It is characteristic of the New Testament message that it is introduced with blessings. Jesus introduces the theme of his Sermon, not by talking about God, but by commending certain characteristics in humans. In so doing he paradoxically reveals a great deal about God, by showing us where God’s blessings are to be found.
Enough volumes have been written throughout Christian history on these few sayings to fill libraries, and it might seem presumptuous1 for another word to be added to the mass of commentary on these verses already in existence. Yet it is necessary for our task to ask in what way, in accordance with the warning and promise of Jesus, these pronouncements of blessing may be rightly heard, so as to be put into practice. My view is that here we have nuggets of divine truth, each of which is what we might call a presentation of the gospel in a nutshell.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Poverty of spirit: a strange thing for a spiritual leader to pronounce as good! Yet here we have the first lesson in the gospel of grace: it is not those whose ability is most evident, but whose knowledge of their need is greatest, whom Jesus declares are the heirs of God’s Kingdom. Those who with Paul are able to say, I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18) – or even, like Jesus, protest, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18) – such are the very ones who are able to receive from God the riches of the kingdom of heaven.
Luke 6:20-262 indicates that this same principle passes over from the purely spiritual into the economic realm, and is complemented by a corresponding declaration of woe upon the rich, “for you have already received your comfort.”
Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus now tells us that it is through those who display poverty of spirit – namely, who live in full view of their own personal inadequacy – that God’s rule will work in this world in the face of the rule of the Enemy. This is the first lesson in the good news of repentance and faith. The promise of the kingdom is not merely a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by kind of promise offering a hollow hope for eventual respite from the sorrows of this life. It is a declaration that here, subject to the sort of person who is not ashamed to confront his or her own needs and shortcomings, God will extend the borders of God’s domain on earth.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Many things may occasion mourning: a missed opportunity, a lost job, a great injustice, a divorce or a disaster – or any tragically broken relationship, which is a kind of death in itself.
It is possible, of course, to harden oneself against personal grief, denying even the need for comfort. A need that is thus denied cannot be met, for reasons similar to what we saw above concerning poverty of spirit. But the gospel promise, “comfort,” is offered to persons who acknowledge the pain of loss and separation. The Greek word is parakaleo, whose prefix para- implies nearness, but whose root gives the idea of a call, particularly the idea of someone being called by name. Thus, to be comforted would be to be named with someone else. Remember that the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter (Parakletos, one called alongside to help), and you get the idea: God himself will comfort those who mourn; will provide a Presence to strengthen the one who feels a loss so deeply. As a result, a person coming through such an experience often becomes able to be a source of strength to others in their times of mourning. Something is revealed to us here of the nature of God: God is to be found in the presence of the sorrow and the suffering of humans. Here is a divine precedent for the Pauline admonition (Romans 12:15) not only to rejoice with those who rejoice, but to mourn with those who mourn. This is what God already does; God is affected by the human situation. Isn’t this the message of the Cross? Emmanuel (God-with-us) took our suffering upon himself.
So we see a divine transformation. Those who dare to sorrow on behalf of others are doing a godly work, and God is already present in them: they are blessed.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The strong temptation here is to apply a figurative or purely futuristic meaning to the promise that the meek will inherit the earth. Sure, we say, when the Lord comes back the meek will get their inheritance, but meanwhile we’ve got to fight our battles for this world’s good on this world’s terms. But Jesus associates the blessing he pronounces on the meek not with the eventual hope of heaven, but with this earth.
Meekness is humility, the character of a servant spirit, the antithesis of arrogance3 . We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that it is the same as passivity, or weakness of character. On the contrary, it is the foundation of a healthy self-respect.
Nor do we need to think of humility as something which compels us to put ourselves down, or to insist that none of our deeds or ideas are worthwhile. What humility involves is an accurate assessment of our own situation. It acknowledges all the gifts God has given us, including natural ability and accomplishments in this world, and does not pretend that such things do not exist; but it recognizes the complete reality of the situation, namely that we have nothing that we did not receive, and that our abilities and accomplishments do not stand on their own, but are worthwhile because they have been done through God (John 3:21). This produces a quiet confidence which enables us to refuse to manipulate another person, while also not allowing ourselves to be manipulated. Once again, those who acknowledge their dependence on God are the very ones who can face the world boldly in God’s name, and stake out territory for God’s rule. Of such persons it can truly be said, “all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (I Corinthians 3:22-23, KJV).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Righteousness in the Bible simply means living right.
A common and rather traditional theological trick bypasses this whole discussion, however, and it deserves comment. This would take issue with the claim that righteousness is a matter of living right, and make it instead a kind of abstract religious category regarding our standing in the sight of God. Faith then becomes defined as that set of religious opinions which, if we hold them, provides us such standing, and our actual conduct in the world loses its relevance.
What of those who see wrongs being committed in the world, and earnestly desire to see them corrected? Here righteousness carries the idea of right relationships, of justice in the sense of fairness and equitable dealings. The good news, says Jesus, is that those who care about such things enjoy the blessing of God, and will see their desires fulfilled. This word needs to be heard in our day by those who are working (and hungering and thirsting) for economic justice for the poor, for relief to politically oppressed peoples in many nations of the world, and for alternatives to military force as a way of solving international disputes. It is also a call and a challenge to others who have not yet dared hope that such things are worth hungering for, because the prospect of seeing them fulfilled seems out of reach.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Once again Jesus is proclaiming to us the worth and value of an attitude which often is left out of the considerations of humans in their search for justice. It may be no accident that this blessing on the merciful follows immediately the one which speaks of hunger for righteousness; it may be that when we are zealous for righteousness (or justice) we could tend to be exceedingly harsh on the unrighteous or the unjust. Yet the mercy of God runs as a major thread throughout the entire Bible, the Old Testament as well as the New. The parable in Matthew 18:21-35 illustrates God’s righteous demand: that those who have been shown mercy must pass that mercy on to others.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
The heart is the spiritual center of a human, the seat of deeply felt desires. We may think of purity as a moral category having to do essentially with abstention from certain behaviors deemed unclean or impure; but here purity has more to do with singleness of purpose or intent. Just as a product is said to be pure to the extent that it contains only one ingredient (“no added chemicals or preservatives”), a pure heart is one which contains a single purpose.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
This is a tough one for many Christians in North America. But peacemaking, or what Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), is central4 to the entire New Testament message. Christ is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and it is he who makes peace between persons of different national backgrounds through the Cross (Ephesians 2:11-19). Those who are called children of God are spiritual adults: persons who in a full-grown, responsible way bear the image and character of their Father. This was the significance in Roman times of adoption. The head of a household would sometimes adopt a faithful slave5 who had demonstrated sufficient maturity and understanding of the father’s ways – and loyalty to the father’s policies – that he could make decisions on behalf of the household in the father’s absence. The same process of adoption was also necessary for a natural son to gain full recognition as his father’s heir. It is this rather awesome conferring of responsibility as well as privilege that Paul uses as a direct analogy for what happens to us as believers (whether male or female: see Galatians 3:28) when we receive ” the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:5), having ” received the Spirit of sonship” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). In both these passages, the word is used which other versions translate as “adoption.” Paul’s readers could not have missed the reference to a well-known contemporary practice. Jesus, the Son of God, endured the Cross that he might be the ” firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
His next mention of sonship – also to be understood in terms of spiritual adulthood – is made in the context of love for enemies. By choosing to follow him completely, we not only receive peace in our hearts but become agents of peace in the world. As we do that, we reveal God’s nature to our generation just as Jesus did to the generation in which he labored.
This matter of peacemaking is thus one which speaks not only of goals, but of methods. The methods used and taught by Jesus are also to be practiced by those whom he calls peacemakers. Romans 8:14 says, As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God, thus making a link between peacemaking and being led by the Spirit.
Peacemaking in the sense used here is the restoring and affirming of relationships, and its attainment is a sign not of physical strength but of spiritual maturity. A peacemaker is one who is able to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans.12:21; I Peter 3:9). That means first of all to overcome the evil in oneself, as is said in Proverbs 16:32: Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city. We will come to more on this in chapter 4, when we find Jesus speaking about how to respond to evil.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It is doubtless no mere coincidence that this first mention of persecution follows hard on the heels of the mention of peacemakers. Anyone who tries to play the role of peacemaker in any conflict is likely to encounter the very real risk of getting in trouble with both sides. Yet, if a person who suffers mistreatment still persists in the behavior occasioning the mistreatment, quite possibly the offending behavior is not merely an expedient for the purpose of comfort, popularity, or any such thing, but a real expression of the person’s commitments and character. Thus, while to say “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” might mean that a person being persecuted can expect a particular reward, it also suggests that the persecution itself reveals the character of the individual being mistreated as one who already lives as a citizen of God’s Kingdom.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Here is again a blessing for the persecuted, but now it is specifically reserved for those who are associated with Jesus. This applies not merely to those who associate with Jesus by name, but who believe his teaching enough to put it into practice, and suffer for it. In our day, we are much less likely to see someone suffer for naming the name of Jesus, than we are to see persecution toward those who dare to apply his practical instruction to situations of modern life. In some cases, such application will be frowned upon (or worse) by persons who see themselves as upholding Christian morality.6 .[ If history is any teacher, we should not be surprised to find that the source of persecution in such cases is often religious authority as well as secular authority. Both priest and prophet opposed Jeremiah, just as the elders, the scribes and the Pharisees condemned Jesus. These are the ones who have the form of godliness, but deny its power (2 Timothy3:5). To such persons Luke 9:26 says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (emphasis added).
A Remarkable Portrait
In this chapter we have seen through the words of Jesus a portrait of the kind of person through whom God will reign. Such persons harbor no illusions about their own resources, but depend on a God of love for everything; grieve over the sin and tragedy in their own lives and in the world; lord it over no one, while submitting to no one but God; long for justice; practice integrity; work actively for peace; and when misunderstood, mistreated and slandered, do not despair or become bitter, but find joy in doing the will of God. Can such a person actually exist in the world? Perhaps some of the people in that original audience wondered that as well. Maybe they thought as we also might like to think: that most of us are still better off if we do not aspire to such a height, but rather stick with the familiar moral teaching our religion has provided for so long. In any event, Jesus proceeds to address the connection between his new and unfamiliar portrait of godliness, and the familiar precepts of traditional religion.
- All right, so it is presumptuous. So sue me. [↩]
- This passage in Luke parallels much of what we find in Matthew 5-7. In many ways it is more hard-hitting than Matthews version, emphasizing the this-worldly aspect of Jesus’ teaching. [↩]
- This is a little tricky, though. William Blake, in his The Everlasting Gospel, points out the elusive character of humility:\n\n What can be done with such desperate Fools\n Who follow after the Heathen Schools\n I was standing by when Jesus died\n What I calld Humility they calld Pride [↩]
- Okay, so this is the third or fourth thing that I have claimed is central. Isn’t there just one center, you ask? Sure. As I said at the beginning, each of these sayings encapsulates the gospel in a particular way. If we get any one of them (really get it) we’ve got the whole program. If you’re merciful, you’ll be pure in heart. If you’re meek, you’ll be a peacemaker. If any of the above, it shows your desire to live right. Etc., etc., etc. Got it? Good. [↩]
- Did you see Ben-Hur? [↩]
- Reserve this space for a reference to Johann Arndt’s observation that if you follow Jesus rightly you are likely to be accused of not being a Christian. [↩]