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Matthew 5:1-12

The most neglected words in the Sermon on the Mount might be the first four. This may be surprising, especially when one considers how infrequently we heed Jesus’ instructions to love our enemies or not to store up treasures on earth. But the first four words of Matthew 5 set the stage for the lengthy teaching that follows, and especially the beatitudes; and if we don’t notice where they direct our attention (specifically, where Jesus’ attention is directed), we will tend to misread the Sermon and the beatitudes. This misunderstanding can happen in several ways. We might see Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes as a kind of moralism: these are the things you must do to earn God’s favor. Or one could go in the opposite direction (like Luther) and see the instructions as an impossible ideal that are simply meant to show us how insufficient we are and encourage us to gratefully fall back into the arms of unearned grace. But neither of these approaches attends sufficiently to the first four words (in Greek) that introduce Jesus’ teaching on the mountain: “Now, seeing the crowds . . . .”


The first four words of the Sermon’s narrative tell us that Jesus’ entire teaching in the Sermon is a response to seeing the crowds. Since this is the case, and since Jesus’ attention is directed toward the crowds, perhaps we might want to know the identity of these crowds that are the catalyst for Jesus’ important and iconic discourse. Of course, we don’t need to go far to identify these crowds; just a few sentences prior, Matthew has told us exactly who they are (Matt 4:23-25). These are people plagued by disease and infirmity, people dealing with severe or chronic pain, people suffering demon possession, people suffering through seizures, and people afflicted with paralysis or other physical disability. Jesus encountered these people wherever he went, and not only does he pay attention to them, but he comes near and restores them. Matthew concludes, “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan followed him” (4:25). These are the crowds. These are the people that when Jesus sees them, he goes up a mountain and calls his disciples to him and begins to teach them.


This is the immediate context of the beatitudes, but the wider context is also illuminating. The genealogy, so often overlooked, at the beginning of the gospel moves from Abraham to David, through the exile to the coming of the Messiah (1:1-17). Matthew is emphasizing for us that Jesus is the one who brings blessing (Abraham), the good king who rules in partnership with God (David, at his best), and the one who leads God’s people from their exile back to their place and vocation, so that they can participate well in God’s desires for them and for the world. After the genealogy, Matthew is careful to structure Jesus’ life along the pattern of Israel: oppressed and threatened by Pharaoh (Herod), passing through the Sea of Reeds (baptism), tested in the wilderness for 40 years (tempted by Satan for 40 days). In all of these ways, Jesus reenacts the story of God’s people and shows himself to be faithful to God’s call and covenant, so that once he returns from the wilderness, he proclaims God’s kingdom (as God’s anointed Messiah-king; 4:17), reconstitutes the 12 tribes back from exile (in calling the disciples; 4:18-22), and brings the blessing of Abraham to the suffering ones (4:23-25).


It is these immediate and wider contexts that help us see what the beatitudes are about. Jesus looks at the crowds (filled with desperate suffering people), knows that his time is limited—he’ll soon be on his way to Jerusalem and crucifixion—and wants to teach his disciples about how things go in his kingdom, wants to direct their attention to where he directs his attention, wants to make his concerns their concerns, wants these desperate people to be priority people for his disciples. This way, the community that Jesus is forming will be able to do the work among these people that Jesus did when he walked the earth. So the beatitudes are not a list of requirements for his followers (as if Jesus is saying, “be poor in spirit, be meek, be mournful . . ., etc.”), nor are they impossible ideals that Jesus expects us to fail at badly. The beatitudes are a political platform of the kingdom of heaven.[1] This is how Jesus’ kingdom operates. It’s an upside-down kingdom, or rather it reveals how upside down the kingdoms and systems of our world are.


In the beatitudes Jesus is teaching us who is blessed in his kingdom. So with the first beatitude, he’s not giving instructions regarding how we are to be poor in spirit (though that may be implied). He’s not giving an imperative but rather a statement of fact, like a State of the Union address for the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Jesus’ kingdom, these are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs. The poor in spirit are those who know their need, not only materially, but also spiritually. Luke’s telling of the beatitudes focuses on the materially poor (Luke 6:20), while Matthew’s account emphasizes one’s trust and dependence on God. These people who are not on top economically and don’t have everything together spiritually (precisely the people in these crowds that Jesus sees), but nonetheless, recognize their need for God are blessed in Jesus’ kingdom—theirs is the kingdom. Jesus is training our spiritual eyesight, because we usually regard them as outsiders; we’re not accustomed to recognizing people like this as blessed, let alone as the true possessors of the kingdom.


“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (NIV). Again, it’s not that Jesus is encouraging us all to mourn more, as if mourning is a virtue. Mourning indicates that things are not as they should be; mourning implies a state of affairs that no one would encourage more of. But in the risen Jesus’ kingdom, those who mourn because of loss, because of the prevalence of suffering and death—again think of those crowds—they will be comforted by the community of Jesus, who embody his concerns for the poor and suffering, and surround these people with comfort and aid. Those who mourn are invited to come to King Jesus and find a space of hospitality and comfort. To encounter the community of Jesus is to have a community that will share the burden and the work of grief.


“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (NIV). The meek are not people who go around letting others beat them up. Jesus is likely quoting Psalm 37:11 here. The Psalm is an encouragement to do right despite the actions of evildoers and leaders who abuse their power for greedy gain. The Psalm’s call to eschew violence and retribution, and to always pursue social justice correlates with Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon. [2] The meek are those who are confident in who they are because they are confident in whose they are. They belong to God, and therefore they do not have to resort to violence or scamming schemes to get ahead. It is these who wait on God who will inherit the land and live peaceably there under the reign of Messiah Jesus.[3]


“Blessed are the hungry and thirsty ones for righteousness/justice, for they will be filled.” Again, Jesus is not instructing his disciples to become hungry and thirsty for righteousness, this is not a command. Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice (the same Greek work translates both Hebrew concepts) are again the harassed and suffering crowd. They are deprived of and long for right relationships and justice where no one goes without because some are hoarding resources only for themselves (see Matthew 25:31-46). In Jesus’ kingdom, those hungering for right and just relations with their neighbors will be filled with good things: resources will be distributed, food will be shared at a common table. People will not fear scarcity and draw back in self-preservation, but trust in God’s abundant goodness and lean in with self-giving love.


In the same way, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers (5:7-9) are the ones to whom Jesus directs his attention, and to whom he directs his disciples’ attention. Mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking are not often held up as virtues in a first century world (or in our 21st Century world) where these things make one vulnerable. But Jesus pronounces God’s blessing over precisely these things. And he concludes with the final two words of blessing over those who will be persecuted for the sake of being this kind of community, oriented around his values, attentive to the people he is primarily concerned for. His kingdom is odd and living this way isn’t the quickest or most effective way to “get ahead” in this world, but it is precisely the way to live fully into the kingdom of heaven. And therefore, when the community of Jesus embodies his values, when they behave as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, living these these priorities and suffering for it, Jesus pronounces blessing over them.


[1] See S. Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 61: “[T]he sermon is not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples. The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people . . . . The sermon, therefore, it is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”

[2] Seriously, go read the whole of Psalm 37 and then think about the themes of the beatitudes and indeed the entire Sermon on the Mount.

[3] The meek exercise power the same way that Jesus does, they don’t have to push others down or overly aggressively assert themselves. Jesus uses the same word for “meek” about himself several times in Matthew’s gospel (11:29; 21:5), see A.-J. Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020), 17-21. I am indebted to Levine’s insights on much of this discussion of the meek.

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