When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught 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 receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Among Jesus’ teachings, this passage is easily one of the most recognizable, even by people who do not have much knowledge of Jesus’ teachings or Christian faith. When people think of Jesus, either seriously or in caricature, this is the passage people think of; kind Jesus in his flowing white robe on the mount teaching meekness, mildness, and mercy. After the teaching, they probably sang “Kum-bye-ya.” But this passage isn’t about being meek, mild, and merciful for the sake of being meek, mild, and merciful. Jesus’ famous teachings are about being meek, mild, and merciful (among other things) for the sake of discipleship and God’s Kingdom. This flows perfectly with the narrative Matthew is constructing. Jesus reveals himself to the world, calls ordinary fishermen to “follow him,” performs miracles to mark the advent of God’s Kingdom, and now tells those new disciples exactly how to follow Him.
There are a couple specific aspects that strike me about this passage. Look at how the story begins, “When Jesus saw the crowds…” We have a sense, like in John 5 (feeding of the 5K), that the ever-growing “crowds” are following Jesus. Sometimes, like the John 5 passage, Jesus withdraws from the crowds (only to be followed again). But here, Jesus, seeing the eager crowds who have seen him “teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news…..curing every disease and sickness… (4:23-25),” meets them where they are, climbs a mountain (important things happen on mountains in the Bible) and begins teaching.
Second are the sayings themselves. The famous “beatitudes” flow like poetry but what exactly do they mean? Are they anything more than generic wisdom sayings? In a culture obsessed with self-help methods for improvement and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately- theology, Jesus’ teachings may simply appear to be nice wisdom from a nice man. However, Matthew does not intend for the beatitudes to be read as practical advice for successful living. These teachings are not pithy sayings meant to be printed on calendars and postcards as pick-me-ups when we are having a bad day. The beatitudes are prophetic declarations made about the coming-and-already-present Kingdom of God. The pronouncements are not comments on good ole human virtue, but about the blessedness of those who orient their lives now to the present and coming Kingdom of God.
The specific sayings are enriched when approached from this perspective; as not merely sage wisdom, but pronouncements of the reality they declare. Blessings on the journey!