Matthew 5-7 contains what has been called the Sermon on the Mount, which could also be called Jesus’ Manifesto. Like none other of Jesus’ talks, in this sermon, he lays out his philosophy, his vision, his view of God and its relationship to humanity. It’s Jesus’ plan to build heaven right here on Earth.When Jesus looked over the Galilean countryside at the mass of people gathered, he saw a people abused and bullied by Rome, and by the Jewish elite working in conjunction with Roman overlords. He saw the common people struggling under abusive tax laws while the elite enjoyed luxurious tax breaks. He saw justice for the rich and inequality for the poor. He saw families foreclosed upon, children sold into slavery, and households struggling under debt created by deceptive lending practices.
And it’s in this context that Jesus begins this Sermon—with the Beatitudes—a series of blessings.
- 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.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Most commentaries on this particular passage assume that Jesus is somehow encouraging us to BE those things: poor in spirit, one who mourns, meek… and so forth. While this is possible, it’s also possible that Jesus, in his capacity as a rabbi and spiritual leader, is simply pronouncing a blessing. In Jesus’ world, blessings from spiritual leaders were precious and coveted. In the story of Jacob and Esau, we read about the lengths that Jacob (and his mom) went to get his father Isaac’s blessing away from his twin brother Esau. Later, Jacob would wrestle an angel, and even after the celestial being had crippled Jacob; in agonizing pain Jacob refused to let go until the angel blessed him—which it finally did.
Jesus was mentored under renowned, and now incarcerated, John the Baptist so he was not without a certain amount of clout; as evidenced by the size of the crowd that day. Any blessing pronounced upon them by this rabbi would have been received as something very precious. So when Jesus looked out and said to the ‘poor in spirit…’ “You’re blessed,” those who felt as if they had lost everything must have felt a twinge of hope spring up within their dark depression. Then he offers them the kingdom of heaven. He blesses those who mourn, those struggling through loss. Those who seek justice, who wish to see right prevail.
His language in this context is significant: he says “those who HUNGER and THIRST for righteousness.” Hunger was a very real concern in Jesus day. There were no social safety nets and most—if not all—the people in that audience, including Jesus, knew hunger intimately. It was their constant companion. We know it as “feast or famine,” but for us it’s rarely an actual famine, whereas, it was not uncommon for people in Jesus day to go without sustenance.
But in looking at the ‘blessing,’ we seem to gloss over something else—something also very significant. These were the people that Jesus pronounced BLESSED, and promised The Kingdom of Heaven. Notice who wasn’t on that list. He blessed the poor, but didn’t mention the rich. He blessed those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, but those who use the justice system to their own ends… they’re not on that list.
Ironically, this puts Jesus at odds with himself—not Joshua, of course, but Christ: the man Republicans call their Lord and Savior, and yet pretend he didn’t say what he said. It’s become a political joke at how the “Party of Jesus” has gone to such great lengths to literally vilify the very people that Joshua, in Galilee, listed in that sermon on the hills of Galilee.
We have one senator claiming that those who Jesus called “blessed” are really Inner City, government takers, and are therefore not worthy of his time or effort. That same senator, in his current budget, wants to slash all kinds of help to those on Jesus list of “blessed,” and those he also offered the “Kingdom of Heaven.” In other words, the very people Paul Ryan and his ilk vilify, are the very people that Jesus called, “The Kingdom of Heaven.”
Which is ironic, since, as a “Christian,” Paul Ryan isn’t on Jesus’ list anywhere.
In fact, Jesus’ warning to Paul Ryan, and those who subscribe to Ryan’s ideology, gets even more stark. In Matthew 25 he tells the story of the sheep and the goats, and he ends it with this note:
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
Of course their response will be:
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
For most of our lives, in Sunday school, this sermon has been presented as a warm and fuzzy type homily, meant to make us feel good. However, it was only meant to make a certain group of people feel good. It was also meant to startle those that weren’t on the list, hopefully enough that they would consider doing something to get themselves onto that list.
Jesus began the sermon that would define his “purpose” on earth by making it abundantly clear who was blessed—who made it to the “The Kingdom of Heaven,” and who did not. One wonders what our world would look like if those who wear Jesus’ name would do the same: instead of heartless diatribe and invective against those suffering; if they too sign onto Jesus’ list, and then pronounce their own blessings upon the very same people that Jesus called blessed. After all, the ones these people oppress, ARE The Kingdom of Heaven, according to Jesus.