Blessed are the Special
Matthew 5:1-12. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness 'sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I have to admit that the Sermon on the Mount is not one of my favourite passages in the Bible. When I was in college, I used to dread people mentioning the Sermon on the Mount, because it contains a text that, when taken out of context, can be used to instil shame and hopelessness. Even when I was able to get my head around how that specific text means, the Sermon on the Mount did not become a cherished part of the Bible for me.
To understand the Gospel of Matthew, we need to think about the author and the intended audience. St. Matthew is an anonymous Gospel, but the church traditionally held that Matthew, a publican, a tax collector for the Roman oppressors, wrote the Gospel of St. Matthew. More modern scholarship tends to disagree with the position that Matthew wrote the Gospel.1 I find the fact that a Gospel carries the name of a famous publican is interesting. Publicans were deeply hated by those living in Palestine, being considered to be traitors and being classified with sinners and prostitutes. Donations from tax collectors were not accepted.2 As a class, publicans were hated and despised and were considered to be ceremonially unclean.3 We are in February, Black history month. Somehow, given the long struggle our Black brothers and sisters had in obtaining civil rights, it seems very appropriate to me that in the liturgical cycle we are reading from Matthew's Gospel this week.
The Gospel of Matthew was written for Jewish people, not for Romans or Greeks.4 The Sermon on the Mount was given to a predominantly Jewish audience. We need to understand the people to whom Jesus was speaking to really understand the Sermon on the Mount.
The children of Israel were a conquered people. Palestine was no longer a free region. The Romans were a conquering and an occupying force. Many Jewish people lived outside of Israel, having been carried into captivity. The Jews who remained in Palestine were very aware of the military presence of Rome and as their status as an oppressed colony of Rome. The Gospel of Matthew could almost be viewed as a Gospel, a good news, coming from the heart of the oppressed to the hearts of the oppressed and blessing all peoples.
The people to whom Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount were beaten down, oppressed and dominated by a foreign power. To those who feel beaten down by life, oppressed by others, dominated and bashed, the Gospel of Matthew is your Gospel. This gospel speaks to your wounded and hurting heart.
A conquered, oppressed people are reminded by Jesus that contrary to appearances they are blessed.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The poor in spirit, the dispirited, the discouraged, the depressed. When digging around in Greek, one almost has the sense that Jesus is speaking to the poor in spirit, to those who are so desperately poor that they are "destitute" and "powerless," begging for hope and for feeling spirited.5
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
Those who grieve are blessed. While the passage does not state the kind of grief involved, my gut feeling is that this is about the loss of a loved one. There is also grief and loss oppressed people feel - a grief for lost roles, goals and dreams that are crushed by oppression. Collectively, the children of Israel significant loss when they were conquered.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Out of oppression can come the most wild humor. So I cannot resist lightening things up a tad. By the time the corporations that use, abuse and pollute the environment, the meek get what is left of the world. I guess that is what you get when you are meek.6
Seriously, this is not about meekly letting people walk all over you. Meekness here appears to be meekness toward God, a willingness to accept that God and God's ways are good.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
There is a principle in life. We tend to get what we put our heart and soul into getting. Those who are "famished"7 for spiritual food get a rich spiritual banquet.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
In a world where we seem to cheer when those who break the law get the maximum sentence and when the famous and successful find that life brings them down a peg or two, compassion is a very rare and valuable trait. We tend to feel more sympathetic when people who are compassionate run into trouble than we are when those who clammer for extreme vengeance find themselves in trouble.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
A person might be able to describe this as blessed are those who have been "purified by fire."8 The fires of oppression can help us discover what is most important in life. Teachers who have seen the impact of bullying on children find they become more concerned about the heart than the grades. Parents with clinically depressed children learn how much they want their noisy, rambunctious, and, at times, rebellious children back. Those who lost everything to war or natural disaster find family is more important than stuff. As we start to care more about hearts, we start to see the world like God does and we start to see people as God carriers.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."
At a time when countries are divided along along racial, tribal, ethnic and religious lines, at a time when denominations are divided along theological lines and at a time when there are rising social tensions, those who seek and promote peaceful and loving tolerance show their Devine heritage.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness 'sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The Kingdom of heaven contains a shade of meaning we tend to miss, the meaning of royalty.9 Those who are persecuted for righteousness are the royalty of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you . . . on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The Greek word translated persecute has the meaning to "make to run or flee" and to "drive away."10 I get images of peaceful some of the civil rights marches where the police used billy clubs to beat people.
This verse could be comforting to Black spiritual leaders who see the Gospel in a radically more inclusive and liberating manner than some White spiritual leaders and to Black people who were vilified, marginalized and persecuted by some people in White churches. Blessed are all who stand up to opposition when they act on a call to social justice in the Gospel.
Leo Booth is an Anglican priest. He first captured my attention when I stumbled across a copy of his book When God Becomes a Drug. The title of the book caught my attention. Recently, I found another book written by Leo Booth, Meditations for Compulsive People: God in the Odd. In one of his reflections, Leo Booth reminds us of the well-known Christmas song, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He reflects:
When Santa Claus saw in Rudolph 's nose his "specialness."
The Gospel was rediscovered,
the Talmud represented,
the Koran rephrased.
The Spirit of the Risen Christ sees your specialness. What others have teased and bullied you about, what you have learned to hate is truly special. You rediscovered the Gospel and the meaning of at-one-ment, which we call atonement in Christian circles.
1Merrill Unger. Unger's Bible Handbook. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), 470.
2William Smith. Smith's Bible Dictionary. (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour, 1987), 254.
3J.D. Douglas, et. all, eds. New Bible Dictionary. 2nd ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 1167.
5G4434 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study. iPad Application. Olive Tree Bible Software, 2014.
6G4239 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study.
7G3983 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study.
8G2513 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study.
9G932 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study.
10G1377 - "KJV Strong's." Olive Tree Bible Study.
11Leo Booth. Meditations for Compulsive People: God in the Odd. (Pompano Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 1987), 58.