January 23, 2022 | “The Beatitudes” • Matthew 5:1-12

5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“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.
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.

There is a weird thing that sometimes happens when I study a passage from the Bible to prepare a sermon. 

I have this stack of study Bibles and commentaries that can be really helpful for making sense of a passage of scripture. I really depend on them as guides for my responsibility of interpreting and apply the Bible to our lives. But there are times I’m not sure how helpful they are.

Sometimes I look at what this big stack of books has to say and one Bible scholar says something like, “this passage of scripture absolutely means this” and another Bible scholar will say, “this passage of scripture absolutely does not mean that … that being whatever the other scholar says it means.”

Maybe not so helpful? 

Kind of confusing?

The beatitudes, the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is one of those passages with contradicting interpretations. 

Listen to what a note from the “Discipleship Study Bible” says about the passage Mark just read for us.

“Jesus’ … beatitudes should be read imperatively

(What does “imperative” mean? – in this case it is something like “giving an authoritative command.”) 

… Jesus’ beatitudes should be read imperatively. Be poor in spirit! Mourn! Be meek! Hunger and thirst for righteousness! Be merciful! Be pure in heart! Be peacemakers! The reward will be the kingdom of heaven in the future and the establishment of a community set apart to and for the righteous work of God in the present” (p. 1705).

These notes were written by Brian Blount, one of my favorite seminary professors. His reflections make sense. These are all things we can do in response to Jesus. They teach us how, as Christians, we are called to live. So, yes. There are bunches of faithful sermons interpreting the Beatitudes like this. (They don’t call them the “BE attitudes” for nothing, right?)

But listen to this. 

Here is what the New Interpreter’s Bible, one of my favorite commentaries, says about this same passage. 

“Matthew’s beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, but prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already-present kingdom of God … The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act … the indicative mood…

(The indicative mood is a mood of verbs that “express a simple statement of fact.”)

… the indicative mood should be taken seriously, and not transformed into an imperative or exhortation” (p. 108). 

So in these notes, Eugene Boring, is saying the Beatitudes are declarations of good news. Jesus is saying “what is” and “reversing the general value system of his day by pronouncing blessing (God’s favor) on the poor, the hungry, and those who weep” (p. 107). 

Eugene Boring’s commentary on Revelation was one of the most useful books I had during our sermon series on Revelation last year.) I can see how what he says makes sense – the beatitudes kind of surprise us and flip our expectations about what life is like and who has (or does not have) God’s favor or blessing. 

This would have been especially important in Jesus’ day because ancient Roman culture did not necessarily value these traits. (Historians point out that meekness and mercy weren’t valued or seen as ways to get ahead in the Roman world.) Often the people living in those times might have thought someone who was poor couldn’t possibly experience God’s blessing. Back then, people were more likely to believe that someone who has having a hard time, someone who was poor or grieving or was experiencing persecution, was experiencing it because of God’s curse. 

So, here Jesus is flipping the popular ancient (and sometimes modern) understandings of blessings and curses on their heads. The beatitudes challenge the understating that good things happen to blessed, maybe faithful, people and bad things happen to cursed, unfaithful people. 

This is good news. Bad things happening aren’t a sign God is mad. Difficulties, persecution, could be a sign of faithfulness … resistance could be an indication that we are on the right track and we need to keep pushing forward.

So Blount and Boring’s (that sounds like it could be some kind of store in a mall) interpretations of the Beatitudes seem to be at odds with each other. 

They are imperatives – instructions, commandments. Do this! BE this! Because of Jesus, this is how you are supposed to live. 

They are indicatives – declarations about is how things are. Statements about how life is.  

And really, these guys aren’t the only ones to interpret the Beatitudes these ways. 

It absolutely means this. 

It absolutely does not mean this. 

It is kind of an uncomfortable spot to be. 

There is good evidence … there are good arguments and people who have a lot of good, helpful, and most importantly faithful, stuff to say on either side. 

So where does that put us? 

We have to pray. 

We have to study. 

We have to discern. 

We have to make a faithful decision. 

But in this case I wonder why we have to choose one or the other?

I mean, they both make sense to me. 

It seems like they both could be helpful ways to look at the passage. 

Why can’t it be both? 

The Beatitudes teach us what life looks like when Jesus and his kingdom are our first and foremost allegiances. Why couldn’t the Beatitudes be both imperatives and indicatives? 

They shape our lives, guide the things we do and relationships we build. They remind us who and whose we are … they encourage us to hold on to Christ and the values of his kingdom even when life gets difficult. 

They help us to see God’s heart and desires for people and world.

They give us self-understanding. 

They give us a guide for what to do and how to do it. 

They offer us good news … when the world seems set against us … when we have tried our best to be faithful and things are still hard … they remind us things aren’t hard because God has abandoned us or because God is mad at us … things might be difficult because the values of God’s kingdom are very different from the values of the world around us. When things are hard because of our faithfulness the Beatitudes remind us we are in good company with faithful disciples … the prophets … and even Jesus. 

The Beatitudes guide our behavior … because God has done this we do this … because of Jesus we live this way …

The Beatitudes are good news about who we are and who God is … in Christ we are God’s blessed and beloved … even if things aren’t going the way we want them too. 

As I prayed through the Beatitudes this week … as I listened to our conversation in Bible study last Wednesday … I kept thinking about how much our world needs the Beatitudes.

I mean what if Christ’s church, here and across the world, insisted that peacemaking is not an optional, or elective activity for Christians. What if we insisted that peacemaking … that standing in-between people who are at odds with each other … working for reconciliation … being uncomfortable for the sake of reconciliation and healing, wholeness and thriving, are essential parts of what it means to call ourselves Christians and follow Jesus? 

How different would the world be? 

And that’s just thinking about one of the Beatitudes. 

What if Jesus’ church … what if Jesus’ disciples … really let the Beatitudes shape us … what if they were our go-to guides for the way we understand ourselves and the way we live?