11-11-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes - Part 1
The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The similarly named but theologically different “Sermon on the Plain” is found in the Gospel of Luke. Both are believed by scholars to reflect not so much a specific event in the ministry of Jesus, although that is certainly possible, but a representation or composite rendering of the type and style of teaching that Jesus most often used. We’ll be looking at Matthew’s account over the next three Sundays.
And in the way of a reminder and to put this passage into the proper context, Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus that traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. Following that segment is the beloved story of Jesus’ birth that includes the magi (it is Luke that includes the shepherds), followed by the family’s harrowing escape to and return from Egypt, the story of the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ subsequent baptism by John, Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, and finally the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is then that Jesus calls his disciples and immediately begins healing people.
All of what I just laid out for you takes place in the first four chapters of the gospel. The very next thing that occurs, then, is what is called the Sermon on the Mount.
Because Matthew wants us to think of Jesus as the new Moses, he frames his telling of this and other stories in such a way that they reflect images of the Exodus stories of Moses and the Israelites. Just as the Israelites had spent forty years in the wilderness, Jesus has just come from forty days there.
As Moses went up Mount Sinai to learn from God, so Jesus is goes up a mountain to teach people about God. The Sermon on the Mount is found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, and includes some of Jesus’ most well-known teachings, including what are known as the Beatitudes.
One of the first things we notice about the Beatitudes (the blessings) when we read or hear them read, is that some translations begin with the word “blessed,” while others use the word “happy.” While we typically use the Common English Bible, which uses “happy,” in our worship scriptures for this message I chose the NRSV because it uses the word “blessed,” and here’s why. The word translated as either “happy” or “blessed,” is in Latin, beati, or from the Greek in which the New Testament was written, makarios. In our modern society we think of the word “happy” as being an emotion, perhaps similar to joy, and thought of as being opposite to “sad.” We sing “Happy Birthday,” not “Blessed Birthday” to someone celebrating another trip around the sun. Things or events make us happy: receiving good news, seeing someone we haven’t seen in a while, grandkids, a favorite meal, getting out of church early! But “blessed” suggests a meaning that goes beyond mere emotion. It’s about God’s favor towards certain types of people that is better expressed, I believe, by the word “blessed” rather than “happy.”
Now, every culture has its own definition or idea of what success is or what it means to be successful. In Jesus’ time, it would probably include freedom from domineering rulers, oppressive tax collectors, and capricious soldiers. It might well include the respect that comes from savvy negotiating skills in the marketplace. It would also probably, then and now, include the ability to provide for one’s family, their health and prosperity.
Likewise, every culture promotes some vision of what happiness looks like that would look very similar to how we described success. In addition, our society has long promoted the goals of accumulating wealth and amassing power. Individual freedom is high on the list, as is the respect of one’s friends, neighbors and colleagues. Popularity, recognition, and prestige are also considered worthwhile pursuits. And we find this across our culture. The political debates and commercials that have, thankfully, ended for a brief time, assume that disparagement, insult, and condescension are appropriate tools to use in the pursuit of happiness -especially if happiness is defined as acquiring power, prestige, or position. Reality television runs on the premise that everyone wants to have his or her fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol famousle put it.
Men’s magazines promote virility, ambition, and the need for rock-hard abs; women’s magazines promote an idea of perfect beauty and ideal relationships - and rock-hard abs; trade magazines promote financial success; sports magazines - strategies to win.
And because that is what we see and hear 24/7 in the world today, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of things that either bring happiness or represent the signs of God’s blessedness, is jarring to us.
There are eight beatitudes given in Matthew and today we’ll look at the first three:
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.
Theologian Christine Chakoian points out the contrast we find between what our culture tells us and what Jesus tells us, writing,
- “Our culture says, Happy are those with great prospects for marriage, and work, [and make money, and save for retirement,] because they will be successful.
- Jesus says, Happy, or blessed, are the destitute, the poor, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
- “Our culture says, Happy are those whose loved ones enjoy good health, because they will not worry.
- But Jesus says, Happy or blessed are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
- “And our culture says, Happy are those who enjoy power, because they will be in charge.
- “But Jesus says, Happy, or blessed, are people who are humble, the meek, because they will inherit the earth.
So we see that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposes a definition of happiness, or blessedness, that is wildly different from anything we’re accustomed to hearing. Our culture, and cultures the world over to be frank, hold that happiness, true happiness, is found in things, in material goods, or in the acquisition of power, prestige and popularity. To be happy, they suggest, you must own this device, wear these clothes, drink this soft drink, drive that make of car, live in this up and coming neighborhood, be on that social media platform, have X number of friends, likes, retweets, or whatever. And it’s all so flighty, so conditional, so temporary, so artificial.
- Is it any wonder that so many people are so unhappy?
- Is it any wonder that more and more people are in debt up to their eyeballs?
- Is it any wonder that so many people turn to opioids, alcohol, sex, gambling, or something else to escape?
- Is it any wonder that so many people are dying at the hands of men with guns suffering from PTSD or mental illness, or have otherwise come to feel like social outcasts?
In saying that, Blessed are the Poor in spirit (or just the poor), Jesus isn’t glamorizing poverty. “But,” as James Howell points out, “the spiritual advantage, the humility, the empty, available space, the lack of stuff to cling to, the absence of false buttresses to your self-worth” are worth being explored.
Similarly, Jim Forest said, “Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be.” And Gustavo Gutiérrez suggests that “knowing our impoverishment, our brokenness, is the opening to life from God,” what he calls a “spiritual childhood.”
Father Richard Rohr calls the Sermon on the Mount “the very blueprint for Christian lifestyle,” and most scholars see it as the best summary of Jesus’ teaching.
But Rohr says “we can’t understand this wisdom with the rational, dualistic mind; in fact, we will largely misunderstand it while thinking that we got it on the first try. …Jesus taught an alternative wisdom—the Reign of God—which overturns the conventional and common trust in power, possessions, and personal prestige. To understand the Sermon on the Mount, we must approach it with an open heart and a beginner’s mind, ready to have these normal cultural beliefs and preferences changed. Most people were never told this and tried to fit the Gospel into their existing cultural agenda or point of view.
And Rohr points out that Jesus’ opening line… is [the] key to everything that follows: How blessed (or “happy”) are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:3
“Poor in spirit,” he writes, “means an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner’s mind, and to live without a need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is the ‘powerlessness’ suggested in Alcoholics Anonymous’ First Step. The Greek word Matthew uses for ‘poor’ is ptochoi, which literally means, ‘the very empty ones, those who are crouching.’ They are the bent-over beggars, the little nobodies of this world who have nothing left, who aren’t self-preoccupied or full of themselves in any way. Jesus is saying: ‘Happy are you, [you are blessed, because] you are the freest of all.”
And in making this point Rohr is suggesting that “the higher and more visible you are in any system, the more trapped you are inside it. The freest position is the one [he] call[s] ‘on the edge of the inside’—neither a ‘company man’ nor a rebel…. The price of both holding power and speaking truth to power can be very great. You ricochet between being offensive and being defensive, neither of which is a…solid position. Further, you’re forced to either defend and maintain the status quo to protect yourself and the group or to waste time reacting against it.”
“The ‘poor in spirit’ don’t have to play these competitive games; they’re not preoccupied with winning, which is the primary philosophy in the U.S. today. Jesus is recommending a [radical] social reordering, quite different from common practice. Notice also how he uses present tense: ‘the Kingdom of God is theirs.’ He doesn’t say ‘will be theirs.’ That tells us that God’s Reign isn’t later; it’s now. It’s not something we have to wait for in some “sweet by and by,” but can experience now if we open ourselves to it. You are only free,” Rohr suggests, “when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend. But as Eknath Easwaran suggests, “the joy we experience in these moments of [freedom], or self-forgetting is our true nature, our native state. To regain it, we have simply to empty ourselves of what hides this joy: that is, to stop dwelling on ourselves, [our image, our possessions, our pride, our power, our position].” As we forget [this] false, floating self, we rediscover our [true] and anchored self—which is not very needy at all.”
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
In Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Lament for a Son, he reflects on the death of his 23-year-old son with immense heart and wisdom. Over time, his grief lightened a little, but he writes, “…it has not disappeared” (and never will).
That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved… Every lament is a love-song.”
In writing about this second Beatitude, Richard Rohr says, “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it. That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom. The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…” But he goes on, “Tears are therapeutic and healing, both emotionally and physically. Crying helps the body shed stress hormones and stimulates endorphins. Weeping is a natural and essential part of being human.
The Early Church diverged on this idea though. The Western Church tended to filter the Gospel through the head; the theology of the Eastern Church was much more localized in the body. They actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church, one saint going so far as to say until you’ve cried you don’t know God.
Rohr writes, “Most of us think we know God—and ourselves—through ideas. Yet [physical], embodied theology acknowledges that perhaps weeping will allow us to know God much better than ideas. In this Beatitude, Jesus praises those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to remove or isolate themselves from its suffering. Jesus describes those who grieve as feeling the pain of the world. Weeping over our sin and the sin of the world is an entirely different response than self-hatred or the judgment or hatred of others. Grief allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in. Tears from God are always for everyone, for our universal exile from home. ‘It is Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted’ as Jeremiah 31:15 evokes.
Yet in our society tears seem insufficient, even a sign of weakness, and certainly present a stumbling block to some men; crying will make us look vulnerable. So many men hold back tears. Is it [any] wonder men don’t live as long as women, on average? Perhaps we need to teach and remind ourselves how to cry well, because in our culture today, we’ve banished tears and heartfelt grief to the trash bin, and replaced it with the cry emoji.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
Try putting “meekness” on you resume and see how far that gets you in the world today. We hear “meek” and equate it with “weak,” or we think “mild,” or “mousey,” or “shy.” Meekness is rarely, if ever, considered a compliment or an asset is it? It’s not something we typically are encouraged to strive for.
What Jesus means, though, is humility, or being humble. Now, these, too, are not qualities that are promoted broadly in our culture which is all about standing out, making our place, and getting our fair share, because humbleness or humility, is about powerlessness. It is the powerless, the humble, the teachable, the small and unlikely who are blessed by Jesus, because with God blessedness is not about skills and strengths, but vulnerability and brokenness.
And Jesus did more than just tell this story, he lived it out. The Gospels recount story after story of how Jesus spent his time primarily with those who were considered outcasts by the world, and even by the religious system. He taught, ate with, and healed all people, regardless of where they fell in the societal class structure. Jesus forced the people of his day—and us as well—to consider a different story, a different understanding of what was really possible, and to consider that all they had ever known, or could know, might not be all there is. He shocks those who listen to him when he tells them that it is they, the powerless, downcast, outcast, the rejects of the world who will inherit the earth, not the rich and powerful, or the bold and beautiful. The meek, the humble, he declares, are the heirs of all there is.
So in these opening verses of the most famous sermon ever preached, Jesus is saying, for all intents and purposes, forget everything you thought you knew.
He’s saying that black is white, up is down, and in is out. THAT, he says, is what the Reign of God is like.
Those things that are routinely taken for granted, the deep logic by which we often assume the world works is not, in fact, the way of God. Thinking ahead to when Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I tell you this…” Jesus is in effect saying here,
“No. This is not how the world actually works, no matter how things may seem. On the contrary, as God has ordained the deep, emerging order of creation, the truly blessed are ultimately and actually the gentle, the merciful, the poor, the grieving, and those at the bottom of society’s ladder. It appears to be otherwise - I understand - and that is precisely why I am beginning this way, the better to dispel the commonplace illusions, to clarify reality, to declare the dawning Reign of God, and to help us find our bearings as we live into God’s future.”
So, as we continue to explore this earth-shaking first teaching of Jesus, may his words shape our lives, our thoughts, and our actions as we take them into the world with us this week - in practice and in thought. And may Jesus’ words help us to find freedom from those things - the ideologies, the images that hold us captive - that we might find companionship and freedom with God in the humble smallness of a life of embodied faith. Amen.