Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Sermon on the Mount – The Beatitudes
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,2 and he began to teach them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
With this reading, the lectionary list of gospel readings comes to the beginning of the part of the gospel of Matthew that’s known as “the Sermon on the Mount” – it’s actually the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of that gospel. That part of Matthew starts out with the verses we know as ‘the Beatitudes.’ There’s a lot that can be said about the Beatitudes – whole books have been written on them – but first, it’s probably worth stopping to review what the New Testament scholars say about the Sermon on the Mount as a whole.
Probably the first thing that should be said is that most New Testament scholars today don’t think this was really a sermon that Jesus preached all at one time. Instead, they think the part we call the Sermon on the Mount was really a collection of teachings by Jesus that Matthew regarded as very important. As you might remember, the Gospel of Matthew was based on Mark, which was the first gospel. Both Matthew and Luke added material from other sources in compiling their gospels. From the earliest days of the church, it has been understood that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels were recorded very carefully, but not necessarily in the order in which Jesus had said them. So as we read and think about the section of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount, it’s probably not worth worrying about whether it really was one continuous sermon. That’s not the important part.
The New Testament scholars say the teachings of Jesus in this part of Matthew do all have something important in common – they all paint a picture of how Jesus said his followers would be shaped by their lives of discipleship. Jesus understood that those who follow him will be a kind of ‘counter-culture,’ with traits that make us different from the rest of the world.
Some followers of Jesus think of the Sermon on the Mount as a list of ‘rules for Christian living.’ And that’s not wrong, exactly, but it might be a little misleading. No doubt Jesus wants his followers to live in a way that’s consistent with what’s said in this part of Matthew. But some of the best scholars say that thinking of the Sermon on the Mount as a list of rules kind of puts the cart before the horse. They say it’s a mistake to think that you have to obey these rules to be claimed as a follower of Jesus – to “get saved,” as people say. Because the truth is that almost nobody can really live the kind of perfect life Jesus describes here.
Instead, they say, what Jesus is saying here is that if we really try to live in imitation of him, if we really trust in him and devote ourselves to living by his teachings, then our lives will become more and more like the picture painted in the Sermon on the Mount.
So if you read what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount and realize you’re falling short of that standard, don’t be discouraged. Everybody falls short of that standard. The point is not to wallow in guilt and shame – or even to “try harder to be good.” Instead, Jesus seems to be calling on us to be praying for the Holy Spirit to make us more like him every day.
Which brings us back to our reading for today – to the Beatitudes. And they, too, are not meant as rules to obey. Obviously, people don’t feel that “blessed” when they’re mourning or persecuted. But Jesus’ point seems to be that the further you go in your walk of faith, the more you see the purposes of God being worked out in your life, even in hard times. Then it becomes a blessing to serve God even when there’s a heavy cost.
Jesus seems to have intended that his earthly ministry will point people toward the heavenly kingdom that God is establishing. As we’ve said in past reflections, we understand his miracles, for instance, to represent previews of that kingdom. And the beatitudes seem to have a related purpose. They also give people who are suffering in this world glimpses of hope for a better future in that kingdom. In fact, you might remember that some scholars suggest reading the beatitudes by adding ‘in this world’ to the first half of each one, then adding ‘in the kingdom of heaven’ to the second half. Like, ‘Blessed are those who mourn [in this world], for they will be comforted [in the kingdom of God].’
So when you think about the Sermon on the Mount, try to keep in mind that idea – that Jesus is painting a picture of the life that’s being transformed by his teachings and his example, and coming to look more and more like the life being described here.
Let’s pray. Lord, as we read and think about the Sermon on the Mount together, help us to open our hearts to let your Holy Spirit do its work of transformation in us, and let our lives look more and more like the lives Jesus is describing here. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 124 and 145; Exodus 32:1-20; Colossians 3:18-4:18. Our readings are from the NIV Bible as posted on Biblica.org.)