Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen. Dear friends in Christ:
The Gospel lesson just read consists of nine sayings of Jesus, each beginning with the word “blessed.” These sayings are among the most recognizable passages, not only in the Bible, but in all of Western literature. They are commonly known as the “Beatitudes” – a word derived from their Latin translation.
There are certainly a number of reasons why this passage is so well-known. One is that we read it often in worship–every year on All Saints’ Day and every third year during the Epiphany season. Another is its popular topic. Who doesn’t want to know about receiving God’s blessing?
Still other reasons for its popularity are the beauty of its poetry and its counter-cultural message, so boldly stated.
And then there’s the way Matthew has set up this reading for us. Up until this point in his Gospel, Jesus has been on the move—getting baptized, resisting temptation, calling his disciples, gathering crowds throughout Galilee as he proclaims the kingdom and heals the sick.
Now, here at the beginning of chapter five, Jesus retreats from the crowds and goes up on a mountain – just like Moses did in the Old Testament. He takes his disciples with him, and when he reaches the top he sits down—assuming the posture of a respected teacher. The disciples come to him, gathering around. He opens his mouth… and then teaches. The description and build-up here by Matthew could hardly be more dramatic. It shows that the words to follow are to be words of great significance.
Indeed, these words are the introductory words of a great sermon—one that lasts a full three chapters and is the longest by Jesus in the scriptures—one known to us as the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes set the tone for all that lies ahead. They are like the opening statement of a great lawyer who is presenting his case at a trial, or like the opening lines of a great speech delivered on a historic occasion.
More than just catching our attention, though, these words give crucial information for understanding the full sermon. As Dr. Jeff Gibbs of Concordia Seminary explains, the Beatitudes form “a sort of doorway through which Matthew’s readers must pass if they are to grasp aright the Lord’s great teaching in the sermon.”
The body of the Sermon on the Mount, which follows, contains mostly law. Here Jesus is giving his take on what the Mosaic Law really should mean. Jesus understood the spirit of the law. And Jesus understood the difference between what was ethical law for all time and what was ceremonial or political law for Israel.
But Jesus did not simply come as another law-giver. That was only a part of his calling. Rather, as he would say in the next section of the sermon, he came to fulfill the law. The Beatitudes, at the beginning of the sermon, give us a clue as to what this means.
We began our sermon today by considering some reasons why the Beatitudes are such a popular scripture. I’ll share one more that occurs to me. The Beatitudes may be so popular, in part, because they are a bit cryptic; a bit mysterious. The opening word – blessed – is used many different ways in the scriptures. As a result, the Beatitudes have been understood in many different ways.
Thirty-some years ago, a popular Christian author wrote a book about this section of scripture which he titled The Be-Happy Attitudes. It had become acceptable among many Biblical scholars to replace the word “blessed” with “happy,” so this lent an air of acceptability to the author’s premise. But the book missed the mark. It taught people to read this section of scripture as a recipe for happiness. “Just reflect the attitude described in these verses,” the thinking went, “and you’ll be happy.”
There are two things wrong with this. First, happiness is neither the best translation of the word nor a primary Biblical goal. Yes, there are cases in the scripture where the Greek word used here could be understood as “happy,” but not in this case. “Happy” does not convey the full meaning. The scriptures make clear that to be blessed by God is more than just being happy. God’s blessings bring even greater gifts—gifts like contentment, satisfaction, love, peace, joy and salvation, to name a few.
A second problem with the book title is the idea that this scripture is about encouraging certain attitudes on our part. God does want us to have a good attitude, yes. And God’s definition of a good attitude involves some of the characteristics listed in these verses. But again, this is not the primary teaching of the text.
In order to understand this text, it’s important to note something about its structure. We began by noting that there are nine sayings of Jesus, all beginning with the word blessed. Of these nine, the last one stands alone – as a transitional statement into the rest of the sermon. We can tell this because of its change in person. The first eight sayings are addressed to “they” – in the third person. The last saying is addressed to “you” – in the second person.
Within the first eight sayings, there seems to be a clear division between the first four and the second four. The first four describe a condition. They speak to everyone. The second four describe ways for us to act. They speak to those who are becoming disciples.
Let’s look at this more closely. The first saying is: “blessed are the poor in spirit.” In these words, Jesus is not so much saying that he’d like us to be poor in spirit, although sometimes we do need to lessen our spirit, like when we are thinking too highly of ourselves. Rather, here Jesus is saying that our human condition is one of poverty. When it comes to things of the spirit, we are naturally poor. We are poor in spirit.
This idea is reflected in one of our historic confessions of sin—the one where we end by praying that God would be “gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.” It’s also reflected by the example of Martin Luther, who, when he was on his deathbed, at a time when he could have been looking back at all the amazing things he accomplished, instead famously said: “we are beggars, this is true.”
You may recall that Luke’s Gospel records Jesus saying: “blessed are the poor” – and leaving it at that, without adding the words “in spirit.” Some people think this was an earlier version and that Matthew added the extra words. But that’s only because they misunderstand what Jesus means by being poor. While Jesus is indeed concerned about our physical and material poverty, this is not nearly as concerning to him as the needs of our spirit. He’s concerned most of all about our poor spirit, because this is our greater need.
Jesus is concerned that we have such a poor relationship with our Creator. He is concerned that our human spirit is so poor in its ability to keep faith. He is concerned that our poor spirit so often results in poor choices and poor relationships with others.
In our poverty, Jesus sees us, and blesses us. That’s the meaning of these first sayings. He blesses us so much that ours “is the kingdom of God.”
In the same way, Jesus sees us in our meekness, and in our mourning, and in our hungering and thirsting for righteousness… all those ways which describe our humble and needy state. And in our humble and needy state, he blesses us.
These are words of promise from Jesus. They are good news!
This good news of Jesus breaks into the world through his ministry. It begins with his preaching… and results in our healing—our true healing—the healing of our spirit.
This healing is made possible by another act of Jesus’ ministry—one that he would accomplish a couple years after this sermon. That act was his sacrificing of himself upon the cross. On the cross, Jesus paid the price for our sin; and there Jesus earned our salvation—making possible our blessing in full.
It is because of the cross, then, that Jesus’ followers will receive the kingdom, and be comforted, and be satisfied and inherit the earth. It is because of the cross that Jesus’ followers will be blessed.
Once a person understands their need for the ministry of Jesus, and receives the salvation he offers, then they are ready to be his disciple. And when one is a disciple, they are able to be a blessing to others. That’s where the next four sayings of Jesus come in.
A disciple of Jesus is merciful to others. They understand the great mercy God had shown them in Jesus, and they, in turn, show mercy to others. We all know how much the world needs merciful people. We can see plainly that some have been blessed with much while others struggle greatly. When mercy is shown, God brings his healing.
It was so wonderful, once again, to see our congregation step up and show kindness and mercy to others last week as we provided Hypothermia Prevention care. What a great ministry of mercy this is!
Likewise, a disciple of Jesus is pure in heart. He or she understands how God has poured out love from His heart and through this has empowered our hearts, so that we can treat people honestly and with the right motivation.
Disciples of Jesus are also peacemakers. We who have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ can now work with others to find peace.
Being a disciple of Jesus, however, will not be easy. There will be persecution involved. People will revile us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely, says Jesus.
In those times, Jesus teaches us to remember our blessings. Ours is the kingdom of heaven, he promises. We can even rejoice and be glad (there’s that idea of happiness!), because our reward is great in heaven.
Jesus has much more to say on the subject of discipleship. More lessons will be given as his story unfolds. The Beatitudes are not the last word on the subject.
Nor are the Beatitudes the only place where blessings are stated. There are at least four other places in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus pronounces a similar, although much shorter, blessing upon his disciples. In fact, throughout the whole Bible God can be found speaking specific words of blessing to His people.
As I was considering God’s words of blessing this week, I found them very helpful as I ministered to a family of our church who had just experienced the death of a loved one. Jesus says in his sermon: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” These words reminded me that God has promised to care for them in their time of grief, and that as a disciple of his I am doing my part to help too.
Then these words prompted me to recall another, related blessing of God from the Scriptures—one from the book of Revelation—one that speaks powerfully to their grief: There the prophet says:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (14:13)
God cares for his people… all the way through death… into the life to come.
“Blessed are you,” says our Lord. Yes, we are blessed indeed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.