Every so often, there is a clamor for the 10 Commandments to be placed on the walls of courthouses around the country. If memory serves, there was a judge in a southern state that felt the 10 Commandments were more important than the Constitution when it came to the laws of the land. Then I read where a minister asked, why do we put the Commandments on the wall, not the beatitudes?
Chapter five of the Gospel of Matthew begins what has been called the Sermon on the Mount. Mountains play a rather significant role in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just before this passage, Jesus is tempted by being brought to the highest mountain in the area and shown all the lands. The tempter tells him that if he worships him, he will have all of this. There are several other occasions when Jesus is on a mountain teaching and preaching, but there is something special about this one.
We have come to the point where Jesus is ready; he is prepared to begin his ministry. He met John and called for folks to repent. He has wandered in the desert for 40 days and been tempted. He has called his disciples, those that will be the closest to him over the next several years, as he lays out a vision for the Kingdom of God.
There is a connection to the history of Israel as well. I mentioned that Jesus had been in the desert for 40 days already. After John baptized him, Jesus went out in solitude to prepare for his ministry. He spent that time wondering if you will in the desert and being tempted. This parallels the time the Jews spent after the Exodus in the desert. You will remember they spent 40 years wandering and faced all sorts of temptations.
But today, he stands on this mountain and lays out for us what he has in mind, his ideas, and his vision for the Kingdom of God, which he says is at hand. He stands as Moses stood on the mountain when he gave the law written by God’s hand. But this law, this fulfillment of that law of Moses, is not punitive but rather the new way for us to bring God’s kingdom right here.
It is important to note that at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, he stands tradition on its ear. God’s kingdom, God’s love will not be directed to the upper wealthy but rather to those on the margins, those on the underbelly of society; blessed are the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. These come right at the start of this whole thing. Jesus is showing a preference for those we do not like to see.
But it sounds weird to say blessed are the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. So how can we find blessings at those times in our lives? We need to start by looking at the word blessing or blessed.
Like most words in translation, there are several meanings, and it is up to the translator to choose the correct word that conveys not only the meaning of a particular word but the meaning of the phrase the word is part of. So, for example, the Greek word translated here as blessed could also be translated as happy, happy are those… But it could also be translated as blissful.
So unlike the law that Moses gave, these ideals that Jesus is offering are not something we are measured against or feel guilty if we do not live up to. There may be more to what is happening here than what we see on the surface.
What if, and hang in there with me, Jesus encouraged us at the outset of his ministry rather than an impossible standard to live up to? What if, rather than another list of things to feel guilty about, Jesus encourages us for the long journey ahead?
We have already seen in the preceding chapters that Jesus has gone into the wilderness and proclaimed the kind of Messiah he will be. He calls together a community that will be with him to help him in the coming weeks, months, and years. He spends time teaching and healing and then, in this chapter, tells us full-on what he is going to do, changes everything.
Jesus is calling the world to repent but not in the sense of “shame on you, you dirty sinner,” but rather, “get on board, turn around and follow me.” Jesus is presenting us not with a measuring rod of failure or success but a glimpse of the community of faith. A glimpse of what we can be.
I believe that Jesus was not specifically talking to the poor, the meek, those who mourn, and the rest, but instead, he was speaking to us, the community. What if Jesus said, “blessed is the community who makes room for the peacemakers. Blessed is the community who makes room for the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are poor in spirit. Blessed is the community who makes room for those who mourn at the brokenness of the world, who is unstained by the impurity of the world. Blessed is the community who knows persecution is inevitable and still decides to make room for those the world thinks are unimportant.”
Since the time of Moses, the law has been used as a stick to keep people in line; many religions and many Christian faith groups today continue to use the law to keep people in rather than encourage them to create communities built on love and support.
Jesus is ushering in a new way to be a community. Jesus is not abolishing the law of Moses but instead changing the focus away from the juridical aspect of the law towards grace and mercy. We must remember how radical this sense of community was, where there was room for everyone without exception. A place where people would be nourished and helped without question. A community where we grow together and journey together.
But all will not be bliss if we adopt this ideal of community. The final two blessings are for those who will be persecuted for following this new way, and we will; we are. Not everyone has or will see things in this way. Many cling to the law because it gives them a sense of superiority over others and this, sadly, includes many of my colleagues in ministry. But I cannot be concerned with what others think, nor should you.
Getting caught up in the things that divide rather than the things that bring unity is very easy. As followers of Jesus, we are called to a particular way of living our lives which is summed up relatively well in the Prophet Micha, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”