All those ‘blessings’ at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5. 1 – 12 is the reading for today …) have always been a puzzle to me.
I preached on this passage for the induction of a pastor, and in doing so discovered some very helpful things about how this passage works, and its image of Jesus, and of God.
When I began to think about this passage, a strange image came into my head: it is from one of those Jesus movies, I can’t recall which, you know, the Hollywood efforts to present the Jesus story, usually mixing up the gospel stories. But Jesus is always a tall, handsome fellow who has just been to the hair-dressers, has blue eyes and is the all-American guy.
But what I especially remember about this one movie was the time Jesus announced these beatitudes:
In the movie, Jesus was walking along with his group of followers, and he came into this
large open valley, where there was a village, and people everywhere:
some ploughing the land, some fishing by the lake, others doing the
washing, kids minding animals or playing, life going on: and in walked
Jesus, and suddenly, instantaneously, everyone stopped: they all looked
to him, and he just began: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs
is the kingdom of heaven …
They were all rapt, immediately drawn to him: they hung upon his every word.
And isn’t this just what we would want to happen? Don’t we dream of the
time when the words of Jesus just grab people’s attention, and they
want to hear him, and see the wisdom and power of his words?
And yet, as I think about that film and its presentation of Jesus, and
then when I read the Gospels, I feel there is something quite
ridiculous about it.
It’s not the all-American guy, with his blue eyes and lovely hair,
though that’s a bit of the problem: I think it’s the idea that Jesus
just drops in, almost as if he just dropped out of the sky, and he
suddenly announces these things, like a script he has learned, and the
words come from no-where; they just land there.
In fact, that is not what the Gospel tells us.
What we call the Sermon on the Mount didn’t just happen. It came from
somewhere. It’s as simple as this: Chapter five comes after chapter 4.
(Of course, when the Gospel texts were written, they had no chapters, or verse numbers. They were all added centuries later.)
To grasp the meaning of this wonderful passage, the Beatitudes, we need
especially to look to the later part of chapter 4, where I see three
significant things, valuable as a model for ministry today.
v. 23 ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and
proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and
every sickness among the people.’
This tells me about a pastor, and a preacher, who finds his ministry
with and among the people. Great preachers have always been pastors,
who discovered the word of God with and for their people.
There is a close inter-relationship of preaching and pastoral care,
which is too often neglected by our current models of ministry. Jesus
was with the people, bringing them the Good news, and sharing in their
hurts, their need for forgiveness, healing and hope.
That is where these beatitudes come from. That’s how he came to see
that the poor in spirit are truly blessed: the kingdom of God is for
them, with them and they are the ones who truly welcome it.
Next, a little further back, we see that Jesus didn’t do this solo,
alone: in verse 18 and following, we read that as he went around
Galilee, he called the first disciples.
This is fascinating and new: at the time of Jesus, rabbis or teachers,
had disciples. But usually the disciples would find the teacher, and
ask whether they could join that rabbi’s circle—Quite literally a
circle; they would sit down to teach. But here Jesus the rabbi went to
the disciples and asked them, to come with him, and not to sit down,
but to go with him, and to fish for people.
Jesus went out and got people, who would also go out and get people.
And the people he went to were ordinary, working people, who knew what
a joy, what a blessing it was, to go with Jesus. They too were part of
the background to these beatitudes: how blessed are those who hunger
and thirst for righteousness; they will be filled; how blessed are the
merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
And then there’s a third element in the background: we read at the end
of the chapter that the impact of Jesus’ ministry reached out to
include people from the whole district, and wider still: the ten cities
along the coast, the Decapolis, and down south to Jerusalem, and the
regions beyond the Jordan This ministry is not narrow, and insular: it
reaches out, and people from all over see that there’s something here
for them. God is not holed up in the temple, up there in the city. God
is not just for the priests and the powerful: Jesus shows that God is
their God, God of the little people: and so you see he is able to
declare: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth: they
will find a home in God’s world; blessed are the pure in heart, they
shall see God: God with them, among them, even in them.