If you were to survey most Christians, I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount would rank up there as one most remembered of the gospels. Jesus has a crowd gathered, eager to hear his teaching. The scene could not be more appropriate: Jesus ascends to a place where he can speak to the masses. The little cues of Matthew’s narration set up what is about to unfold. Jesus assumes the posture of teacher, sitting down, attended by his disciples, and then what sounds like a minor detail: he opens his mouth to speak. This phrase cues Matthew’s reader that Jesus is one who speaks with authority, just like the “greats” who have gone before.
Speaking with authority is a difficult concept for us nowadays. We live in the midst of a 24 hour news cycle, where matters of public discourse get turned into the grist mill of news commentary and pundits battling ideological differences, and then Stephen Colbert and others end the night, poking fun at the pundits. (They do not want for comedy-worthy material from either side of the fence.)
Authority does not carry much weight. We live in a time of distrust that any authority has much good to say, or if it sounds good, such talk needs scrutiny. We look for bias. We presume a subtext at work. We frown, arms folded, skeptical that much good can come of this political speech or that ideological way of thinking.
Jesus has gathered for a multitude with very little distrust. In fact, he seems to be rather harried with the adoration and praise. He has started his ministry, gathered some disciples, but the groundswell of people interested in hearing more and receiving his healing touch is overwhelming. He has struck a deep chord among the people of rural and coastal Galilee.
Fast forward to the end of this story called “gospel”, however, and you find that Jesus is alone, walking (as best he can) towards another place, one called “Golgotha”, or that is, “the place of the skull”. The crowds that are around him are mostly hostile. The disciples are nowhere to be found.
It could be said that what he says up there on the Mount is the first of many things that will not sit well with his detractors. It is said that he is too controversial, too against the grain. It angers them enough to the point they conspire to get rid of him.
Some people, called Christians, say that Jesus spoke with authority, unlike any other.
The Sermon on the Mount is part of that unusual message of Jesus. In these nine short sayings, Jesus begins his task of imagining a different sort of world. Imagine if you will that a major political speech began not with a critique of Wall Street, but with a story from a soup kitchen, or if a Congressional panel interviewed peace activists, rather than military generals, about the defense needs of the country. Yeah? I know, it sounds pretty far-fetched. While it is not part of the world as we know it, the Beatitudes proclaim it gladly.
Here, we find that different world of the Beatitudes at work. For example, the grief-stricken are given promise of comfort. The earnest humble type will be received gladly into God’s kingdom-reign. Those who live in fear of persecution will have safety. And the list goes on…..
The Beatitudes are an extension of what Jesus was first saying as his ministry began: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near”. The crowds have gathered as Jesus has brought hope to the rural, mostly forgotten places of Galilee. He is willing to share this teaching beyond his “faithful” inner circle. Everyone is welcome to hear this word, yet the response will be mixed. Can we live in such a world as Jesus’ beatitudes put forth?
With Jesus’ teachings, there is an innate tension between the present and the future. How will we be comforted from our grief? How will we feel vindicated when the world seems against us? How do we manage when there’s not much hope to be found around us?
The Beatitudes have a curious grammar. On one hand, Jesus names people who “are” in a certain predicament or live in a way less desirable to others (i.e. do you really want to be known as “meek” when the culture says, “be strong!”?). In the same breath, he draws them into the future, a much brighter, hopeful time. How hopeful is this future? It is astonishing!
How so? Let’s again look at the meek. Imagine the quieter, less competitive type as the person ahead of you in the line to Heaven’s gates. It goes against the story (or perhaps better said, myth) of life as we know it that you need to be aggressive and competitive to get ahead. Yet, Jesus says those who are not the best players of that sort of game, or who choose not to be, are the ones who “get ahead” in God’s realm.
In these beatitudes, Jesus is reshaping our expectations of what the future holds. For those who feel like perpetual students of “the School of Hard Knocks”, there will be a reckoning, and for once, it will be one you want to come about! The burdensome issues of the present shall give way to a future where the playing field is level, and a truly peaceable kingdom, one remarkably unlike Rome, shall reign.
The grammar of the Beatitudes is subversive. We are given a vision of the future as God will bring it about. Jesus also intends for those hearing these beatitudes to work in the here and now as if that future is the pattern we follow in our present day actions. We live as a people who decline to give in and let the “lesser” folks or the forgotten or the bereft or the condemned or the unjustly treated be left to arbitrary treatments. The Beatitudes swing back and forth between “what will be” and “what we need to get things to be”.
In our most common English translations, the Beatitudes describe various people in crisis getting their liberating word about God’s future for them by being called “blessed”. In truth, the concept underlying the Greek word Jesus uses (Gk. makarios) is better translated as “esteemed” or “honored”. The persons who have already lost the most stand to gain greatly, not only in alleviation of their predicaments or impoverishment but in their standing in the kingdom that shall last: the kingdom of God. “Esteemed are those who grieve” or “honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” places a different spin on the Beatitudes. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann claims that such teachings of Jesus highlight the gospel’s belief in “the dignity of the poor” (The Way of Jesus Christ, pp. 99-102). When Jesus pronounces blessings upon the vulnerable, he also provides a word about how strong the “weak” shall be when the Kingdom of God draws near. Without these esteemed and honored peoples, the Kingdom/Reign cannot live up to its potential (cf. Moltmann, 101-2). Such a far cry from the world where those perceived as “weak” are marginalized or tossed aside.
A few years back, I became acquainted with a pastor who serves an American Baptist congregation in Florida. The church named itself the “Church of the Beatitudes”. It is known as one of the few ABC/USA congregations in Florida. It is also known for its commitments to the community, social justice, and its stand with those less fortunate. Over the years, the congregation has grown into the name they chose all those years ago. They became who they called themselves to be. They endeavor to be the followers that Jesus was looking for when he gave these beatitudes long ago.
Sometimes, we Baptists name our congregations based on a variety of factors. “Second Baptist” can mean they were the second one to form, or in many cases, the first one to split off of the “First” Baptist congregation. (We have a habit of church planting by way of church split.) Other times, we name a church based on a neighborhood or a community name (I used to serve a Kansas City congregation named Brenner Heights.) A few Baptist churches are named after noteworthy people (i.e. there are more than a few “Judson Baptist Churches”, so named after the renowned missionary).
Curiously enough the same challenge is given to each congregation, regardless of its name or even its denomination. For those who follow Christ, the question arises about the Beatitudes: will you be part of the proclaiming of Christ’s word? Do you live alongside those considered inconsequential by larger society? Is your faith community a place where dignity is understood to be granted without exception by God, and not by whatever prevailing societal politics or ecclesiastical polity might say? Each congregation that follows the gospel has to ask itself whether or not it is also “a church of the Beatitudes”.