The Beatitudes get some pretty good lip service, but people rarely treat them as words to live by. They smile on them as if they’re printed sunbeams on a cardboard Hallmark card, but they don’t treat them as real wisdom from God for living in a real world. The Beatitudes aren’t religious fortune cookie sayings — they’re practical, everyday guidance and encouragement for the child of God. Most of the world lives by a different set of beatitudes — those of the flesh. I tried to bring that out by flipping Jesus’ words around. It was fun, and hopefully it served the purposes of the Law by helping people to examine their own behavior in a little bit different light. (Augustine’s great distinction of the city of the world and the city of God – which is the overarching theme of, you guessed it, City of God – still holds true.)
Christi noted that one could preach an entire sermon series on the Beatitudes, taking one Beatitude per week. She’s right, of course — there’s so much to mine in a text like this. One thing whose surface I barely had time to scratch was the Old Testament background of Jesus’ teaching in this text. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” for example, is simply a quote from Psalm 37:11 — Jesus brings the words straight across. It would make for a fascinating study to look for the Old Testament roots or sources of the Beatitudes. (I have so little time!) The meek are actually mentioned quite a few times in the Old Testament, if you’re looking — at least they are in the King James, which is what I’ve been reading of late. Isaiah, to be precise.
Something else I’ve noticed this past year is how often persecution and the cross come up in the lectionary. For pastors, you don’t need to figure out ways to shoehorn the dear cross into sermons — the lectionary provides plenty of opportunities. If you pay attention to the words, the cross shows up in places you don’t expect or remember — like the Beatitudes. That’s by no means a bad thing. Teaching people how suffering for the name of Christ brings us closer to God is something that cannot be repeated or taught too much. I feel like I’ve discoursed a lot on that topic of late, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. One huge advantage of preaching from a lectionary is that if you’re faithful to the message of each text, you’re assured of covering all the bases of Christian doctrine. It’s a balanced diet.
Boiled down to essential elements, the Beatitudes drive home, in beautiful poetry, our need for God. As always, the difference is faith. For those who don’t recognize their need for God or don’t care, they don’t receive the blessings Jesus pronounces here. For those who do trust in God, their hearts call out to God. They recognize their utter dependence on God for all things — for help, for guidance, for daily bread, for forgiveness — and their faith obtains and produces all that Jesus promises here. This distinction is so essential that nothing can be grasped without it. But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly. Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. (ps 22.9-11 kjv)
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it. (luke 11.28 kjv)
“Now when he 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 sons 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.” (matt 5.1-12 niv)
The Beatitudes are among Jesus’ most famous and well-loved sayings. All the same, most people probably don’t know what most of them really mean. They might not understand what a beatitude even is. It’s a blessing. Jesus is pronouncing various blessings in this text. There are other blessings listed in Scripture, but these stand out so much because of the way that they’re presented that people give these the title of Beatitudes. People don’t always get the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes sound pretty to them, or they take out of them what they want to hear, but they always don’t understand Jesus’ real point. That’s a shame, because when Jesus says someone or something is blessed, it is. Jesus’ pronouncing something blessed isn’t just a wish or a good guess on His part – it actually makes that thing or that person blessed. Jesus’ words give what they promise. So in order to get the blessings Jesus describes here, we need to know what He’s talking about. Another reason people don’t always understand the Beatitudes is that they’re foreign to the way the world thinks. They promise things that the world doesn’t want. They value things the world doesn’t care about. They put down things the world considers virtues and not vices.
If the sinful world wrote the Beatitudes, they’d probably sound something like this. You can follow along if you’d like:
Blessed are the arrogant, for they have everything they need without God.
Blessed are those who are content and happy in their sin, for they do not deny themselves anything they want, no matter the price.
Blessed are those who step on others and take revenge, for if they don’t look out for #1, who will?
Blessed are those who see no need to care for their souls, because they don’t need God anyway.
Blessed are the uncaring, for they get to abuse those around them just as they please.
Blessed are those who look good on the outside, for it doesn’t really matter what your heart is like as long as you can make money and people like you.
Blessed are those who get violently angry, for nobody will cross them or mistreat them.
Blessed are those who can avoid suffering and pain at any cost, for this life is all you get – so gratify yourself as much as you can.
Blessed are you when you’re popular and well-liked by everyone around you, because anything else reminds you that God has a day of judgment in store for you.
If you can do all these things, be happy and rest easy, because then you’ll be a success – you’ll be a winner.
How many of those attitudes do you see in your own life? How often do you fool yourself into thinking that you can make it from day to day without too much help from God? How often do you live like you don’t need His love and forgiveness? How often do you choose to serve yourself instead of honoring God? Our flesh prefers the world’s beatitudes to Jesus’. Selfish, godless beatitudes make more sense to the sin that lives in us. Even if the outward evidence isn’t always there, the attitude sure can be. Search your own heart and tell me if that’s not true. I know it is, because the human heart is like that – yours is, and mine is too.
To the extent that we buy in to the world’s ideas of blessedness, we lose out. We miss out on the blessings Jesus wants to give. Worse than that, we sin against almighty God. We can ignore what Jesus calls blessed, what Jesus teaches us to value, and instead we crave what the world craves. We listen to our flesh instead of the Spirit of God speaking through His Word.
If you are tired of dealing with people who live by the world’s beatitudes instead of Jesus’ – if you recognize your own need to change and to live more in line with Jesus’ words – if you’re tired of watching yourself live for the world’s beatitudes and not Jesus’ like you want to – then listen to Jesus’ words and what they mean.
Several of the Beatitudes can be grouped together. Some of them have to do with our relationship with God, and some of them have to do with our relationship with other people. For each of them, Jesus describes what the blessing is, and then why it’s a blessing. Martin Luther described the Beatitudes as fruit that grows on the tree of faith. Every one of the Beatitudes has to do with what faith produces in a Christian’s life. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is talking spiritually here, as He is throughout the Beatitudes. This has nothing to do with how much money you have in the bank. To be poor in spirit means to recognize how wretched, poor, pitiful, blind, and naked you are before God. You realize that God owes you nothing and you owe Him everything. Nothing you can offer God will please Him, so you bring only empty hands to Him and say, “Here, Lord. Fill me.” Jesus promises you that when you come to Him poor in spirit, He will do for you everything that He’s promised. He will work graciously to help you fight against sin and to bring you to everlasting life. That’s a promise the world doesn’t want – but for we who believe, it is precious.
The second beatitude is similar: “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is often explained as those who mourn over their sins will be comforted by God’s forgiveness. That certainly is true, but it’s not all of it. Any Christian who is sad or grieves or mourns, whatever the reason, will find comfort, Jesus promises. That’s because sadness and grief are the results of sin. Christ has atoned for all sin, and the comfort He gives is available right now to those who mourn – not some day off in the future, but right now as you hear His Word and come to His table. Jesus promises that in Him, you have gladness instead of mourning. He turns your sadness into joy with His death and resurrection.
The third beatitude is perhaps the most misunderstood one: “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus said “meek”, not “weak.” The two are often confused. To the world, meek often does mean weak. To be meek is to be gentle, mild, or peaceable. You’re not angry or belligerent. The meek don’t try to take revenge on others or get back at others when they’re wronged. They simply accept the wrong and leave any retribution up to God, trusting that He will repay the wrongdoer perfectly. That’s why the meek inherit the earth – God repays them for what they endure by letting them see the downfall of those who hurt them. This is still a gracious promise of Jesus, even if we don’t always follow His words here or live up to them in our lives. When you’re wronged, remember: let it go, the Lord will pay them back in full if they need to be – and if they don’t need to be, why are you getting upset?
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who have a deep, urgent need for the perfect righteousness Jesus gives. They also want to make sure that everything they do is right and honorable in God’s sight. Those two urges go together. We know that if we’re not righteous because of Jesus, then nothing we do will be right. Because we are righteous because of Jesus, we want everything we do and say to honor God and be pleasing in His sight. For those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Jesus promises that you will be filled. You will be satisfied. You will receive exactly what you ask from God: His righteousness to cover all your sin, and that your words and actions will be acceptable in His sight. Another gift that the world doesn’t want and doesn’t care about, but one that the Christian values highly and is thankful for.
The next beatitudes have to do with our relationship with our neighbor – the people around us. They’re all characteristics of God that the Christian displays. God is merciful, pure, a peacemaker, and He is also persecuted and fought against by the world. As we live our lives as baptized children of God, those are our characteristics too. We become more merciful, pure, making peace, and we are also persecuted by men. This last one Jesus wants to fix so firmly in our hearts that He repeats it twice. He knows we’ll need it. The first thing we think of when we’re harassed or insulted for our faith is that something must be wrong, this shouldn’t be happening! If the persecution is severe enough, we may even doubt that God loves us or cares about us.
Jesus wants us to remember that persecution is actually something to be happy about. He says you should be jump-up-and-down happy that people insult you because you bear the name of Christ. That makes no sense to the world, but it does prove that we are His. The world hates us because it hated Him first, and it still does. In a sense it’s not personal: the hatred comes to us because we are of Christ. It feels intensely personal, especially when the persecution or harassment deprives us of family members or friends or even more than that. That’s your proof that you’re God’s child. It’s actually proof of God’s love for you, strange as it sounds, because persecution is God’s way of peeling away everything you love more than Him.
The final result is what Jesus speaks of in the sixth beatitude. He says simply that we will see God. We’ll finally receive the goal of our faith. We will see God face to face – no sin to cloud us, no shame to humiliate us, no guilt to separate us. That’s the ultimate blessing, and Jesus promises that and much more to those who fear Him. What else could a Christian ask for? Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven that your Lord has graciously won for you. Amen.