Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, beginning in chapter five this morning.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several weeks now, and I’m reminded this week especially: every time I think I have a handle on what Christianity is, what it teaches, every time I think I’m right and I have it pretty well figured out, all I have to do is read the teachings of Jesus, and I stand in awe at the wisdom, passion, and casual authority of our God. Every time I read through the gospels I’m stretched, convicted, and my life feels so very small next to the towering life of Christ.
Last week, we saw how Jesus left his throne and came out into the desert of our wandering and our temptation to save us—not just in some purely spiritual sense, but in every sense. He’s not just the new and better Moses in giving and fulfilling the law, but Jesus is the new and better you and me, offering us life, real life, in him. We are slaves to sin, and God is bringing us up from every slavery into which we’ve fallen until we are free in him.
Up until now, we’ve heard a lot from Matthew about Jesus, but the passage today is really a turning point in the book. Dickens starts his autobiography with the words, ““Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In this chapter of Matthew, the author is going to step back from his own narrative and introduce us to Christ, himself, who is decidedly the hero of Matthew’s story, and I hope, the hero of our stories as well.
Let’s read it. [Matthew 5:1-20] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
This passage is usually called “The Sermon on the Mount,” and every word of it is dripping with meaning, but before we really get into the content of this sermon, I want you to notice three things about the context of it: I want you to notice where Jesus is, remembering how he got there, notice who’s there, and notice the build-up to this.
I talked a lot last week about the where. He’s sitting on a mountain giving this sermon, having come up from Egypt, across the sea, and out into the desert to be tempted. Jesus is reliving the story of the people of God in the Exodus, when God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the law which influenced and formed every aspect of their society. The law was given by Moses on a mountain, and here Christ sits, which is a sign of authority in this culture, he sits and he gives a new law, one which he says fulfills the law Moses gave in every way. Fulfills it, but doesn’t abolish it. In this, Matthew shows us that Jesus is the new and better Moses, whose law can not only guide our lives today, but also set us free in every way we so desperately need to be free.
As for who’s there, to state it simply, everyone is there, if you look back in chapter 4, large crowds have come from every part of Judea because Jesus had been miraculously healing people of any and every disease, and Matthew uses the word famous. John the Baptist, in chapter 4 is arrested, because he had gained a large following, and was speaking against the king. They arrested John, but not before he had told all of his followers to follow Jesus, and now the word had gone from town to town, Jesus is a miracle worker. Everyone had come to the mountain, even from Jerusalem, because of what he was able to do, and here, v.1, he finally opens his mouth to say something.
And I said I wanted you to notice the build. Both Mark and Matthew rush through the early months of Jesus’ ministry to get to what it is he’s teaching, and then with chapter five, the pace of the narrative grinds to a halt, and Matthew spends the next three chapters talking about one sermon. It’s like when you frantically pack for a trip, get through the interstates or the airport, and then when you’re finally standing in the place you meant to be—looking out over the ocean or over the valley, you stand there perfectly still, because this is what all of the rest of it was about. “He opened his mouth, and taught them, saying…”
This first section of the sermon on the mount is one of the most famous passages in the Bible, and as with famous people, sometimes with famous passages, we don’t really know them as they really are, we just know about them. I want you to try to place yourself there in the crowd that day, so you can here these verses for the first time, just as all of them heard the sermon for the first time that day.
Again, all of Judea was there, in the wilderness, on the side of a mountain. I wonder how long it had taken everyone to get there—some of the cities listed are days apart, so there were at least a few folks who travelled several days, so in the crowd of people imagine some pack animals, or just packs, with provisions for the journey. Some people would have slept there, or nearby, without baths after traveling, so there would have been that smell and the noise like on the subway or the streetcar, of too many people. Having both Galilee and Jerusalem present means poor folks and rich folks alike sitting next to each other on the ground. Country folks and city folks. Those who voted for Herod, and those who hated his guts and those who were praying for his downfall.
Since Jesus’ reputation was as a miraculous healer, I imagine many in the crowd being sick or injured, together with the people who had brought them there because they had tried everything else and nothing worked. Guaranteed, there were at least a couple people acting a fool, just to get attention. The hopeful and the mourning mixed all together and waiting on the side of a mountain to see if the world might just change, then Jesus walked up, sat down, and the first words out of his mouth are “blessed are the poor,” which you have to think no one was expecting him to say.
Whatever it was they were expecting him to say, it wasn’t that. I was talking the passage over with Anne-Elise on Thursday, and she asked me what really jumped out to me about the passage. I told her the thing that makes this passage so interesting, gives it such a depth of meaning is that none of this is true in this world; it’s all upside down, completely the opposite of what we know about the world.
Blessed are the poor, he says. But that’s not true, at least not in this world. Jesus knew that better than most, having grown up poor, having lived as a refugee. I’ve heard pastors try to massage this message—you know, he doesn’t mean the poor, he means poor in Spirit, which is a different thing, but no. There is a parallel passage in Luke where Jesus says the same thing, “blessed are the poor,” so that’s what he’s saying, and we’ll come back to the “in spirit” part.
It doesn’t matter what city you’re in, what society, being poor is not blessed. You need to let this statement offend you a little bit if you’re going to understand it well. The word blessed, means happy, thriving. If you start a nonprofit called “Thrive,” and your mission statement is, “we exist to plunge our neighbors into poverty”—Gail Benson probably isn’t going to give you any money, and Drew Brees isn’t going to be in your commercial. And not because they don’t get it, man. But because poverty doesn’t help people or communities thrive.
I know sometimes we have a way of romanticizing poverty, but people who have lived it know better. I know one guy who grew up rich who moved into a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, and one night with a group of his neighbors, he told them he wouldn’t want to live anywhere in the world but there in that neighborhood. They all thought he was nuts. Every last one of them wanted to live in Slidell, and for all the same reasons everyone else wants to live on the Northshore, mainly to give their kids a better life than they had had.
When I think about my children, one of my deepest desires in life is for them to thrive, and when I think about finding ways to help them thrive in the world, my mind almost never goes to poverty. I don’t think, how about we let my child witness gun violence first hand before the age of 12, or live in a single-parent household, or go to a school like the ones I taught at, with drugs and fights every day, where only a third of the students ever go to class. I don’t think to myself, I know how to help my kids thrive, let’s not feed them on the weekends or in the evenings. Let’s try to get him to high school still not knowing how to read, like a dozen or so of my former students. That’s not my ten-year plan, y’all. Opposite.
I work two jobs to give my wife and kids what they need, a safe place to live, good food to eat. And we did a whole lot to make sure our son landed in a good school. A lot of our friends with kids moved to the North Shore, and we went to visit them for the first time, and I watched their two little girls ride their bikes on the street to the neighborhood pool without their parents going with them, and that was the last time I looked down on anyone for moving out of the city. But this morning to us Jesus says, “blessed are the poor.”
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus says, yet I don’t see anyone losing a loved one, failing in your career, failing in your personal life, and posting the story on Facebook #blessed. If I die, and Anne-Elise posts about it #blessed, I’m coming back to haunt her. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, meaning the gentle people, the ones who in this world get taken advantage of, who don’t get the promotion because they prioritized their family, the ones who fill in where they are needed and quietly, humbly serve. They are the thriving ones. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst; they are the happy ones.
I know it’s the Bible; I know it’s Jesus talking, but you have to let it shock you, let it offend you before you can understand what he’s saying. I think about Jesus saying these things one after another, and I think about the crowd, how uncomfortable this message would be for them, for everyone involved. The poor man sitting next to the rich man with his beautiful family, and they’re both thinking, which one of us is thriving? Which one of us has made the right choices? Which one is blessed by God?
Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst. A lot of times we try to make sense of these passages by asking, in what way? In what way are the poor thriving? In what way are the mourning happy? But I think that’s the wrong question. We misinterpret this passage when we try to find ways I which the poor and the hungry and the persecuted in this life have some sort of superiority over others in this life. Instead of asking, “in what way,” I think we need to be asking what I think his original hearers would have been asking themselves, and what we should be asking ourselves if we have let ourselves get offended enough at Jesus’ words. Ask yourself, not in what way, but in what world?
In what world is it true that the poor are blessed, mourners are happy, and the gentle souls of the world inherit all the land? Because it’s not this world. There’s no way. What Jesus is getting at here, he’s not trying to talk about a new world order he’s going to create, but a new world altogether. To a whole crowd of people living in a world of poverty and mourning, Jesus tells them, there is another reality.
Up until this point, Jesus has been traveling around healing the sick and proclaiming, chapter four tells us, that the kingdom of God is at hand, and I want you to recognize, this is the same message, just explained. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. “The Kingdom of God is so close we can almost reach out our hands and touch it. It is so close that sometimes it almost reaches out and takes us by the hand.”
When I hear things like the poor are thriving, the gentle folks are inheriting the land, the mourners are made happy again, I think that’s not real; that’s not true. But what Jesus is daring us to believe is that there is a place, a world, in which all of these things are very real, and it’s so close you can touch it.
There is a kingdom in which the merciful, gentle, pure of heart, are allowed to rule as kings, and happy is the kingdom over which the pure of heart rules. Maybe none of this is real; it isn’t true in our world, but maybe our world also isn’t as real and as true as we thought it was. Maybe our world is less real and less true than the one Jesus is talking about. And it’s so close we can reach out and touch it. It’s so close, that it keeps breaking through into our world, like light shining through dilapidated walls into a dark room in which we have been living.
My entire life I’ve enjoyed reading fairy tales and all the best ones start in our world. The Narnia series starts on a train out of war-torn London. Harry Potter starts in an abusive foster home. All the Grimms tales start on the edge of the forest or the sea, and everyone in all of these stories is hoping beyond hope that there’s something else to life than all of this difficulty and sadness. And then they find some way to reach out and touch another world, or rather the other world finds them, and then their life is filled with adventure and good always wins, and the people of good heart are always rewarded in the end. By the time you finish reading them, you wish the worlds were swapped, and you could go live in the world that’s so different from our own.
And this is where we circle back to the phrase “In Spirit” from v.3. He says blessed are the poor in spirit, and I realized in preparation for this sermon that I’ve misunderstood this verse my entire life. I spent a long time looking at the language and getting to the nitty gritty on it. I always thought that this verse referred to spiritually impoverished folks, but the grammar of it all leads me to think differently. The phrase in spirit doesn’t speak to a different kind of poverty, spiritual poverty, that perhaps is more virtuous than the gritty, difficult, often immoral urban poverty we see every day.
Instead, this little phrase speaks about a place, a kingdom, in which all of those people which in our world are of almost no account are considered greatly important. If I switch up the syntax a bit, you’ll hear it, I think: “blessed in spirit are the poor.” The poor thrive in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, those who mourn are comforted. Not with a pat on the shoulder, and platitudes, but in reality, all of the sad things which they’re mourning come untrue.
Everyone who hungers and thirsts here, for the sake of righteousness—the father who skips a meal to make sure his children eat enough—at God’s table they are seated first. As he so often does throughout the rest of the book of Matthew, what Jesus is doing in the beatitudes, he’s not describing actions which we can do and win the blessings of God, he’s describing a kingdom with a value set that’s totally flipped upside down from everything we’ve ever known.
And the practical takeaway here is not to seek out hunger or thirst or poverty, any more than we should seek out persecution as Christians. I mourn when I read headlines, like this week, about Christians, seeking to obey this passage, who sought out hunger and starvation believing they would be more blessed in Christ for it. The practical takeaway is to seek first the kingdom of God, with its value set that’s completely flipped from ours. Seek mercy, meekness, purity, and peace, even if in doing so in the midst of our broken world you face these difficulties, you’ll be blessed in the midst of these pursuits.
In other words, finding the kingdom isn’t about divesting yourself of things which you know are good gifts of God; rather finding the kingdom is recognizing the incredible worth of what is offered in Christ and allowing the other good things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. Treating wealth and food and reputation as though they are of little account, and treating the poor and the hungry and the persecuted as though they are eternal sons of God and resident of his kingdom.
And the wildest part of what Jesus teaches and Matthew believes, again, is just how close that kingdom is to us in this life. For Matthew, and I would argue, for Jesus, these are not purely spiritual realities, because while they are true in the Spirit, that truth is real enough that it covers our world. Every time I experience loss I really am comforted here in this life knowing that that loss is not as permanent, not as real as it seems. It’s undoing is even now at hand.
So I would invite you this morning to believe in a world that is more real than this one. One which will eventually change everything in this one. A world in which the poor thrive and the mourners are comforted. A world in which the meek and humble people of the world own everything, and not those who are greedy for gain. A world in which all those who are hungry and thirsty are satisfied, where the merciful receive mercy instead of being used as doormats and the pure, peaceful people rule over everyone instead of those who would take power by force.
That world is more real than our own, and it’s closer than you think.