Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes of Jesus

Sermon-on-the-Mount
A Bengali depiction of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: 

“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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“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. (NIV) 

Just as God’s Law was given on a mountain (The Ten Commandments) so the law was restated on a mountain by Jesus (Sermon on the Mount). I believe that arguably one of the most important and impacting portions of Holy Scripture are the Beatitudes of Jesus, which serve as the foundation to all of Christ’s teaching. These Beatitudes are not simply a random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God. They intentionally build upon each other and describe true righteousness.  

Blessed are the poor in spirit.   

This Beatitude 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. Instead, Jesus told them they have a place as poor and pitiable people. To be “poor in spirit” means one is 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 no ability to strike deals; they have nothing to leverage with; and, realize they deserve nothing. Beggars do one thing continually: they beg. 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 the proud. 

Blessed are those who mourn. 

This 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 because 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. 

Blessed are the meek. 

A meek spirit is the result of realizing our poverty of spirit and practicing grief and lament. At the heart of what it means to be meek is a spirit of non-retaliation. When 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 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. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble/meek end up longing for righteousness. This is much more than just desire; this is the 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. That is what happens when a person is meek. Such a person knows she cannot make things right by herself; she needs help, specifically, God’s help. If we ever have the thought that 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. 

Sermon on the Mount
A fresco of the Sermon on the Mount on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel.

There are three practices of living that arise from being filled with God’s righteousness.  They are the next three Beatitudes of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. These cannot be conjured up by our own will. 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. Instead, you work with the unforced rhythms of God’s grace and allow his righteousness to take root in you. Below the soil the activity of spiritual poverty, mourning, and humility takes place. Then, when the plant breaks the soil and flowers, it produces mercy, purity, and peace-making. 

Blessed are the merciful.  

Mercy begins with a disposition of the heart that seeks to be generous. Mercy 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. Mercy 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. 

Blessed are the pure in heart. 

Purity also results from true righteousness. A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it is filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness is concerned to look good, is obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. Conversely, the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for his use. 

Blessed are the peacemakers.  

Peacemakers are people who find themselves caught in the middle and want to live righteously with the mercy and purity that God has provided for them. Peace is only realized through peacemakers. It seems we all desire peace, yet, peacemakers are hard to come by. It’s a tough gig. Peacemakers exist through being characterized by the earlier Beatitudes. To achieve peace, one must first be at peace with God and self – which is why we need the cross of Jesus Christ. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.  

When a person lives in this righteousness as presented by Jesus, there will be persecution. 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 former Pope Benedict XVI, explained Christ’s Beatitudes this way: “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.” 

Those who are in Jesus Christ become living beatitudes, walking, talking blessings to the world.  Those who live with Jesus in his kingdom have a destiny to be witnesses to another 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. 

Poverty of Spirit

A beggar in BelÈm, Lisbon. He sat there for hours without moving.

I like having conversations with people… most of the time.  Yet, I don’t like being in a discussion where I’m wondering if the person has an agenda.  That causes me to have my antenna up concerning his/her motives or attitude.  Maybe, like me, you’ve had that moment either within a conversation or afterward where you realize, “Gosh, that dude was a real schmuck.  He was just preening and posturing to get something.”  Most of us aren’t schmucks.  You are probably reading this because you want to do what is right, just, and good.  When it comes to Christian spirituality and discipleship, we would like God’s stamp of approval on our lives.  We want to walk in the words and ways of Jesus, and not be “that guy” who is obnoxious or contemptible.

The Beatitudes of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-12) tell us what being “blessed” by God looks like.  The Beatitudes were countercultural to the prevailing religious milieu of Christ’s day, and, even today, are often not the kinds of characteristics which a lot of people embody.  In other words, the Beatitudes are not really on a lot of folks’ radar.

God cares not only for what we do, but why we do it.  Our attitudes are just as important to him as our actions.  Obeying God, honoring your parents, submitting to a boss, or listening to a teacher might be actions we do, but if we do them with a begrudging spirit which believes that we could do everything better than all these other persons, then pride has reared its sinister head.  In such times, we are more in league with the ancient Pharisees than with Jesus.

But I am confident of better things in your case.  Pursuing true righteousness – a right relationship with God and with others – is what brings real and lasting joy.  Whereas the Pharisees based their righteousness on outward appearances and pious behaviors, the true follower of Jesus adopts inner attitudes of humility which result in outward gestures of genuine love.  Being a conformist to a prevailing form of outward Christianity is useless, because our standard of righteousness as Christians is not what everybody else is doing, but what Christ has done.

The bedrock attitude of a Christian is humility, and this is what the first Beatitude establishes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Christians are spiritual beggars, the ones who acknowledge their great need, and are desperate for Jesus.  A beggar begs because he/she cannot simply meet their own need, and they have no means to reciprocate and give anything in return.

John Chrysostom quote

In saying that the poor in spirit are blessed, Jesus is saying that his followers have an awareness that they are spiritually bankrupt before God and stand in stark need of him.  An urgency of longing for God is at the heart of a spiritual beggar.

It isn’t hard to notice a person who is poor in spirit because true humility stands out in a culture of pride.  A spiritual beggar:

  • Doesn’t try and make slick deals with God, because they have nothing to bargain with; instead, they are content with unconditional surrender to a God of grace and mercy.
  • Doesn’t complain, because they realize they don’t deserve anything; instead, they incessantly praise God for his incredible grace to them.
  • Prays a lot, because a beggar is always begging; they pray, not because it is an effective strategy to get what they want, but because they are destitute without God.
  • Takes Christ on his terms, without acting like a peacock to get noticed, because a beggar has no position or pedigree to rely upon.
  • Realizes that the more they learn, the more they don’t know; therefore, they rely completely on God without being stubbornly independent – they listen to Scripture rather than talk all the time.
  • Knows no enemies because having lots of stuff and superior status only engenders defending turf and maintaining position.

The late Henri Nouwen once said: “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends.  We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.”  Those who are poor in spirit are not anxiously clinging to their stuff, their money, their good name, or their supposed right to be in control.

Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The way is narrow, and only a few are willing to truly humble themselves before God and take the posture of a beggar.  To think we do not need to bow to such a lowly activity of begging belies that we believe we are above such things – which is the broad open way of destruction that many will find.

The only way to enter God’s kingdom is through humility.  The Lord’s realm is populated with those who are lowly.  Many times we might think that the most spiritual among us are those that give.  Yet, it could very well be that much of the giving is meant to maintain personal independence, an inordinate position over another person, and the status of not being in need.  Receiving with open hands can be a much harder thing to do, because it communicates to another that we are in need – and our pride doesn’t like that.

So, it is my hope for you today that you will know the blessing of being a spiritual beggar.  May you realize that your poverty of spirit is a blessed narrow way toward the wealth of imputed righteousness.  May you enjoy the kingdom of God, bask in the grace given by God, and receive all God’s good gifts with gratitude.