He went up on the side of a mountain and sat down … and he began to teach them … (Mast. 5: 1-2)
I don’t really like the way I learned the Beatitudes.
I am in my forties now and think I am only beginning to understand what is happening in this passage at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, thanks to a fantastic sermon and a sweet, wonderful context.
I was able to let off steam by heart “Happy are the poor in spirit … happy are those who cry … happy are the meek“for decades. Because I was given this passage to memorize as a church child. And it sounded serious and beautiful, but also a little empty and quirky. I had learned that. Matthew 5: 2-12 was a passage known as the Beatitudes, and that the word “blessed” repeated nine times here meant “happy”.
But the people listed here did not seem very happy to me. More than that, knowing that these words came from Jesus, it was as if the Lord commanded his disciples to be downcast mourners and peacemakers, humbly persecuted. One of those examples of living upside down in the Kingdom of God that we know of was part of Christ’s teaching.
I don’t think that’s what this text shows, however.
Think about where this passage appears. These are the FIRST WORDS of the Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning. The first thing Jesus has to say after “seeing the crowds” of Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the area across the Jordan mentioned at the end of chapter 4. He had taught , healed and proclaimed the good news, and many come together.
And what kind of people are in this crowd? I think we know. We know this because this is the introduction to the largest uninterrupted teaching session we have ever recorded about Jesus. And in an introduction, it’s common to speak directly to your audience.
Our Lord, we are told, sees the crowd. He goes to a higher place to see them, then sits and rests among them. I can imagine a lot of eye contact and a few deep breaths before Christ, who sees their souls and knows every cell of their body, speaks straight to their hearts and the issues in their lives that brought them to his feet. He motioned to a group gathered nearby and said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What a strange way to start a sermon.
Unless that’s actually the nicest way to talk to someone there is.
Who are the “poor in spirit” after all? I never really knew, until I heard a sermon on this sermon during a time when I was being treated for anxiety and depression. For the first time in my life, I was certainly related to being “poor in spirit”.
And Jesus continues his way around the crowd, then finding those who are weeping. His heart breaks for them too. Maybe then he sees someone sweet hiding shyly near the edge. He knows some are there because they have a deep and hurt sense of righteousness, yearning for truth and righteousness. He finds people who are rich in mercy who can be oppressed or exploited in life. He sees the pure and the peacemakers, and knows the loneliness these guys can feel, but tells them that they will see God and be called children – part of his family. And finally, the persecuted, the excluded, the marginalized, who nevertheless dare to seek it.
He sees them and speaks to all of them, to all those types who are drawn by the desire to know God.
HE SEES THEM. He sees you. Before Jesus has anything else to say, he sees you. And besides, he knows what you are going through. He knows that whether you are pure in heart or poor in spirit, this very condition has brought you to Him in a way that is thirsty for yourself or needing nothing.
And he wants you to know: not only do I see you, not only has your character or current life situation brought you to me, but I have a nugget for each of you, a warm blanket for your thrill, a silver lining to your cloud.
You, poor spirit, feel uncomfortable in this world. Jesus sees you and wants you to know that the kingdom of heaven is yours. A time is coming when you will know peace and a deep and rich purpose. There are reasons to stand firm in the faith.
You, weeper, you feel abandoned and lost. But Jesus sees you and wants you to know: lean towards those who will pamper you, cry with you, feed you and comfort you. It’s a good, good feeling, and you will certainly be able to return the favor to others as well.
You, feeling sweet, sweet, helpless. Jesus sees you. He knows things aren’t easy, but he wants you to know you have an inheritance! The humble of the world receive nothing. Jesus says he intends to give them everything. Talk about a silver lining.
You, the merciful, Jesus sees you. He knows your forgiving heart, and he knows that maybe it makes you feel overwhelmed at times. He also knows that you will have mercy for treating others as you would like to be treated.
It continues like this through the list.
Before Jesus teaches anything, he lets you know that he sees you there, ready to learn from him, that he appreciates how this very thing has brought you to him, and that there is a little good news on the back of your coin.
What a difference! It is much less of a commandment of how to be, and much more of a recognition and empowerment of how those who come to Christ are already.
Rest on this hill now and reread the Beatitudes calmly, quietly, with wisdom and insight, considering what first brought you to Jesus’ feet. And how that very condition caused you to be called blessed.
PS Go ahead, take a look at the next thing Jesus has to say. After he sees you as you are and gives you the outcome of your situation, he wants you to report it to the whole world. You and your situation are needed. You and your situation give flavor to life and give light in the darkness. People will relate to you. They will see you live for the hope of your silver lining promise in the midst of hardship. Salt and Light – how tasteless and dark our lot would be without YOU!
Shawn mcevoy is Managing Editor at the Salem Web Network.
Publication date: October 9, 2018