Christ’s Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Sermon on the Mount by Gisele Bauche

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (New Revised Standard Version)

God’s Law (The Ten Commandments) was given on a mountain. That Law was restated and reframed on a mountain by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

I believe that arguably one of the most important and impactful portions of Holy Scripture are the Beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as the foundation to all of Christ’s teaching.

Christ’s Beatitudes are not simply a random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval and blessing from God. They intentionally build upon each other and describe the nature of true righteousness.

The Poor in Spirit

Spiritual poverty, not wealth, is the spiritual base to the Christian life. Most of the original crowd listening to Jesus thought they were on the outside of the kingdom, on the margins of true religion. But Jesus told them they have a place in God’s reign as poor and pitiable people.

To be “poor in spirit” is to be a spiritual beggar who recognizes they have nothing to offer God. It is seeing oneself, one’s sin, and one’s life as spiritually bankrupt apart from God.

Beggars have neither the leverage nor the ability to strike deals with anybody; and so, they do one thing: beg continually.

The proud person would never be caught begging for anything. Yet, the humble spiritual beggar constantly prays because they need God. They discern that without God there is no hope. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the penitent and not to the proud.

The Mourners 

Mourning is the emotional response of acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty. 

Grief and lament have a central place in Christian theology and life. To avoid it, work around it, or short-circuit its process is to refuse Christ; there is no righteousness apart from mourning over sin. Crying, weeping, and even intense tears are important and necessary.

To experience personal grief over one’s sins and the sins of the church and the world is a Beatitude of Jesus. You neither need position, power, privilege, nor pedigree to be a mourner. All can mourn. This is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God.

The Meek

A meek and gentle spirit is the result of realizing poverty of spirit and practicing lament.

At the heart of what it means to be meek is a spirit of non-retaliation. Whenever we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. Thus, there is no ability to look down on others.

To be meek is to be broken and moldable before God. A meek person takes personal responsibility for their attitudes and actions. The meek have no need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because they fully entrust themselves to God alone who judges the living and the dead.

Ironically, brokenness is the path to righteous wholeness.

The Hungry and Thirsty

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are gentle, end up longing for righteousness.

The desire for righteousness is a recognition that without God I will not make it. I cannot be righteous without Jesus. Simply put, righteousness is a right relationship with God and others.

Those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness know they cannot make things right by themselves; they need God’s help.

If we think we can live most days of our lives without God, we do not yet know true righteousness. People who understand their great need for Jesus are easy to spot. They crave and devour God’s Word as their daily food; and they cannot stop blabbering on about Jesus.

There are three practices of living that arise from being filled with God’s righteousness: mercy, purity, and peacemaking. These Beatitudes cannot be conjured up by our own will; instead, they organically grow within us and are freely expressed because of what God is doing in our lives.

You cannot force them any more than you can force a stalk of corn to grow on your terms. Rather, you work with the unforced rhythms of God’s grace and allow righteousness to take root in you.

Down below in the soil, spiritual poverty, mourning, and humility germinate. Then, when the plant breaks the soil and flowers, it produces mercy, purity, and peace-making.

The Merciful 

Mercy begins with a heart that seeks to be generous; it is a loving response to someone or a group of people in misery. We accept them and help them because we ourselves have been there.

The merciful person looks for ways to come alongside others and help, rather than pile expectations and burdens on others without mentoring them in the ways of God.

The Pure In Heart

Purity also results from true righteousness. A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it’s filled with worms, it’s not worth much. Legalistic righteousness is concerned to look good; it’s obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions.

Conversely, the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for good use.

The Peacemakers 

Those who make peace intentionally put themselves in the middle of trouble because they want to live righteously with the mercy and purity that God has provided for them.

Peace is realized through peacemakers. It seems we all desire peace, and yet, peacemakers are hard to come by. It’s a tough gig. To achieve peace, one must first be at peace with God and self – which is why we need the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Persecuted 

Living righteously, as presented by Jesus, tends to bring persecution; and the persecuted consider it a small price to pay for realizing God’s justice in the world.

Folks who are offended by even slight criticisms are usually the ones who are privileged and in power. They have not yet learned the ways of Jesus. Pettiness is nothing more than a sign of unrighteousness.

Yoking up with Jesus, following him, and living into his words and ways has always been risky and dangerous. The Beatitudes of Jesus are not characteristics that lead to power, prestige, or possessions, but likely just the opposite.

“The Beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus’ disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in their suffering. The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and humanity inaugurated by Jesus.”

Pope Benedict XVI

Truly righteous persons become living Beatitudes; they are walking, talking blessings to the world. They abide with Christ and are witnesses to a subversive, yet wonderful, way of life, where the last are first and the greatest are the least.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace.

Leading Is Serving (Micah 3:1-4)

Then I said:

“Listen, leaders of Jacob, leaders of Israel:
    Don’t you know anything of justice?
Haters of good, lovers of evil:
    Isn’t justice in your job description?
But you skin my people alive.
    You rip the meat off their bones.
You break up the bones, chop the meat,
    and throw it in a pot for cannibal stew.”

The time’s coming, though, when these same leaders
    will cry out for help to God, but he won’t listen.
He’ll turn his face the other way
    because of their history of evil. (The Message)

The prophet Micah wasn’t speaking to the general population; he was specifically addressing leaders. Those in authority – whether religious, political, educational, or corporate – can be sometimes rather hard on the people they lead. Yet, most things rise or fall because of leadership, and not because of the people being led.

It’s one thing to be a Pastor and preach an angry sermon; a politician who spins the truth for their own advantage; a teacher who one day berates the students; or a boss who uncharitably chastises an employee; and it’s quite another thing for these behaviors to be habitual. A daily dose of leaders who view people as dumb sheep to fleece are eventually in for big trouble… from God!

Most leaders ascended to their position because they know what’s up and how to go about their business. They know the difference between right and wrong. But instead of viewing themselves as servants to the people, some leaders believe the people ought to be serving them. This sort of attitude comes out in snarky phrases, such as:

  • “If these idiots would only listen to me, and do what I tell them, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
  • “How many times do I have to repeat myself!?”
  • “Excuses, excuses. That’s all I hear. They’re nothing but a bunch of lazy ungrateful people!”
  • “Leave your problems at home where they belong. We don’t talk about that stuff here!”
  • “What makes you think you can talk to me that way!?”
  • “It’s out of my hands. Not my responsibility.”
  • “It wasn’t like this in my generation. These young people just don’t want to do anything that’s hard. Back in my day I had to….”

The real problem, however, are the leaders themselves; they haven’t gotten out their own way to let the justice of God flow powerfully in them and through them to the benefit of everyone.

Having a leader who is attentive to basic human kindness, generous with words, and concerned for all under their authority is like a kiss on the lips. But a leader who only thinks of themselves is like a bad dream that won’t go away.

A society cannot survive without justice, that is, a concern for the common good of all persons – and coupled with systemic practices which reinforce that basic conviction. Some leaders have good hearts but bad organizational systems. Other leaders administrate well but have a hard time relating to people. We need both for justice to occur.

Once leaders get in a groove of justice, society flourishes. Yet, leaders need to be continually vigilant; their leadership can easily devolve into struggles to obtain and maintain power so that they can feel important and in control of things.

The Old Testament prophets, like Micah, used imaginative metaphors to make their case that injustice needed to be done away with. And they nearly always laid the burden of change on leaders. Leadership is meant to make things right, not wrong, and to help a group of people become better, not worse.

Justice is in every leader’s job description. It’s written on both the conscience and the heart in permanent marker.

When things go sideways, godly leaders first look at themselves, rather than reflexively blaming others. Typically, there is plenty of guilt to go around; yet the leader needs to bear the onus of the problem and begin addressing it by first looking within themselves.

It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that justice and freedom are established – and that there are no obstacles to all the people living successfully. Leaders are to be learners so that they may do good and create systems of good for everyone.

Stop doing wrong
    and learn to live right.
See that justice is done.
Defend widows and orphans
    and help the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:16-17, CEV)

Those who held authority in Micah’s day had gotten drunk on power and privilege; they openly used their authority to consume the poor and needy. Rather than empowering the underprivileged, the leaders snatched what little autonomy and resources the people possessed.

The good news is that there is a greater power operative in the universe than earthly leaders. A hard life caused by insensitive leadership will eventually give way to the Lord’s gracious and benevolent reign over all the earth.

Until that time comes, we are to grow as leaders by seeking to be true and genuine servants.

Politicians are to pursue public service without prejudice and with a keen eye toward all classes of people;

Educators are to commit themselves to ensuring that learning happens with a variety of approaches, all pillowed with loving support;

Employers are to provide whatever is needed to make their employees successful at their jobs, including a safe and caring environment;

Religious leaders are to offer spiritual care and not spiritual judgment to all within their bounds of responsibility.

We all lead other people, whether or not we have the title or position as a leader. Therefore, we all must seek not to be served but to serve others. This is the way of justice and righteousness.

Gracious God and Leader of all: Help us to embrace the challenge and responsibility we have as leaders
to guide us to lead with integrity and common sense. Give us the wisdom to make intelligent decisions; the courage to make tough decisions; and the character to make right decisions. Embolden us to always be welcoming, inclusive, and open because of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Remember the Poor and Needy (Deuteronomy 24:17-25:4)

Harvest in Provence by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (New International Version)

In an ideal world, we would all use our common inner sense of justice, fairness, and kindness; we would pay attention to our conscience. Yet, as you and I know all too well, we are far from living in an idyllic setting.

Instead, we live in a fundamentally broken world – complete with injustice, disagreements, disputes, petty squabbles, and blatant insensitivity to others.

It seems we shouldn’t have to be told how to concern ourselves for the common good of all persons; yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. So, the Lord made it plain what the expectations are for meeting societal needs. And it’s already inside of us; we just need to recognize it’s there, tap into it, and obey our better angels.

The Lord expects:

  • No favoritism, cronyism, and isolationism. Immigrants, foreigners, and folks different from us are to be treated with equal justice and sensitivity. Cliques which are hawkish about keeping certain persons out of their group is mostly selfish and sometimes mean-spirited; and it’s always a sort of discrimination which God expects us to avoid.
  • Attention to the poor among us. In the ancient world, and still is some parts of our world today, when the crops are harvested, the needy would tag behind the harvesters in order to pick up what was left behind. Basic human kindness tells us that not only do we let them do this, but we also purposely leave a bit for them to get for themselves and their families. In our modern era, practices of exorbitant interest and unfair housing need to be replaced with concern for the less fortunate. Wealth is meant to be shared, not hoarded. To not do so is to steal from the poor.
  • Punishments which fit the crime. Inequitable societies are rife with kangaroo courts and unjust laws which favor a particular group of persons. It’s humiliating for a minority prisoner to serve a much longer sentence than a person who is in the majority of society… and we wonder why some folks are so angry sometimes. Good grief.
  • Inclusion. Concern for the common good of society doesn’t exclude folks we don’t like or don’t understand. The reason we are not to “muzzle an ox while its treading out the grain” is that they’re doing a job and they don’t need any hindrances to their work. Placing restrictions or extra rules on one group over another just because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class is sinfully exclusionary.

The bottom line is that God cares about persons trapped in poverty. 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor.” The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, those who are poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor – who have no choice but to put their trust in God because of their grinding poverty.

The Law was quite clear about how to treat the poor:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to the poor and needy were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel: 

Listen to me, you who walk on helpless people,
    you who are trying to destroy the poor people of this country, saying,
“When will the New Moon festival be over
    so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath be over
    so we can bring out wheat to sell?
We can charge them more
    and give them less,
    and we can change the scales to cheat the people.

We will buy poor people for silver,
    and needy people for the price of a pair of sandals.
    We will even sell the wheat that was swept up from the floor.”

The Lord has sworn by his name, the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget everything that these people did. (Amos 8:4-7, NCV) 

The major theme of Deuteronomy is remembering. Don’t ever forget where you came from so that the memory of your past helps shape what kind of person you are in the present.

We must be reminded that it is the poor in spirit who enter the kingdom of heaven, not the proud spirit who forgets the poor. 

The humble person offers grace to people who cannot offer her something in return. It’s one thing to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. But it’s an altogether different thing to show mercy, regardless of whether they can pay you back. 

We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice. 

Eventually, an idyllic world will come. Until that time, we are to speed its coming by showing basic human kindness and compassion to the least among us.

Lord God, you give honor to the least, those who are forgotten, overlooked and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, those who are orphaned, abandoned and destitute. Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice speaking out love and acceptance; your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Obey with Integrity and Love (Psalm 15)

God, who gets invited
    to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

 “Walk straight,
    act right,
        tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend,
    don’t blame your neighbor;
        despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you,
    make an honest living,
        never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get
blacklisted
if you live like this.” (The Message)

Nearly all of us had to work hard to get good grades in school. Each schoolyear began with a blank slate; then, what we did with learning the lessons determined the grade.

So, it’s unthinkable for many of us to consider that we all begin God’s school with A’s. We’re all 4.0 students. There’s only a lower grade if we neglect to do the things necessary as an A student. And, as it turns out, the most important things are a matter of basic human kindness and respect for others.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, awards are given. If we’ve done what’s expected, then the invitation to come to the front and receive the award is assured.

Yet, if anyone has gone out of their way to be deliberately stupid and ignore what’s right, then they aren’t going to show up at the banquet. They’ll dismiss it as a waste of their time and blabber about how they don’t be around a bunch do-gooder pricks and Abe Lincoln’s, blah-blah-blah.

Integrity, honesty, kindness, accountability, and commitment matter. Virtue shows itself through the practice of obedience.

We might get hung up on obedience for a few reasons:

  1. Many Westerners, especially Americans, have a strong anti-authoritarian strain; obedience smacks them as something negative. For some, they would rather stick-it-to-the-man than obey. Even Christians might sacralize their disobedience by linking obedience to law – as if gospel and obedience are antithetical.
  2. A lot of people have been personally hurt because they tried to do the right thing by obeying their authorities, but it ended badly. Now, they aren’t so sure about the whole obedience thing.
  3. We just plain don’t want anyone else telling us what to do and not do; and that includes not wanting to obey God. So, we focus on the freedom to do what we want, to the exclusion of obedience.

Yet, there’s no way to get around the pervasive reality of obedience to Torah, to Yahweh. Obedience is both the glue which holds a people together, as well as the major means of expressing love to God and others.

Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15, NLT)

Love and obedience go together in Holy Scripture like a hand in a glove. Jesus insisted that upholding Torah and loving others is by obedience to divine commands.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Obedient believers are characterized by their:

  • Authentic humility
  • Deep concern over sin, to the point of tears
  • Gentle and meek spirit toward others
  • Intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice
  • Daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking
  • Willingness to accept adversity as part of the spiritual life

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment of head, heart, and gut – with the glue of obedient love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and faith – because God is Lord of it all, not just the spiritual parts.

Historic confessional Christianity acknowledges that obedience is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Believers consider it a both a high charge and a wonderful privilege to love the Lord with a life devoted to obeying divine commands.

It’s just that sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when God’s Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what the Lord is doing in this world. 

At other times, we read scriptural commands and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or grief. 

Then there are times in which we are attentive to God’s Word and Spirit, seeking to obey – only to mess up and fail at it. It can leave us wondering if God could ever really do anything in or through us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails.

We are here on this earth because of how much the Lord is devoted to us. Even though we often walk the spiritual road in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, God accommodates to our weakness. 

So, we keep learning the ways of the Lord under the tutelage of God’s Spirit – who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Blessed God, I seek not my own will but to fulfill your will in my everyday life. Enable me and strengthen me for this sacred duty and delight, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.