Sermon on the Mount #2

Last week was the first installment in our series that will take us through the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor John set the scene and began to share with us what Jesus taught about what living in the kingdom looks like. If you missed our post from last week, it may be helpful to go back and read it before we dive into the remaining six beatitudes–you can do that here: Sermon on the Mount #1.

Pastor John told us last week–and shared with us again on Sunday–that in this famous sermon, and specifically the Beatitudes, Jesus is telling his followers how to be in the world. We covered the first three:

“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.”

(Matthew 5:3-5, NIV)

We pick up this week right where we left off. In the fourth of nine beatitudes, Jesus tells us:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matthew 5:6, NIV)

Pastor John told us that this beatitude has to do with putting God and his kingdom first in our hearts, that it means being “rightly related” to God. When we see the word righteousness, our minds naturally take us somewhere other than where the verse intends for us to go. For a more complete understanding of what this verse communicates, it is helpful to see it in another translation and take a deeper look into what it means.

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

(Matthew 5:6, NLT)

Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation titled, “Blessed are Those Who Hunger for Justice,” (February 2018) writes:

“This Beatitude is surely both spiritual and social. Most Bibles to this day soften this Beatitude: “hunger and thirst for what is right” or “for righteousness” are the more common faulty translations. But the word in Greek clearly means “justice”. . .”

The word Rohr writes about is the Greek word dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.” There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others. Rohr’s meditation continues:

My friend John Dear, who has spent his life in the struggle against the injustice of violence, writes about this Beatitude:

Righteousness is not just the private practice of doing good; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.

. . . Jesus instructs us to be passionate for social, economic, and racial justice. That’s the real meaning of the Hebrew word for justice and the Jewish insistence on it. Resist systemic, structured, institutionalized injustice with every bone in your body, with all your might, with your very soul, he teaches. Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it is. . . . Within our relationship to the God of justice and peace, those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied. . .”

The next verse reads:

“How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you.” (5:7, TPT)

The word mercy, according to Strong’s definition, means to be compassionate, with the help of divine grace; to desire to help another who is afflicted. It is more than a feeling. It includes action because, as we’ve written about before, compassion is co-suffering with another. It is a visceral, from-the-depths-of-our-guts response. It is empathy that comes alongside another. As Pastor John shared, mercy is moving toward all those who may be far away, with the same mercy we have received from our Jesus who always moves toward us. In Jesus’ kingdom, we don’t push people away. Withholding mercy is not–and has never been–a kingdom principle. We honor the inherent dignity and worth in all others rather than judging them, because this is what we ourselves have experienced from our loving God.

Following mercy, Jesus tells his listeners about the importance of being pure in heart. The Message paraphrases it this way:

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” (5:8, MSG)

I love this particular wording of this beatitude. It communicates the importance of wholeheartedness to readers who may find it all too easy and comfortable to live a duplicitous life. When our minds and hearts are set right, undivided, wholly focused on the One we worship, we’ll see God everywhere. What is alive within us we will see all around us, as we live committed to following the voice of Jesus.

“Blessed [spiritually calm with life-joy in God’s favor] are the makers and maintainers of peace, for they will [express His character and] be called the sons of God.”

(5:9, AMP)

The Amplified Bible really captures what this seventh beatitude means. We often read in more familiar translations, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” In this translation, we read that it is the makers and maintainers of peace who are blessed, for in working for peace, they express the character of Jesus himself, who is the embodiment of peace. Pastor John referred to one of my favorite verses when he reached this point in his sermon. It is Ephesians 2:14, and it reads,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… (emphasis mine)

I have loved this verse for a long time, because in it we find that peace isn’t an elusive feeling or state of mind to chase after. Peace–the Shalom that brings wholeness, equity, and completeness–is a person. The person of Jesus. If we know him, we know peace, peace lives within us, peace is part of who we are. And then we, as we become more and more like the one we follow, become makers and maintainers of that same kind of peace.

Jesus brought all of humanity into the fold. His Shalom breaks down barriers and erases divisions. He did it when he walked the earth, and he is doing it still. It is a kingdom value to connect with one another as equals–equally dependent on the vine that sustains  every branch, each of us. There is no room for hostility, for “us vs. them” mindsets, for attitudes of superiority in the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. Instead of adding to conflict, chaos, and confusion, we are invited to engage in the process of making and maintaining peace–with everyone.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.” (5:10, MSG)

“Blessed [morally courageous and spiritually alive with life-joy in God’s goodness] are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of [your association with] Me. Be glad and exceedingly joyful, for your reward in heaven is great [absolutely inexhaustible]; for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12, AMP)

The eighth and ninth beatitude are similar, but not the same. Verse 10 relates to verse 6. The persecution the eighth beatitude speaks of is the persecution we face when we work for equity and justice, when we seek to bring the kingdom and its values to all people. Verses 11-12 speak to a more general persecution, the kind that may come simply because we love Jesus and follow his ways.

As Pastor John shared on Sunday, what Jesus is saying in these verses is radical–then, and now. He is flipping the script on what it means to be called blessed. He is elevating the leasts and the lasts, and calling the firsts and the greatest to lives of service and humility. He offers points of connection in these nine kingdom principles–ways to bring equity to unjust systems, structures, and mindsets. Just as many did not take kindly to his words then, many of us may not want to take them at face value now. John articulated the struggle with these words:

“God says through Jesus on the sermon on the mount:

GOD SAYS, Blessed are the poor in Spirit… BUT WE SAY, blessed are the rich.

God says, Blessed are those who mourn. But we say, blessed are the self satisfied.

God says, Blessed are the meek. But we say blessed are the aggressors.

God says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. But we say, blessed are the self fulfilled.

God says, Blessed are the merciful… But we say, blessed are the manipulators.

God says, Blessed are the pure in heart… But we say, blessed are the extreme.

God says, Blessed are the peacemakers… But we say, blessed are the powerful.

God says, Blessed are those who are persecuted… But we say, blessed are those who play it safe.

God says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of him… But we say blessed are those who are not persecuted at all.”

He’s right, isn’t he? We do tend to bless the opposite of what God calls blessed. Many of us are used to being comfortable. Our lives are full of good things, things we label as “blessing” or “favor” from God. Even though we all face hardships, if we can read and write these words and access this blog online, we are among the world’s most privileged. That means that we don’t naturally fit into the categories of the blessed that Jesus speaks of in this sermon. But we can be… Luanne wrote last week,

“God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. “This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Jesus came to even the ground for each one who bears his image–that’s all of us. Every single human being. It feels like that comes at a great cost to those of us who have more. But it is actually an opportunity to more fully identify with Jesus and embody his nature, if we’re willing to embrace his ways. This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–

The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

–Laura

In the Old Testament, after God delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses (their leader), went up on a mountain and received the Ten Commandments from God. These commandments were to be the behaviors that identified God’s people as being different from the nations around them. They were intended to be so different (in a good way) that they would draw those nations to God. Moses received these commandments, came down the mountain and shared them with the people. If we read the commandments with the right heart, we will see that they are all about loving God and loving others. Don’t hold anything else in your life above God, don’t worship anything other than God, don’t misuse God’s name, honor God (and yourself) by having a healthy work/rest balance, honor your parents, don’t kill people, don’t cheat on people, don’t steal from people, don’t lie about people, don’t covet what someone else has. The core message of the commandments is how to live righteously– in right relationship with God and others; however, they became flat rules to follow and were/are used for comparison, exclusion, and oppression.

Quite a few centuries later, God, clothed in flesh, goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach those willing to learn about being. Jesus teaches that the attitudes and behaviors of God’s kingdom people will be formed from the inside out.  The beatitudes are a radical departure from the ways of the world and the common ways of being human.

If we recall what was happening during the time of Jesus’ earthly life, he was born into a people group oppressed by Rome. Rome ruled with power, conquest and violence. They mistreated people just because they could.  And, within Jesus’ own people group, the religious system had also become one of oppression. The religious leaders tried to legislate morality and monitor people’s choices and behaviors. They were the self-appointed gatekeepers who determined who was acceptable to God and who wasn’t; they weren’t afraid to use their power to resort to violence.

Into this environment the Sermon on the Mount is spoken. Jesus, the true Messiah, the King of kings, the Prince of peace, teaches what his kingdom on earth is to look like. It is the antithesis of worldly power, oppression, violence, and force. In referring to the Sermon on the Mount, Brian Zahnd writes in his book Water to Wine: “Unlike all other political agendas, the supreme value of the politics of Jesus is not power but love…..The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need by, martyrdom–but never by force. ….In the politics of Jesus the world will be changed by non-coercive love or not at all.”  

As we move through this sermon over the next few months, we will see Jesus mention some behaviors, but he begins the whole thing by saying–this is how my followers are to be. The “being” comes before the “behaving”.  Our authentic behavior flows from our being.

It’s important to remember that each of the nine beatitudes are connected to the others. None of them is a stand-alone. When they were written, there were no chapters and verses. And, like the Old Testament commandments, the beatitudes are all about loving God and loving others.

Using The Passion Translation, I’m going to write the beatitudes out in reverse order. I chose that version because it’s translated from Aramaic rather than Greek. Its fresh perspective will keep us from skimming due to familiarity. I will include some of TPT’s  footnotes in parenthesis. Consider reading it through one time without paying attention to what’s in parenthesis, and then a second time including the parenthetical parts. This is how Jesus’ followers are to be:

How ecstatic you can be when people insult (criticize) and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted (rejected) for doing what is right (for the Righteous One)! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How blessed you are when you make peace! For then you will be recognized as a true child of God. What bliss you experience when your heart is pure (full of innocence)! For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God. How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you. (Mercy…comes from our innermost being. The [Aramaic] root word for “mercy” is the root word for “womb”.) How enriched you are when you crave righteousness (goodness, justice)! For you will be surrounded with fruitfulness. What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you (implies being both gentle and flexible)! For you will inherit the earth. What delight comes to you when you wait upon the Lord (The Hebrew word for “wait” and for “mourn” is almost identical.) For you will find what you long for. (The Aramaic is see the face of what (or who) you long for. The Greek is be comforted). What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty (humble and totally dependent upon God)! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom.

This morning, my devotional reading was in Acts 7 and was the account of the stoning of Stephen. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but recognize the beatitudes in Stephen’s story.  In Acts 6 we learn that Stephen was chosen to help in the ministry of distributing food to both Hellenistic and Hebraic widows There had been inequitable treatment between these two groups and a dispute had taken place. Stephen was chosen because he was  a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5), and in verse 8 we learn he was a man full of God’s grace and power, [and] performed great wonders and signs among the people. 

Among the religious leaders, opposition rose against Stephen. They argued with him but could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke (6:10) So they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). They produced false witnesses...(6:13). 

While all this craziness was going on the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (6:15) . 

In Acts 7, Stephen is given the opportunity to defend himself, and he shares with the leaders their own history of persecuting the prophets and their role in murdering Jesus. The religious elite don’t like this message at all.  As the frenzy escalates, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (7:55-56).  The religious leaders lost all self-control; they yelled at the top of their lungs, they rushed him, grabbed him, dragged him outside the city, and began to stone him. (57-59).

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (59-60). 

Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace, full of wisdom, full of the power of God, falsely accused, brutally murdered, asks God to forgive his perpetrators, and dies.

What does this have to do with the beatitudes? Everything. We read Stephen’s story and are inspired by his faith–but do we want to be like him? I’m certainly not implying that there is any part of me that wants Stephen’s story (except for the wisdom, grace, and Holy Spirit part). But blessed are we when people falsely accuse us, persecute us, and  when we make peace, have a pure heart, demonstrate tender mercy, crave rightousness, act with gentleness, mourn (feel deeply for others), wait upon the Lord, and live in utter dependence upon God. All of that is demonstrated in Stephen’s story.

It’s sobering to realize just how very different the principles of God’s kingdom are from the the principles that we’ve adopted from our societal culture. Scroll back up to Laura’s post and read the God says….but we say… statements. Written out like they are really highlights the things we value that are not the same things God values. I’m not sure that we can sort out kingdom culture from worldly culture and kingdom politics from worldly politics without tremendous humility and reliance upon the Holy Spirit to guide us. To live so counter-culturally requires incredible courage. Even in this day, living according to Jesus’ teaching is misunderstood and can lead to division–even (maybe especially) among Christians. So what are we to do?

Just as there are nine beatitudes, there is another list in the New Testament that contains nine elements. It’s found in Galatians 5:22-23 and says: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

As we ponder the words of Jesus, as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our inner beings, as our attitudes become more and more like the attitude of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will flow out of us and we will live in the realm of God’s kingdom, seeing more and more of the face of the One we long for, and changing the world by the non-coercive love of God.  Blessed are…

Laura asked: Do we really want to live like this?  

Do we?

–Luanne

The Beatitudes – Ipswich Catholic Community

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