A sermon on Matthew 5: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton
As I prepared this week to preach on the beatitudes, the opening teachings of Jesus’s sermon on the mount which we heard in our gospel reading, I was reminded that G.K. Chesterton once said, “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” The ability to just go with the flow is no evidence of life at all, let alone quality of life. But the ability to make progress in the opposite direction to that which the culture around you would naturally and rather mindlessly sweep you, is evidence that you are well and truly alive. Jesus does not call us to be contrary simply for the sake of it, but he certainly wants us to see that it is time to swim out of the main stream and catch the new wave.
Up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, the only quote we have from what Jesus was preaching and teaching is given as a summary of his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now, starting with tonight’s extract, we get three chapters of the content of his teaching. So, if “Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” is the one line summary of his message, what we’ve got now is the beginning of his spelling out of what the turned around life actually looks like. “Here’s how to live now that the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Much of the sermon on the mount is indeed very practical guidance for how Jesus wants us to live and relate to one another, but it begins with this section that we heard tonight, traditionally known as “the beatitudes” from the Latin translation of the word that commences each line. The beatitudes are not so much a set of practical things to do, but a set of attitudes, or a description of a stance towards life and the world around you. And in many ways it would be fair to say that they describe the mindset that makes the rest of the sermon, the practical how-to stuff, possible and imaginable. If the beatitudes describe what you are like, then the action stuff will follow fairly naturally.
What I want to particularly focus on tonight is what role the stance of the beatitudes might play in our contribution to changing the world. If we, as followers of Jesus, are the beginning of a changed world, and we are to be agents of change in the world, how do the beatitudes guide us in the ways and means of living out that mission. And in answering that question, I want to take Jesus as our model for the living of the beatitudes, because he does not teach one thing and do another. There is no hypocrisy or duplicity in Jesus. He is constantly the embodiment and the illustration of his own teaching.
Before I launch into that, though, a quick comment about this word from which we get the Latin translation “beatitude” and usually in English, either “blessed are you” or “happy are you”. The version we heard tonight translated it as “you’ve got it made”, and other similar paraphrases have rendered it as “wonderful news for you” or as “congratulations to you.” The problem with the conventional translation, “blessed are you”, is that it is easy to mishear it as saying that all the named things are blessings in themselves, and when things like being persecuted and slandered are among them, that ends up seeming rather unhealthy and masochistic. Being persecuted is not a blessing. The promise is that those who are persecuted for the sake of what is right will be blessed, not that the persecution is something they should count as a blessing. Some excellent biblical scholars have argued persuasively that we should remember how strongly the culture was built around the ideas of honour and shame, and therefore read this as “How honourable are the poor in Spirit. How honourable are those who mourn. etc.” That approach has the definite advantage of making it clear that this is a set of values and that it describes the attributes or attitudes that are to be most honoured among us as followers of Jesus. So let’s run through the list and touch on what each might be saying to us.
“Blessed are, or how honourable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There is little doubt that Matthew the gospel writer has softened this one for his more middle class readers. Luke’s account has Jesus simply say “blessed are, or how honourable are the poor.” Full stop. But Matthew’s change does more than just soften it. It also helpfully generalises it to an attitude that finds expression in the ways that we go about things. You see, sometimes those who are financially and materially poor are just as invested in trying to gain wealth and use it to impose their will on others as the rich can be, and so “poor in spirit” helps us to hear that merely having nothing is not in itself any great virtue. In the world around us, wealth nearly always creates power, and so the opposite of poor in spirit should perhaps be thought of as “a spirit of wealth and power”. It is no surprise then, that Jesus describes the blessing for those who are poor of spirit as the kingdom of heaven. For outside of the culture of God, kingdoms are inevitably gained through wealth and power. While I do know people who have no money who nevertheless wield power as a weapon, usually in the form of physical intimidation, it is those of us who are wealthier who are particularly prone to having a sense of entitlement, entitlement to being heard and to getting our way. In fact, perhaps the opposite of “poor in spirit” is a “spirit of entitlement.” A friend of mine once witnessed a wealthy and high-profile member of parliament trying to bypass the queues to get his family in to see the Hobbit movie on opening day. Despite his protestations of “don’t you know who I am,” he was sent to the back of the queue by the young woman at the ticket window. Whether she was unusually self-assured, or she just really did have no idea who he was, I don’t know, but his appalling attempt to intimidate her was only a more naked version of the sort of sense of entitlement that many of us are prone to feeling when we are educated and employed and respected and well resourced. We quickly begin to think we can remake the world, or at least our little parts of it, not by depending on what God is doing, but by drawing on and wielding our own resources to make things happen. We’ll bring in a kingdom alright, but if it is built on the strength of our resources and our entitlements, it will be something other than the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Over and over, the people urged him to do what the devil had tempted him to do and become their king in the usual way, and again and again he refused. And when he did ride into Jerusalem with a cheering crowd proclaiming him king, he rode in on a donkey, a clear symbolic proclamation of his rejection of the spirit of wealth and power and his embodiment of the spirit of poverty. “Blessed are, or how honourable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” What is so good about being grief-stricken? Well, let us consider the alternative. Think of one of the times we see Jesus consumed with grief. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) Like many who have striven to turn around a self-destructive people, Jesus is running up against the people’s stubborn refusal to change their ways. And many other leaders have succumbed to bitterness and anger when their quests have similarly failed. They accuse and blame and sometimes even seek to be the agents of punishment on those they had sought to save. Love loses out to resentment and rage. But those who continue to love as Jesus loves are instead brokenhearted and stricken with grief. “Blessed are, or how honourable are those who mourn over the injustice and self-destruction of the world, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” I sometimes wonder whether Jesus put this one in because he realised that when he promised the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit, some people were thinking of the kingdom of heaven as a place that you leave this world to get to, so he reworded poor in spirit as meek and promised them the earth as their inheritance. I’m probably barking up the wrong speculative tree there, but the meekness that Jesus calls us to is not an entirely different idea to what I’ve described poverty of spirit to be. It is not weakness, but it is a strong voluntary stepping aside and allowing others to have first claim. Perhaps where it is something more than being poor in spirit is where the capacity to use force comes in. How often was Jesus in a position to pull rank and force his way on the world, but he does not. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) And of course such a show of power is the way territory is usually taken in this world, but that is not the Jesus way of bringing change to the world. Meekness would rather concede ground than harm anyone, even those who are threatening to crucify us. “Blessed are, or how honourable are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” A lot hangs here on what we understand justice to mean, because it has come to be used in two different ways, one of which Jesus teaches us to hunger for, and the other of which he urges us to the precise opposite. Sometimes when we say we want justice, what we are demanding is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We want to see wrong doers “brought to justice” and made to pay. But in just a few verses time, Jesus will quote the eye for an eye principle in order to reject it and urge us instead to not resist evildoers, but to turn the other cheek when we are unjustly attacked. So the hungering and thirsting for justice that Jesus models and exhorts us to is a hunger for something better, a thirst to see a world free of violence and injustice. And such a world will also be free of the vengeance and retaliation that so often masquerade as justice, but for which Jesus neither hungers nor thirsts. “Blessed are, or how honourable are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” I could easily spend all night on this one, but perhaps I need say almost nothing about it. If you were to sum up Jesus’s whole gospel in one word, that would be it, mercy. Mercy, compassion, treating others as though they deserve the best, even when they deserve nothing of the sort. Even when they are the perpetrators of all that is wrong with the world. Even as they nail you to a cross: “Father, forgive them.” Jesus lives it to the full, even in death, and he calls us to follow him. “Blessed are, or how honourable are the merciful, for they will receive God’s extravagant mercy.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This is a big one for the activists among us who would throw ourselves into changing the world. Many of you have heard me tell the story of the night at the Baptist Union Assembly where I was fighting a great quest for justice, and apparently I won, and many people were patting me on the back afterwards, but I knew that in the midst of it, I had completely lost sight of the cause and succumbed to a crass drive to wipe the floor with my opponents. And while I outwardly maintained my composure and a reasonably gracious demeanour, God sees the heart, and my heart was anything but pure in that hour. The pure of heart do not pollute their project with toxic motives. “Blessed are, or how honourable are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed are, or how honourable are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It would be nice to think that this one might be as self-explanatory as mercy, but we live in a world where peace-making or peace-keeping is seen as a task that is undertaken by sending in the troops with guns to impose a solution. As Brian McLaren says when commenting on this verse, the peace-making that Jesus calls us to includes “remembering the goal isn’t to win an argument or struggle, but to win the peace by which everyone wins.” When someone came to Jesus asking for help to sort out a family fight over an inheritance, Jesus said, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” and went on to urge him not to value the inheritance above making peace with his brother. “Blessed are, or how honourable are those who forge peace and reconciliation in places of hostility, because they will be known as God’s own children.”
I’m now seriously running out of time as I get to the final lines, which are either two more beatitudes, or one and some explanatory comments. They are the ones on which Jesus expands the most, and I haven’t left myself enough time to even begin to do them justice. “Blessed are, or how honourable are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are, or how honourable are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
I’m going to limit myself to another couple of Brian McLaren quotes. He suggests that Jesus praises the “willingness to be persecuted, for only in the risk of being wronged again can we confront those who have done us wrong already”, especially since it is already a given that that confrontation is not a show of force, but a show of love. And when Jesus calls us to rejoice when we are treated with hatred and hostility, McLaren comments that what Jesus is commending is “an ability to be happy regardless of the wrongdoing of others, so that our behaviour isn’t dependent upon the behaviour of others, trapping us in systems of mirroring and imitating evil.” We’ve already mentioned the call to resist the urge to retaliate and seek vengeance, and McLaren is rightly observing that retaliation always means that we have stopped modelling ourselves on Jesus and begun modelling ourselves on our enemies, which of course just results in turning ourselves into mirror images of our enemies and the only change we have then made in the world is to make it a place full of even more hatred and hostile enemies. Jesus, on the other hand, continues to love us, even as we pump our fists in the air and chant “Crucify him!”
So if we would join him in changing the world in his image, then let’s model ourselves on these beatitudes, or should that be these be-Jesus-like-attitudes, and with him, be the change we hunger and thirst for in the world. In the face of all that is wrong in the world, these changes of attitude will often seem too small to make a difference, but as the great prophet, activist and peace-maker, Pete Seeger, who died this week, once said, “Keep it small and you will make a difference.”