The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-16

Large yellow arrow on the ground, with two feet in tennis shoes, the word "Follow" superimposed on the image.

Today we begin a new series. We will spend the season of Lent focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Throughout his ministry, Jesus says to ordinary people, “Follow me.” In the Sermon on the Mount he clearly lays out the path to discipleship: embracing countercultural values, responding nonviolently in all situations, and radically trusting that God’s love will prevail. During the season of Lent, we listen deeply to the words of Jesus, and learn to walk in the steps of Jesus through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charity. We let Jesus reorder our priorities and our appetites as we lean in to what it really means to follow him.

This is the very beginning of Jesus’s teaching in the book of Matthew. Before this Jesus gets baptized, he is tempted in the desert, and after John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus continues to proclaim John’s message: Repent for the Kingdom of the heavens has come near. But we don’t yet hear any of Jesus’ teaching: Matthew just says that’s what Jesus is saying. Next he calls the disciples and then begins teaching in the Jewish synagogues, which means he would have been interpreting the Old Testament, also preaching the good news of the Kingdom, and healing people. At this point great crowds begin to follow him, and finally Matthew is ready to let us actually hear from Jesus. First mentions in the Bible are always important. What Jesus says here is designed to set the tone for his entire teaching from here on out. This is THE announcement of what Jesus is up to, what he has come to reveal about God and God’s love for creation. “Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture: Matthew 5:1-16

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“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.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses it’s saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and place it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in the heavens.”

This is the Word of God for All People. Thanks be to God.


Blessed is a popular word right now on coffee mugs and t-shirts and tote bags. The Greek word “blessed” doesn’t translate cleanly into English, but if we combined happy, fortunate, and favored, we’d get close. It’s the life we all want. And it is our calling in the faith, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, that we are blessed to be a blessing. Those who follow God experience blessedness, not in order to hoard it for ourselves, but in order to pass it along to the rest of the world. We don’t bless others in order to get blessed by God. We recognize that we are already blessed and that inspires and compels us to share the blessing.

Which is what Jesus is announcing here. And it’s very important for us to get that in the right order. For many years, I saw the Bible as one big book of obligations. It was heavy, filled with things I had to do in order to be right with God. Since I knew I would never, ever, ever live up to those standards, I spent a lot of time just feeling awful about myself, knowing I would never be enough. Friends, that is NOT good news. That is law and not grace. And if we turn these beatitudes into another disconnected list of things we have to do in order to be accepted by God, we have completely distorted the good news of Jesus and entirely missed the point of the gospel. 

The system of the world already says that we get what we deserve, doesn’t it? That we earn what we have. We already assume that God blesses the good people, the people who don’t keep making the same mistakes. Religious systems are designed to modify our behavior. Everybody knows that. So if we turn these beatitudes into a list of things we have to do in order to earn God’s favor, that is nothing new! It’s not radical. It’s not counter-cultural. It’s not surprising. It’s not good news. If we think that “blessed are the poor in spirit” means “blessed are the really humble,” or “blessed are those who know how much they need God,” well Jesus didn’t need to proclaim that, because that’s what we already think, isn’t it? “God blesses those who are really humble about how humble they are?” Ugh. No thank you. I can’t keep up with that. 

So. If the beatitudes are not just another list of obligations, what are they? I am convinced that they are a counter-cultural announcement about God’s love and about the way that things will finally turn out in the world. My thinking on this has been deeply influenced by a Christian pastor and teacher named Rob Bell. Our call to worship this morning was adapted from his interpretations and I think it’s spot on. So let’s get into it.

Jesus declares “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens.” He makes this declaration to a group of people who were rich and poor, sick and well, religious and seeking. It doesn’t mean, “Blessed are those who know how much they need God.” It means, “Blessed are those who have nothing going for them.” God is on the side of those who are total failures, those who have been kicked while they were already down, those who feel like they have nothing to offer. Those folks are part of the Kingdom of God. God takes those folks exactly the way they are. They ARE blessed and the Kingdom of God belongs to them right now already. Not because they are good enough or because they earn it, but just because that’s how God is. 

Blessed are those who have lost the person who was most important to them. They will be comforted. Why? Because that’s just how God is. Blessed are the clumsy and painfully shy ones. They will inherit the earth. Why? Because that’s just how God is. Blessed are those who long to see the world healed and have no idea how to go about it. They will be filled. Why? Because that’s just how God is. 

Blessed are those who extend mercy. They will receive mercy. Why? Because that’s how things work in God’s regenerative economy. Blessed are those who are unmixed, clean and clear in their intentions, motives, and desires. They will see God. Not as a reward, but simply as reality. The more we can see past the fake stuff to what’s really important, the more we will recognize God in other people, including the people we disagree with. Blessed are those who can stand up against oppression without demonizing the oppressors. They will be called children of God. When We recognize that no one is entirely good or entirely bad, and we look for ways to draw people together, we reflect our Heavenly Parent.

And in the final beatitudes, we come full circle. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The good news is that God is on our side. The not-so-good news is that the world will not thank us for it. Peacemakers who refuse to demonize one side or the other and keep working for justice, those people are not embraced by a system that thrives on keeping people divided. We should not expect that life to be easy. But we can count on it being meaningful. Look what the result is: the kingdom of the heavens is theirs. The Kingdom of God is for those people.

The Kingdom of God is for the poor in spirit who couldn’t possibly deserve it, AND the Kingdom of God is for those who are working so hard for justice that they get persecuted by the world. The Kingdom of God is for both. The Kingdom of God is for all. The beatitudes are Jesus’ radical revolutionary message of good news for all people. God is with all of us. God is blessing all of us. Not because we deserve it, but because that’s just how God is. Amen.

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