Whenever the Beatitudes come up on a Sunday, I always think of my internship supervisor. The year that I was on internship, there was one week where we got hit with several deaths in the congregation, and we had several funerals to plan. My supervisor, the senior pastor of the congregation, sat down with our deacon to plan out one of the funerals. One of the relatives of the deceased was going to read the Beatitudes at the funeral, but for some reason, the senior pastor thought he was supposed to read them. As they were discussing the funeral, the senior pastor said to the deacon, “OK, and then I get up and read the Beatitudes.” The deacon gently reminded him, “No, pastor, the family member is going to read them.” The pastor said, “Oh, right, OK.” The discussion continued, and again the pastor said, “So, I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” The deacon again reminded him that the family member was going to read them. Then, right before the funeral began, the pastor once more said to the deacon, “I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” And the deacon replied once more that the family member was going to read them. The deacon later told me about this, and we both thought it was hilarious, and it became a running joke during my internship year. But as I remembered that this week, I think that’s how we all approach this text from Matthew today: we all love to read the Beatitudes. They’re beautiful poetry, and some of these blessings are very comforting. We see them in embroidery that’s framed and hung up on our walls, and it’s a pretty reminder for us of a gentle and loving Jesus. But rarely do we stop and ask ourselves what these blessings mean and why Jesus said them. So that’s what I would like to do today: examine some of these blessings more closely and ask what they mean.
The first thing we need to do, though, since we’ve had some weather incidents that have prevented us from worshiping the last couple of weeks, is to refresh our memories on the context of these blessings that Jesus speaks, by summarizing Matthew’s story up to this point. Matthew begins his story in chapter 1 with Jesus’ genealogy and an account of how Jesus was born. Then, Matthew tells us in chapter 2, wise men came to honor Jesus, in the process alerting King Herod that a new king had been born. The wise men returned home; Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt; Herod massacred the infants of Bethlehem; Jesus’ family returns to Bethlehem when King Herod has died, and then they go up to Nazareth and settle there. In chapter 3, Matthew tells us about John the Baptist and his ministry, and then how Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In chapter 4, which we would have heard last week if not for the snow, Matthew tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days, and then was tested by the devil. Jesus then begins his ministry in Galilee with the same message that John spoke: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Next, Jesus calls his disciples from their fishing to follow him and fish for people, and then Jesus goes around and begins to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to heal people from their diseases.
This sets the stage for the blessings that Jesus speaks. When he sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and begins to teach. And this is what I think Matthew is doing: Matthew has told us in the opening chapters of his gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the new king that everyone has been anticipating. Jesus has been baptized and received the affirmation of God the Father that he is God’s Son. He has passed the tests in the wilderness that the devil put in front of him. He has announced that the kingdom is near. He is showing in word and deed that he is a king, but not quite the king that everyone was expecting: not an earthly king at all. The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is Jesus’ inaugural address, where he tells everyone what this new kingdom of heaven is going to look like. And he begins his inaugural address with a description of the people who are going to be blessed in this new kingdom—and it’s not the people who the world would say are blessed. So as we now turn our attention to these blessings, this is the important thing to remember: Jesus is not telling us that we need to strive to be in these conditions in order to be blessed. Rather, he is saying that when this stuff happens to us, then we can remember that God is with us, God loves us, and God blesses us.
Let’s take a look at the first blessing: the poor in spirit. Have you ever stopped to ask what this means? We understand what poor by itself means, in fact, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus simply saying, “Blessed are the poor.” So, why does Matthew add “in spirit”? Is he saying that a person’s material needs are not as important as spiritual needs? Well, I suppose that’s one interpretation, but here’s one that I like better. The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, also means “breath”. It’s the root of words like pneumonia, which is a disease affecting the lungs, where the breath comes from. So perhaps “poor in spirit” could mean “poor in breath,” or, in other words, having the breath knocked out of you. Think of one of those bad weeks that you’ve had where everything just seems to go wrong, and you feel like you just can’t go on any longer. Or perhaps you’re someone who works for the federal government and, up until this week, you didn’t know when you were going to get paid or how you were going to make rent, and you’re at your wit’s end. That, I think, comes close to what Jesus means by “poor in spirit”. Jesus says those who are at their wit’s end and who think they can’t go on any longer are the ones who are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Some of the beatitudes that Jesus speaks are easier to understand than others, so I’m going to skip over some of them and go to one that may require a little more thought, like the poor in spirit. Let’s look at this one, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” “Meek” is a strange word, one that we don’t use very much, if at all, in our everyday language. It implies quietness, even to the point of letting other people run roughshod all over you. If that is what “meek,” means, then most of us Americans want nothing to do with it. But that’s actually not what the word means in this context. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” he is talking about what we as Christians should be modeling to the rest of the world: gentleness, and not returning evil for evil. Nonviolent resistance would fall in this category. This week, as the government shutdown dragged on, air traffic controllers and TSA agents started to call in sick to work because they were not being paid. This was a form of nonviolent resistance that finally clogged the wheels of society enough to get a breakthrough so that the government reopened—even if it is a temporary breakthrough. Blessed are the meek—those who persist in gentleness and nonviolence in spite of the injustices in the world—for they will inherit the earth.
The next beatitude that I want to look at briefly is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” When I was discussing this particular beatitude with someone this week, he asked me, “What is righteousness, anyway?” And I think that’s a good question. When we say the word “righteous,” that brings to mind moral righteousness, or in other words, what we think we need to do to be a good person: we follow the rules, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t sleep around, we help other people who need help. Righteousness can include these things, but I don’t know anyone who actually hungers and thirsts for them. It was St. Augustine who once said, “Give me chastity and give me constancy, but do not give them yet.” Here I think we need to go back to what the Greek word says. The word dikaiosyne can be translated as righteousness, but it can also be translated as justice. So Jesus here might be saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” This makes better sense and fits in better with the other blessings that Jesus speaks. In God’s kingdom, those who are blessed are those whom society doesn’t think are blessed: the ones who have the breath knocked out of them by their circumstances in life; the ones who mourn; the ones who are gentle and nonviolent; the ones who cry out for justice to be done; the ones who are merciful, and so on. The kingdom of heaven is much different from any earthly kingdom.
And after speaking these blessings, Jesus talks about this community being salt and light for the earth. The kingdom of heaven does not yet exist in its fullness here on earth. But the community of those who follow Jesus are a foretaste of that kingdom. Therefore, in communities of people who follow Jesus, that is, our congregations and the wider church expressions, we are called to model these blessings that Jesus speaks. In our Christian communities, we give special care to those who are poor in spirit and to those who mourn. In our Christian communities, we are to hunger and thirst for justice and to do what we can to help bring justice about in our wider society. And so on and so forth with all of these blessings. That is how our Christian communities are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, shining brightly to all of those around us.
This is a description of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We are not to try to be poor in spirit so that we get blessed, for example. But if we are living anything close to a Christian life, there will be some point in our lives where we will be poor in spirit, where we will be mourning, where we will be meek, and so on and so forth. And when that happens, we will be blessed: loved and cherished by God, and, if our Christian community is acting as followers of Christ should, loved, cherished, and helped by the other people in our Christian community. And then, when we come out of that place, it will be our turn to help those who are in that place. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. This is how we are to be a community that is different from the society around us. And this is how we are to let our light shine before others. Secure in the knowledge that Jesus loves us, let us strive to be that foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.