Jesus has been teaching and healing long enough to have built a reputation. Jesus was amazing! He seemed to be able to cure every kind of disease. And he didn’t charge for this gift. He was also teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, but it was the healing that brought people out in droves (see Matthew 4:23-25). Lots of people were following him around by the time we get to this first sermon by Jesus.
For three long chapters Matthew digs deep into the teachings of Jesus. These chapters remind me of the Tao te Ching, a little book often translated “The Book of the Way of Virture,” written around the 5th century BCE. It’s first lines in one translation are, “The Tao is the Way that can be followed, but it is no ordinary Way.” The writings of Laozi are brief and enigmatic, full of poetic paradoxes. There there has been no end of retranslations and commentaries – not unlike the teachings of Jesus. I find it particularly fascinating that Jesus teaching was also first called “the Way.”
The Sermon on the Mount could be called Jesus’ “Book of the Way.” The Mennonite people compared the Sermon on the Mount to the new book of Moses. It contained everything we need to follow the Way of Jesus, just like the Books of Moses contain everything the Jews need to know to be God’s people.
I am not surprised that people were drawn to Jesus’ healing ministry. At the same time, I am pretty sure that they scratched their heads in confusion when they heard his teaching. The first poetic beatitudes would have washed over them like a healing salve: Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the humble, blessed are those who seek righteousness. They knew that they were poor, humble, grieving. They were an oppressed people who had no status in the kingdom of Rome. But, the next four beatitudes were a little more challenging: blessed are the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted. The people were more ready for revenge than mercy.
The Way of Jesus is pretty simple – it only takes three chapters to write. But it is very hard to live. It takes a lifetime to learn to live the simple way, a way opposite from the culture at large.
Jesus’ Way was not avoidance of suffering, or achievement of wealth, popularity and power. What Jesus is saying is that suffering is the way of the kingdom of God. At least, suffering in terms of living up to the standards of worldly power and wealth. Even though Jesus called it the kingdom of God, it is not a way of “lording it over” anyone else, but serving even the least valued of the world.
There is a movie in theaters right now called, “Just Mercy.” It is the story of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard lawyer whose particular passion is to argue for justice on behalf of people unjustly condemned to die. Spoiler alert: You might walk out of the movie (or reading the book) thoroughly disgusted with the behaviors of judges, juries and prosecutors. He has found that courts convict those who it is convenient to convict because they can’t fight back, because they are too poor, or too disabled, or born in the wrong skin color. Stevenson put it this way, “….We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus teaches us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God and each other, echoing the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8). But he warns that it will come with persecution. Blessed are those who are persecuted because they seek justice.
Bryan Stevenson tells a poignant story of reconciliation through courage and honestsy. Stevenson founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that memorializes the victims of lynching. At the memorial there are jars of dirt dug from the sites where these murders occurred. One day an African American woman who participated in this project was in the countryside, on her hands and knees digging dirt and placing it in a jar at one of these sites when a white man in a truck slowed down to look at her. He drove past, but then turned around and stopped. Her heart was beating fast. He asked her what she was doing. She courageously told him the truth, despite her fear. He got out of the truck and asked if he could help her. She offered him the trowel. He declined and dug with his hands. Together they put the dirt in the jar. She noticed tears streaming down his face and she asked if he was okay. He said he feared his ancestors may have participated in the very lynching she was memorializing. She cried with him. They took pictures of each other, holding the jar, memorializing a moment of unexpected hope and reconciliation. A moment of blessed mourning, mercy, hunger and thirst for righteousness that came as a result of two people, each in their own way and time, in their ordinary lives, trying to walk the Way of Jesus. [https://www.npr.org/2014/10/20/356964925/one-lawyers-fight-for-young-blacks-and-just-mercy]
This Way is not the way of our warring, competitive culture. Rather, we learn that humility and suffering are a “thin place,” a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is thin, even torn open. Wayne Muller says, “Within sorrow is grace. When we come close to those things that break us down, we touch those things that also break us open. And in that breaking open, we uncover our true nature.”
I found a poem that plays with the Beatitudes called, “Blessed Are the Arrogant,” by a pastor from Northern Ireland, Steve Stockman.
On these charred streets of Belfast
There are scars on minds and hearts
The only thing we do together
Is to rip one another apart
It’s hard to find the chinks of light
In this God forsaken place
If God doesn’t bring judgment down
It’s an even more amazing grace.
And cursed are the peacemakers
For they might compromise
Cursed are those who mourn
For they might apologize
Cursed are the poor in spirit
For they might confess and regret
And cursed are the merciful
For they might forgive and forget
And cursed are the meek
For they won’t ride their high horse
But blessed are the arrogant
For they will maintain this curse.
On these broken hearts of Belfast
There are spoken open lies
No matter what your fancy dress
The truth can’t be disguised
We belligerently spit in the face of God
This miraculous peace time space
If God don’t bring judgment down
It’s an even more amazing grace.
Pastor Stockman gets the point of the Beatitudes and notes how counter cultural they are in his section on curses. These are so often our human response. Jesus was teaching quite the opposite. A few got the epiphany, I hope. The disciples had a lot of trouble! We are so sure of our own way, that the Way of Jesus required an epiphany, in order to be able to repent, to turn around and go the other way.
Who are the people of God? Not those with correct beliefs or worldly wisdom, but those who act with justice and compassion, who walk humbly with their God; those who the world might call foolish because they choose to live kingdom values rather than worldly values; those who go against the status quo and work to bring about God’s beloved community on earth, here and now. Like the rule of St. Francis – the Way is simply to live the gospel. Good living is so much more important than right thinking!
This blessedness is certainly and upside-down blessing. At least from the perspective of culture. If you don’t believe me, try this exercise, suggested by Erin Spengeman Hutchison, on the devotional site, D365. [https://d365.org/]
Take your newspaper, or online briefing, and read the headlining news articles. Assess each one in light of the beatitudes. Try to determine who in the article was wise, powerful, strong or privileged. Then pinpoint who was weak, low-life, foolish, and considered to be nothing. How much news time is given to the humble, the merciful, the powerless, the persecuted? How much news time is given to the rich, powerful and unmerciful? What does it say about us? What is it we pay attention to?
The Beatitudes are indeed Upside-down blessings, by all cultural assessment. Yet, when we walk this upside-down Way of Jesus, we find that we are blessed.