would be a Christian society. The Beatitudes ruffle the feathers of our modern sensibilities, but that’s why they are so important. They remind us that blessedness does not come in getting the things we hope for, or in property, power, or prestige. Instead, blessedness comes in the emptying of ourselves--kenosis--that results in a deeper relationship with Christ and one another. It's hard. Many of us say that we believe the Beatitudes but our actions often say otherwise. This is called "functional atheism," and it is a modern-day heresy. But if we could actually embrace the Beatitudes, then this world will look more like the Kingdom of God.
Ponder the Beatitudes. Tattoo them on your heart. Write them down and put them on your fridge or in your wallet. Do so and you will know supreme blessedness that you've never known before! May you be blessed, brothers and sisters.