New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This passage begins what is often called the Sermon on the Mount which continues through chapter 7. The Sermon is most likely a collection of many teachings of Jesus rather than one sermon. Matthew chose these events to demonstrate the “new thing” Jesus is doing in the world that redefines the people’s understanding of God’s kingdom.
Matthew 5:1-12 is usually referred to as “The Beatitudes.” The word beatitude comes from the Latin and is translated blessed. In his own translation Author N.T. Wright uses the phrase “Wonderful News” to begin each blessing. Hear his version of the passage:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the hillside and sat down. His disciples came to him. He took a deep breath and began his teaching:
Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
Wonderful news for the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
Wonderful news for the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
Wonderful news for people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
Wonderful news for the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.
Wonderful news for the pure in heart. You will see God.
Wonderful news for the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.
Wonderful news for people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
Wonderful news for you when people slander you and persecute you and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me. Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.
Wright’s version gives a bit of a different spin on the passage, directing those with the listed characteristics to the hope and promise that is theirs.
The Beatitudes are the introduction to the massive change that comes as a result of God’s new thing, a different view of the world. Think of a child’s picture of the world and its people. The earth is drawn as a circle possibly with what may look like continents inside of it. The people are drawn around the circle as standing with their feet on the world and their heads in the sky. So, some of the people are standing sideways and upside down!
As adults, we have a better understanding of the earth. We know people don’t stand upside down on the other side of the world! We understand the difference between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere – the opposite seasons and the differing lifestyles that are a result. Yet, in a way, the child’s picture describes what Jesus is saying in these words of the Beatitudes: God is turning the world on its head!
Jesus is leading the people somewhere they had never been before. Sort of like traveling from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere in January. A shift from wearing a parka, hat, gloves, and boots while shoveling snow to wearing a swimming suit while lying on the sand getting a tan. Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked at his words.
These words from Matthew are probably familiar to you, but you may not remember each blessing and its corresponding wonderful news as written. Some may think that these are Jesus’ instructions on how to live, the character traits to strive for so as to receive what is promised. Rather, Jesus is teaching that people who are living in these experiences are in good shape.
Jesus is not suggesting that these statements are timeless truths about human behavior or how the world is. If so, we would note that he was wrong. Mourners are not always comforted. The meek don’t inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for justice rarely see it. The merciful don’t always receive mercy. The persecuted rarely own much let alone the kingdom of heaven.
We live in an upside-down world. What we think should be true, fair, and just isn’t.
Perhaps the world Jesus proclaims is the real right-way-up world. His teaching and work were already beginning to make it so. There were those who were poor in spirit, who sought justice, and who were peacemakers. These were already beginning to experience the wonderful news, the blessings, that came from hearing and following Jesus.
Matthew presents Jesus’ words here as an announcement, not a philosophical analysis of the world. He is teaching about the way the world is beginning to change and the way that listeners and followers are changing. These are not truths of life or good advice. This is good news, wonderful news, the gospel! The list of blessings is one of the pieces of Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to join in the new thing that he is bringing into the world.
Following Jesus’ invitation can’t help but bring a new perspective to live. It is akin to seeing the world from the bottom instead of the top. Not the bottom of a barrel. More like scuba diving under the ocean. The beauty surrounds you, below and above.
In our world, people think that wonderful news, blessings, comes in success, wealth, health, long life, and winning the fight of life. Success is having all the toys (remember the bumper sticker, “He who has the most toys wins”).
In Jesus’ world, wonderful news, blessings, are experienced by the humble, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the merciful, and all the rest. This news, God’s wonderful news, is the greatest news there is. It ought to be published with a headline screaming, “Read All About It!”
Jesus is turning the world on its head. Throw off the boots and parka, toss aside the snow shovel. Enjoy the sun and the beach, grab the sunscreen. Jesus is proclaiming the good news, the gospel, which is for all people.
Through Jesus, God’s new relationship with God’s people is proclaimed. The new covenant, full of blessings and forgiveness, is in play, rather than the rules and consequences understood as necessary for fulfilling the old covenant. There is a new way of life that is already beginning.
We might ask when the promises Jesus proclaims come true. When do people have the kingdom of heaven or inherit the earth or see God?
The assumption is that these things happen in heaven, after death. Heaven is God’s space. The space where full reality exists. Yet this full reality interlocks with our ordinary, earthly reality. The earthly reality becomes better and better.
C.S. Lewis’ well-known series, The Chronicles of Narnia, tells the story of children who come to the world of Narnia to experience a new way of life. It is not always pleasant or fun but changes them in positive ways. In the final book of the series, The Last Battle, the heroes and heroines of the chronicles, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, return to Narnia for the final time. Near the end of the book, they are greeted by Aslan the Lion, the keeper of hope and promise, at a door and then ushered inside. As they walk upward through the hills, everything becomes greener and more alive. They see London in the distance. The city becomes brighter and cleaner as they walk. The farther in they walk, the better and more alive things become. A vision of what heaven is like.
One day heaven and earth will be joined together forever as described in Revelation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth that is brighter and more alive than anything experienced along the way. In the meantime, we live in a world that is not always pleasant or fun, but increasingly becomes the new thing Jesus proclaims.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We live in the space where God’s will is being done on earth, maybe in smaller ways than we would like, through Jesus Christ.
The future is now not only in heaven. We are beginning to live out what Jesus proclaims. Jesus continues to give us the invitation to live in the here and now in a way that will make even more sense in God’s promised future.