The single longest collection of Jesus’ teachings in the four gospels is called the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll find it in Matthew chapters 5-8. It is a series of very challenging words for the followers of Christ to devote themselves to high standards of conduct. In it, Jesus takes the classic moral imperatives of the Old Testament and seems to elevate them to even more difficult standard of obedience.
Yet it begins with a peculiar opening set of verses we call, “the beatitudes”. Jesus says this,
“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.
I love this modern paraphrase of the beatitudes that comes from a scholar named Eugene Peterson who paraphrased the Bible in modern language.
That word “blessed” in other translations is sometimes rendered, “Happy”. Happy are those who are poor, happy are those who are grieving. Another scholar says you could translate the word “blessed” as, “good for you!” Good for you when you are persecuted! Its an odd thing to say. The beatitudes introduce to us that the Kingdom of God is a place with very different values than the rest of the world.
Everyone wants to be happy. We seek happiness in all kinds of ways. We want to be successful, admired, wealthy, free, proud, smart, and strong. Yet its not hard to see that so many people in this life are profoundly unhappy even though they may be among the greatest, privileged, wealthy and comfortable. So Jesus tells his followers that the true source of blessedness/happiness is found in the giving of ourselves entirely over to the task of love. But love is not an easy thing.
Jesus has a pattern he uses to teach his followers about the way of life in the kingdom of God. He starts with the very obvious almost universal ethical codes, but then he raises the standard and says it’s not enough to simply avoid the high crimes of human life. Attitudes of the heart matter to God!
- Its not enough to avoid murder, but don’t even insult someone! (Matthew 5:21-22)
- Its not enough to avoid cheating on your spouse, don’t even look at someone with lust (Matthew 5:27-28)
- Don’t just love your friends, but also love your enemies! (Matthew 5:43-47)
Its a lot of tough instruction that we forgive everyone, befriend everyone, be at peace with everyone, avoid lust, keep our promises, do our good without thought of reward, avoid worry, and be generous.
How does Jesus expect his followers to be able to do all this? Did God send us Jesus just to tell us to work really hard at being good? Some have suggested perhaps Jesus instituted all these strict rules to help us realize that we are very imperfect and we need God’s mercy. That might be true, but its also the case that Jesus wants us to know that because God is upending all the dark powers of the world and turning all our notions of happiness and blessedness upside down, we can find a new way to love our neighbor by learning to love God because God loves us! When we realize how truly broken and sinful we are, and how generous God’s forgiveness is to us, our hearts become transformed and our desires become more Christ-like. When we learn where real happiness comes from, we don’t have to work harder at good, we begin to naturally desire to do good according to God’s will.
There are few Christians who take the Sermon on the Mount as seriously as the Amish. Their lives may seem very strange to us, but it is because they are radically committed to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. This became very apparent when 12 years ago a gunman broke into an Amish school house and murdered 5 girls execution style.
The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount teach us not just how to treat each other, but how great God’s mercy is towards us.
Journaling Questions this Week:
Open your Bible to Matthew chapter 5-8. Take a minute to quiet your thoughts. Pray that God will help you understand the words. Take 30 minutes to slowly and deliberately read through the entire Sermon on the Mount. I don’t expect you to understand everything, but write down your thoughts and questions as you read. Use the following questions to help your understanding.
Verses 5:13-16 What does it mean to “shine your light”?
Verses 5:21-30 Everyone knows that murder and adultery are wrong, but why would Jesus say anger and lust are just as bad?
Verses 5:38-48 How should you treat the people you don’t like much?