Today and the following three weeks, we’re going to focus on the Beatitudes, the sayings of Jesus that set the tone for the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew.
First, here’s a little background that any lay person could develop with a close reading of the text and an easy-to-use commentary, for example, William Barclay’s two-volume exploration of Matthew. While it’s obvious in the end of chapter 7 that the crowds ultimately hear Jesus’ teachings, his words are initially intended for his disciples.
After going up the mountain, Jesus sat down to teach, a sign in Jewish rabbinical tradition that something deeply important is about to be spoken. There also are other signs in the Greek text that Jesus was giving more than just an everyday talk; he was opening his heart and mind to his followers.
Before diving in, we also need to consider what it means to say someone is “blessed.” It’s important to remember we’re talking about a state that goes beyond happiness. Happiness is subject to our current condition. Blessedness is rooted in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, and the joy accompanying such blessedness remains with us regardless of our condition.
So, with all that in mind, I have a question for you: Do you want to see what the kingdom of heaven looks like? I’m talking about the kingdom Jesus spoke of repeatedly, the kingdom that is present in this world now and arriving more fully each day. As we work through the Beatitudes the next few weeks, we should begin to see the kingdom more clearly as we examine the faces of its citizens.
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
When the author of Matthew wrote of the “poor,” he used a Greek word that meant absolute poverty. He wanted us to think of having nothing, including no influence in the world, and how such a state would drive us to complete dependency on God.
People who are poor in spirit have this complete dependency regardless of their net worth or the stuff they own. The more we separate ourselves from reliance on the things of this world, the more we understand and experience eternal life with God now.
It’s not that Christ wants us to starve to death to be blessed, or to let others remain in abject poverty to be blessed. But he does want us to have the spirit of one who has abandoned all things. We are then in a place of perfect obedience and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
The Greek word translated as “mourn” truly does mean mourning as if for the dead. When we suffer so, we also should begin to notice that others around us suffer similarly. If we’re sensitive at all, we should begin to notice that no one is exempt.
What Christ hopes is that we begin to mourn over the very presence of sorrow in the world, which of course is rooted in sin. We should regret and repent of our sins deeply, and it also makes sense if we are moved to act in other ways.
It seems to me there are two possible responses to the sorrow and pain of the world. One is to tune it out, to live numbly, feeling as little as possible. When working as a newspaper reporter covering crime, I actually achieved such a numbness for awhile. It’s a survival mechanism, but it’s not a good place to stay.
The other possible response is to seek ways to do your part with the church as Christ’s work overcomes the effects of sin. This may involve participating in what we sometimes call justice ministries, activities that undo some of the brokenness we see around us.
It’s proper to be appalled by sin and its effects and act accordingly. We stop adapting to this world and start demanding this world adapt to the kingdom that is present now.
Blessed Are the Meek
The Greek word we often render as “meek,” praus, can be very hard to translate. Barclay suggests “gentle,” but I’m not sure that really captures the full meaning, either. The Greek word contains notions of a person who has tremendous self-control combined with deep humility.
Moses, described in Numbers 12:3 as “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth,” comes to mind. He was not meek in the sense of being cringing or helpless. He understood his relationship with God and got things done.
The description of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8 is a good example of the call to empty one’s self for the benefit of others, too.
There is one other idea we need to remember as we consider who is described as blessed in this sermon and in coming weeks. Striving to be like the people described won’t get us very far. Tremendous changes can happen in our lives, however, when we open ourselves to God, asking him to make us look more like citizens of the kingdom.
We open ourselves in such a way every time we take up the Bible, pray, participate in communion, worship, or spend time in holy fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. And ultimately, contentment is our reward.