There are certain sections of the Bible that modern Western culture has undoubtedly and unfortunately tamed. These wildly potent sections that we’ve castrated are easy to recognize: they’re the ones that we find needlepointed onto pillows, fleece throws, and the swollen bellies of teddy-bears.
They’re the ones we find unashamedly emblazoned onto sweatshirts and t-shirts with an air brush. And, they’re usually found inconspicuously read by someone’s aunt at their mostly secular, but trying-to-hide-it-with-a-reading-from-the-Bible, wedding.
We find them used in these places not because of their intrinsic worth, or because of their incredible power and truth, but usually because of some warm and fuzzy sentiment we have attached to them.
Because on the surface they just sound so nice.
The Beatitudes in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is one such text that has been used and abused for its sentiment. But as for its resoundingly powerful message and mandate? – It’s been sadly ignored.
The text we call the Beatitudes in Matthew is the very, very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. This ‘sermon’ that Jesus gives is the first major teaching that he gives in his ministry as Matthew has chronicled it. He motivated crowds of people to hike up to the top of a mountain because in return for their effort they were expecting a pretty good show.
These masses of people are folk who had been magnetically drawn to his healing presence and undoubtedly his very being. He takes them up the mountain evoking the unmistakable biblical images of the holy leaders of Israel who also did notable things from altitude: Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. He takes them up there, and assumes the posture of a rabbi: he sits down. And then, as if the drama couldn’t get any more intense, he begins his first major teaching as the Savior of the world.
He begins this inaugural speech, this coming-out party, with a flood of blessings. He blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for doing the right thing, and those who are reviled and persecuted on his account.
What is Jesus doing here with this list of blessings and blessed people? Why did he drag a mass of people up on top of a mountain and begin a sermon with all this talk of blessing?
It’s tempting to think that in the beatitudes Jesus is talking about specific groups of specific people whom he is declaring “blessed.” As if somewhere in the wide world there is a group who are the ‘peacemakers’ – and let me tell you – those guys and gals are pretty blessed. God likes them. And then there is another group of un-named and unknown people out there who are the ‘poor in spirit’ – and they’re pretty tight with God too.
As if what Jesus is saying here is akin to “Blessed are the Republicans” or “Blessed are those who give to Greenpeace.” One may wonder if there are discernible groups of people out there complete with membership cards and secret handshakes, which because of their identity in that group are blessed by God.
The only discernible group that Jesus is referring to here is his followers – Christians. This is a blueprint of action, a plan for behavior, and a reorientation of life for the followers of Jesus, lovers of God, and the blessed.
Jesus took this mass of people up on the mountain to give them a new way of life, a new direction for relating to others, and a lifestyle that pleases God no end.
What Jesus is saying here is that we are meant to be the poor in spirit, full of humility and wonder. We are to be willingly emotionally exposed and open enough to fully mourn, mourning the state of the world, the failures and losses of our brothers and sisters, and the loss of our own innocence. We are the ones who are to be meek, not seeking power by dominating others but attaining true power which is only found in the weakness and vulnerability of the cross of Christ. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, yearning for what is right, holy, and good from the deepest part of our souls. We are to be merciful not ruthless, pure in heart not corrupted, peacemakers not instigators, the persecuted instead of the persecutors, and reviled and despised not honored and exalted.
This is the picture of what the Church is supposed to look like in full Technicolor, with not a single blemish or seemingly unattractive facet left on the cutting room floor. Jesus hiked his people to the top of that mountain to give them the skinny on what God was all about, what he himself was all about, and what he wanted them and every person on the face of the planet to be about.
The Beatitudes isn’t some warm and fuzzy little slogan to be brandished on a neon yellow coffee-mug, it’s a mandate for life in the Kingdom of God. It is who we are meant to be.
As my wife said to me one night when she was trying to be coy, they are the “be – attitudes.” The attitudes we are meant to have, the attitudes we are meant to be, the attitudes that Jesus taught and modeled by his loving and sacrificial life.
And what becomes of such people who live by such attitude and manner? What accompanies the blessings? What does the blessing look like?
The Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven.
For the poor in spirit – theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The mourners will be comforted, as in those glorious words from Revelation: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) The meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, their hunger satisfied. The merciful will receive mercy, the pure in heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called the children of God, and those who are persecuted for righteousness and reviled for Jesus’ sake will gain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Amazingly, this isn’t just a blueprint for behavior and a manifesto for action – it is the litany of characteristics describing the citizens of heaven – the redeemed, saved, and sanctified people of God.