Read the passage here.
It’s now been several weeks since we took a break from the gospel of Matthew. We covered off the birth narrative, and we took a look at Jesus’ early ministry, this section including Jesus’ baptism, his testing in the wilderness, and the calling of the disciples. Today’s passage begins the sermon on the mount. But before that, a quick review of some of the features of Matthew that we’ve seen so far.
In particular, one of the things we are seeing is that Matthew is concerned with demonstrating how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, particularly the plot of God’s redemption of Israel, and specifically of Jesus as the Messiah.
Something else that we’re seeing is early indications that Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that people were expecting or hoping for. Put another way, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, as evidenced by his fulfillment of scripture, even though people were expecting something, or someone else.
And we’re also seeing, appropriately enough, that the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate is not the kind of kingdom that people were expecting, especially the religious elite (we’ll see much more of this later).
Now one quick reminder of structural considerations is that Matthew structures his gospel around 5 segments consisting of narrative and discourse. Our passage today is the beginning of the discourse of this first segment.
Now a couple of preliminary considerations about our passage today before we continue on. The first thing to note is that Matthew begins with:
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.Matthew 5:1-2
The corresponding passage from the gospel of Luke (6:17)
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon,Luke 6:17
You’ll notice the difference in the description of the location in Matthew and Luke. It’s for this reason that, in Matthew, it’s referred to the sermon on the mount whereas in Luke it’s referred to as the sermon on the plain.
Now, bypassing the textual criticism issues, most scholars agree that Matthew intentionally places Jesus on a mountain (as opposed to a plain). We’ve already pointed out a number of ways in which Matthew points to Jesus as the new Moses, and this is likely one more indication (re: Moses at Sinai). Whereas Moses gave the first law from mount Sinai, here Jesus is pictured giving a new law.
We won’t spend much time on this today, but it comes up again in the sermon as Jesus repeatedly uses the phrase, “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In other words, Jesus as the new lawgiver seems to be a significant image for Matthew.
Another preliminary consideration has to do with the Beatitudes specifically – in particular, the repeated use of the word “blessed.” Depending on what tradition you grew up in, you may have read this as “happy” (i.e. Good News Bible, Philips). I’m not going to give you a preferred (that is, my preferred) translation. It seems simply a case of the English language not having a corresponding word. There are scholars who lean towards either side of the debate and the arguments on both side sound pretty good. However I want to point out a couple of things to keep in mind.
On the one hand, R.T. France (for example) argues that “happy” is preferred because it has the connotation of a state or situation. So when we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we understand that, contrary to what one might immediately assume, to be poor in spirit is actually a good thing. It doesn’t seem to have the sense of reward or consequence. In other words, we wouldn’t read it as, “if you are poor in spirit, then you will be blessed (i.e. blessing will be your reward).” Rather, it seems to have more of the force of, there is blessing/happiness/a good state or situation in being poor in spirit.
However, Leon Morris (for example) argues that “blessed” is preferred because it maintains the theological emphasis that the blessing comes from God. Unlike “happy” which can be misunderstood as a psychological state, and can ostensibly be obtained without regard to God, “blessed” has distinctly to do with a theological, that is a kingdom, value.
There are other considerations here, but my main point is that both words have their merit and its worth keeping in mind the limitations of both – that is, the original word has a greater semantic range (range of meaning) and depth than either English word seems to allow.
Lastly (as a preliminary consideration), it’s worth noting that the form of the beatitudes is not unique to Matthew (or Luke). Rather, beatitudes of the same or similar form can be found throughout the Old Testament and in extra-biblical materials. However, the grouping together of these beatitudes is noteworthy (it is not, however, unique). Simply stated, it seems that the beatitudes given here are meant to be understood as a unit, and not as a collection of individual thoughts or precepts. In other words, the beatitudes together give us a picture of what Jesus is talking about.
So what is it that the beatitudes say? What is it that we’re supposed to learn from Jesus’ teaching here?
I don’t want to get into a discussion of each individual beatitude here. However, I don’t doubt that it’s worthwhile to reflect on each of them and meditate on how God is encouraging us – or to use the language we often employ, how God is forming us. Firstly, let’s take a look at the list of beatitudes in simplified form.
- Poor in spirit
- those who mourn
- hunger and thirst for righteousness
- pure in heart
- those who are persecuted
Now think about how important those qualities would be to you if you were building a kingdom. If you were building a kingdom, what sorts of characteristics or values would most people think are missing from this list? So what is Jesus doing here?
Remember what we’re seeing in Matthew so far:
Matthew is concerned with demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament – in particular, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, which we understand to be the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes for creation, worked out through Israel.
And we know that the Israelite people looked to the Messiah to restore or establish the nation, the kingdom of Israel (think, as in the days of David).
And some people thought that Jesus was this Messiah, but were shocked, disappointed, disillusioned, when Jesus died – not only died, but was crucified. If Jesus was crucified, and the Jews were still scattered, still under Roman rule, clearly Jesus wasn’t the Messiah – clearly the kingdom had not come.
But one of the things that Matthew is making clear, having understood what Jesus had actually come to do, was that the kingdom that the people were expecting was not the kingdom that Jesus had come to establish.
Now this is nothing new to us, so I don’t want to belabour the point. However, I want to point out once again that one of the distinctive characteristics of Jesus’ sermon on the mount (which we will see in later sermons) is his repeated use of the phrase, “you have heard that it was said…but I tell you…”
So, in short, I think what’s going on in the sermon on the mount is that Jesus is correcting people’s understanding of what the kingdom of God, and the people of that kingdom, look like. The values of the kingdom, the characteristics of the people of the kingdom, are not what people had been led to believe. The beatitudes, then, is not about how to get blessings. It’s not about how to be happy, strictly speaking. I think it’s really about what kind of people we meant to be. It’s about what kind of life we are called to live. It’s about how to live out our calling.
Now I think most Christians don’t have a problem with this in principle. Most churches don’t take issue with this in principle. But is it what we actually do? Or want to do?
What I want to suggest, and what we’ve as a community have often thought and talked about, is that our ideas about Christian living, missions and evangelism, theology, and simply doing church are often influenced, shaped, and sometimes outright determined by the culture at large rather than what Jesus is telling us.
Now remember what Matthew is doing in his presentation of Jesus. He is demonstrating to his primarily Jewish audience that Jesus really is the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament scriptures. Many who saw and heard Jesus thought or hoped that this was true. But when Jesus was captured, tried, and crucified, their hopes were dashed. Because surely the Messiah they were anticipating, the Jewish warrior-king who would destroy Israel’s enemies, restore Israel’s land, and re-establish Israel’s kingdom would not have ended his life in such a way. This can’t have been the Messiah that they were hoping for because the kingdom they were waiting for still hadn’t arrived.
And what Matthew is demonstrating is that people didn’t see what Jesus really did because they didn’t understand what Jesus was really trying to do. The kingdom that people were expecting was not the kingdom that Jesus was trying to establish.
What people expected, and what people wanted, was power, visibility, success, trumpets and banners and parades. They wanted the whole Roman empire – that is, the whole world – to know that everyone else had got it wrong and that they alone had got it right. After centuries of exile and marginalization, they finally wanted to win.
And we’re still doing that, aren’t we? I don’t want to go on about it but I worry that this is what we, Christians and churches in the 21st century of North America, are doing. We’re desperately fighting for relevance, desperately seeking power, desperately clamouring for a place at the table.
But what about what Jesus says? What about those things that Jesus tells us the kingdom is really about? Do we want that? Sure we’re willing to accept that – so long as we get the other things as well. But to be a people known for the beatitudes, is that what we truly want to be?
For our passage today, I chose to close with the famous words on salt and light. We’ve talked plenty about the versification of the Bible and its benefits and limitations so I won’t expand on that today. However, it seems to me that the Beatitudes and these verses give us a kind of introduction to the sermon on the mount as a whole. And these verses read:
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:13-16
Most of us are probably very familiar with these verses. And we – rightly, of course – understand these verses as a call to responsibility, as a mission statement of sorts. They tell us who we, as the church, are called to be in and to the world. Christians and churches usually refer to this passage when we think about who and what we are called to be in the world (this is correct).
And what I want to suggest is that we can’t understand these verses outside of the context of the verses that came immediately before. When we think about being salt and light, how do we understand that?
And if it’s not immediately obvious, what I want to suggest is that we are called to be salt and light in a very particular way. And it’s a way defined by Jesus that simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to the culture around us. And it’s a way that might not lead to success, or admiration. We may never make a name for ourselves.
But if we seek first the kingdom of God, we will be blessed.