The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the longest uninterrupted collection of Jesus’ teachings we have in the entire Bible, and many Christian theologians, such as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonheoffer, consider it to be the core of Christianity. Jesus opens his discourse with The Beatitudes, a highly stylized set of eight sayings that lay out who is most favored in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3-10 NIV):
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The image of the Kingdom of God that the Beatitudes lay out is a complex and radical one – one which entire books have explored in depth. Throughout it all, however, there is a prevalent theme – that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16 NIV). The Kingdom of God is the world turned upside down, a place where the rules that we have for determining success no longer apply. Brennan Manning put it this way: “The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there. No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people who understand they are sinners because they have experienced the yaw and pitch of moral struggle.””
Despite the centrality of this message to Christianity, it isn’t always a popular one – something that has been noticed not only by Christians but by atheists and members of other religions as well. Take, for example, author Kurt Vonnegut, who sarcastically wrote of the United States that “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
Jesus’ words were not spoken into a vacuum. The world he stepped into had some very particular beliefs about God’s blessings and how to get them. For many, poverty, disease, and misfortune were signs of God’s displeasure, while material and economic wealth were signs of his favour. If something was going wrong, you must have done something wrong. Moreover, the different Jewish groups of the time had their own views on how to receive blessing and favour from God. The Pharisees believed that blessing and salvation would come to those who were extremely obedience to the specifics of the Torah - the law. For them, blessing and strictness went hand in hand. More extreme were the Zealots, or the Sicarii - who believed God would bless and favour those who took up armed rebellion against Rome.
Into this framework, Jesus presented a different alternative. Rather than God’s blessing belonging to the proud, spiritual elite, he offers blessing and the Kingdom of Heaven to the “poor in spirit”. Rather than misfortune being seen as punishment from God, Jesus promised blessing to “those who mourn”. Rather than endorsing zealotry, violence, and power struggles, Jesus blessed the meek and the peacemakers. God’s Kingdom, according to Jesus, would be active in the gentleness and kindness of people. This was to be a Kingdom where weakness and gentleness were the source of true power from God.
And Jesus embodied this message to it’s shocking, though logical, conclusion: overcoming the dark powers of the world not by military might or political revolution, but by forgiving his enemies as they executed him.
Modern Christians have taken different steps towards restoring this vision of the Kingdom and bringing it to bear on everyday life. Famous figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the truth of the gospel and its social implications for equality - using nonviolence to oppose the oppression of African Americans. It is not the case that Christians should not care about social issues, or social justice, as though they were separate from the gospel. Rather, Christians have been assigned a specific way of dealing with social issues, one which mirrors the example of Jesus.
Christianity has failed to reach the hearts of the world because of the times when it used methods of violence and domination to spread its influence. True Jesus followers know that the blessing of God is found in a Kingdom that conquers by its meekness - that conquers while being conquered.
If we listen to the Beatitudes, is it our job to try and change our society to reflect them? How should a Christian try to make the will of God manifest in the world? Many will try to co-opt political or social power to force changes and lord it over those who are conquered. But others still will make God known in the world by their gentleness, peacemaking, and mercy. Which will you be?
What is the difference between blessing and societal privilege? Do you think God blesses certain people with better lives than others? Is it our responsibility to try and erase privilege and bring others into our level of "blessing", or to understand the good things in our lives as what God wants for us specifically, and not for someone else?
Does the fact that some people have more material “blessings” than others impact your view of God’s justice/fairness at all? Why or why not?
We often talk about God’s blessings as a current event or manifestation – a healing, a promotion, a new baby – all are seen as blessings. But the blessings in the Beatitudes seem more like future events. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Reread the Beatitudes with this in mind. How does this “future” element in the Beatitudes affect how you understand “blessing”?
Consider also the material in Luke's version of the Beatitudes: "And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied." "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh."
How are these things blessings?
Many things listed as "blessings" in the Beatitudes could almost be seen as ... not blessings at all. Consider Luke 6:22-23 (in Luke's account of the Beatitudes). How is any of this a blessing? "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets."
The Greek word that is translated as "blessed" in most of our English translations is "Μακάριοι" - "mah-KAH-ree-oy". This word also can be translated as "Happy". This may seem strange, but try to look at the Beatitudes through the lens of this word. Does it make any difference for your understanding? If so, how? If not, why not?
Surf the #blessed tag on Instagram or Twitter. What are some of the most ridiculous or surprising things that people have called blessings? How might these things harmonize (or not) with the understanding of “Blessing” that comes from the Beatitudes?