(Note: I am planning to start a short blog series on each of the Beatitudes beginning next week.)
Great crowds were being attracted to Jesus. Largely because of the miracles that were beginning to swirl around all that he was doing. And the crowds were not just Jewish. They were a mixed multitude of Jews and non-Jews gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people. The whole gamut. The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus.
When Jesus saw that his ministry was growing and this huge crowd was assembling, he departed from the shores of Galilee, and he began to climb a mountain. When he found a suitable place he sat down to signify that he was beginning to teach. And his twelve disciples whom he had chosen formed the inner ring.
It wasn’t a teaching that he gave to everyone. He gave it to the Twelve, but it was about everyone. And everyone else heard it. So though Jesus was addressing his words to that inner circle of twelve chosen disciples, he was talking about the multitude that was experiencing the in-breaking and the arrival of the kingdom of God.
It is, without question, the most important and most complete sermon Jesus ever preached – “the Sermon on the Mount” – found in Matthew 5-7.
It is quite significant that Jesus gives his greatest sermon upon a mountain (greek word: “oros” from which the word “oracle” comes). For one thing, a mountain is a common biblical location to give or receive an oracle, or word, from God.
But more importantly, it is deeply symbolic. Just as Moses received and gave to Israel the Law (“Torah”) from the heights of Mount Sinai, Jesus has climbed up on a mountain with twelve disciples. (How many tribes of Israel were there? 12. How many disciples? 12.) What is he doing? He is re-forming Israel around himself, and he is giving a new “Torah” that we call the Sermon on the Mount.
For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, we are obligated to pay attention to his most complete and most important sermon. We must not neglect it, ignore it, or marginalize it in any way. If we are interested in anything at all, we are interested in getting Jesus right. We certainly don’t want to craft a Jesus according to our own imagination.
Can you imagine someone, though, who says, “I want to make it my objective to understand Martin Luther,” but never study the 95 Theses (his most important work)? Or someone who says, “I want to make it my objective to really understand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” but never study the “I Have a Dream” speech? Can you imagine someone claiming to be an authority on Abraham Lincoln, but they ignore the Gettysburg Address?
This is the equivalent of saying we’re committed to Jesus but marginalizing the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we find eight blessings spoken from the mouth of Jesus. They are called “the Beatitudes.” If the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of the Kingdom of God, the Beatitudes compose the preamble.
The word “beatitude” is not found in the Bible, per se. It comes from the latin “beatus,” which is the word for blessing. And these eight blessings are the prophetic prologue to Jesus’ most important sermon.
(By the way, I find great value in having them memorized and using them daily in prayer. It would be fantastic if every follower of Christ would memorize the Beatitudes. It is not hard to do.)
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.
The Beatitudes are not platitudes. A platitude is a common sense cliché of typical sentimental wisdom. And the Beatitudes are anything but that. In fact, they are the very opposite of that. Each one of the Beatitudes are very deeply counter-intuitive. They challenge our assumptions. They go against common sense. They challenge our instincts.
What Jesus is doing with the Beatitudes is he’s turning the world on its head. He is taking everything that we have typically believed and he has turned it upside-down so that the Beatitudes are deliberately shocking statements. And if we do not hear the Beatitudes as shocking, it is because we are not listening. And we have turned these radical, subversive declarations into nice, tame clichés. In fact, we’ll even change the way we pronounce the word just to make it sound antiquated. “Bless-ed.”
See, sentimentality is a way that we marginalize Jesus through religion. We remove the power, and the guts, and the force, and the radical nature of his statements by being sentimental with them.
But Jesus is not giving us nice, tame platitudes. He is giving us something that is deeply subversive. In fact, living out the Beatitudes will put you on a collision course with Calvary.
(The painting is “The Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Rosselli.)