The Beatitudes, Matthew 5 verses 1 to 12, part 1
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Something I’ve noticed since moving to Frodsham is that my waistline has expanded a little bit. Either that, or my clothes have begun to shrink. I don’t know why this is … the water? But just in case I’m eating too much cake and sugary goodies – a s I said, I’m going to see if I can give up cake for Lent. Now I’m not telling you this because I want you to ask how I’m doing, although accountability is no bad thing. Or because I want to say that I’m a better Christian than you are, because I really ain’t. No, I’m telling you, because today I think it’s a practical example of what we’ll be talking about today. What better time than the start of Lent than to develop a new habit. I n my case, less sugar?
The season of Lent is not regularly remembered outside the Catholic, or the perhaps high Anglican churches. I hope that anybody who perhaps is giving up, or taking up something for Lent isn’t doing it because their new year’s resolution hasn’t worked. The Lenten traditions of fasting and praying and giving are all designed to bring us closer to God. They are there not to punish us for our weakness and sinfulness, but to perhaps remind us that we seek to be closer to Jesus. The more like Jesus, we become each step when we’re next to him. This means perhaps being aware of our sinfulness and our mistakes, and our cake eating, and taking practical steps to do something about it.
I know that my cake eating won’t bring me closer to Jesus, but the act of fasting from something should remind me that there is more to life than cake. That Jesus is more important than anything, and to draw close to him is a very worthwhile activity. As we look to the experience of the wealthy/poor today, let’s draw near to God knowing that, whether or not we observe Lent, we have a God who loves us and desires to draw near to us. We’ve got two readings today. I’ll be reading from Matthew chapter five, verses 1 to 12, and then John has very kindly agreed to read Luke chapter 18, verses 9 to 14.
Matthew chapter five.
Now when he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:
‘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 sons 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.’
John G: The reading is Luke, chapter 18, verses 9 to 14. This is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisees stood up and prayed about himself, “God, I thank you that I’m not like these other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of all I get.’
‘But the tax collector stood at a distance, he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Paul W: John, thank you. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be looking at this series of Bible studies in the topic of the Beatitudes. The proverb-like sayings of Jesus, which Matthew puts right at the beginning of the collection of writings, or the sermon, known as the Sermon on the Mount. The context of Matthew’s Gospel is that he’s writing to a Jewish audience. Some commentators have suggested in the writing of Matthew to this point shows Jesus having to show his credentials. In Matthew chapter two, he has come out of Egypt, where his parents Mary and Joseph, fled to to escape Jesus being killed.
He’s gone through his own baptism, through the water in Matthew chapter three. Perhaps reflecting the exodus of the Jewish people, escaping across and through the Red Sea, echoing the escape from Egypt in the Exodus. In chapter four, he’s gone through the wilderness just like the people of God did for those 40 years. It’s important for us to realize here that as a rabbi, Jesus had been already on a teaching, and preaching, and healing tour. Preaching the Kingdom of Heaven. Last year, we talked about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is exactly the same, but because Matthew is talking to a Jewish group of people, the Kingdom of Heaven is a better phrase to say, because the word God was not allowed to be said, it was too holy.
Specifically, he has chosen his own disciples, including Matthew, and now for the first time, he sits down on a mountain to preach, and to teach. There are lots of interesting little asides through the New Testament, including this point where Jesus goes up a mountain. Perhaps drawing a parallel between himself and when Moses went up a mountain to get the ten commandments. Or perhaps knowing that the prophet Elijah went up a mountain to seek God when he was afraid. Or perhaps even thinking about the massive prophet Abraham, who took his son up a mountain to sacrifice him until God put a substitute in the way.
These big-time prophets met with God on mountains, and so perhaps it’s important for Jesus to show his followers that he is the big-time prophet in doing likewise. All this points to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, a realm where God commands the total blessing. I don’t know about you, if you’ve climbed many mountains in your time, they’re not so easy to do. Perhaps the inference is that it takes time to climb a mountain. It takes time to develop a friendship, a relationship with God. Mountains are often quiet places. Quiet places where perhaps people might go.
If you went to climb Snowdon, is not the quietest of mountains in the world, but there are others. The gospels say that Jesus often went to quiet places to pray, to spend time with God. It may be that this Lent, Jesus invites you to draw aside with him to a quiet place, to be with him. The second thing that struck me was that teachers in the first century sat down to preach. This is an interesting little aside again. Apparently, it was the posture that the speakers took. I’m aware that in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount it’s called the Sermon on the Plain, because it wasn’t up a mountain, and that Jesus stood.
Just one of these little differences, but John Calvin suggests that these are light and frivolous arguments because the words of Jesus, what he says, are the most important things for us to hear. Indeed, in Luke’s account, it’s recorded that, “Blessed are the poor,” rather than, “Blessed are the poor in spirits.” Then in Luke, Jesus goes on to say, “But woe to you who are rich,” – little bit impolite I would have thought. Whatever we learn from this series, the important thing is that what Jesus says here is radically countercultural. The world doesn’t say. “Blessed are the poor,” or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The world doesn’t say, “Blessed are the hungry, blessed are the mourners, blessed are the pure,” because Jesus values are upside down to the world’s.
At the start of this sermon we’ve got eight or nine proverb-sounding sentences known as the Beatitudes, from the Latin beatus, not “beat us” as it looks like in my writing, meaning blessed or blesséd. It’s not a list of the type of people that God blesses, rather they are the characteristics of those who know that they are beloved of God. They are the characteristics which once we are aware of them they enable us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They’re not ethics. They’re not morals. They’re characteristics. The morals come later in the Sermon on the Mount, chapter six and seven.
Perhaps it’s important for Matthew to emphasize that, even before Jesus talks about the importance of the religious law in his sermon, h is priority is those who can’t keep the religious laws. Those who aren’t able to come close to God because of their spiritual bankruptcy. It’s those that God blesses. First, this word blessed or blesséd. W e’ll be looking it quite a lot over the next few weeks. I’m not going to dwell on it too much today, but it’s not the word happiness. Blessed and happiness are not the same words. I think blessed is word which in Jews, which suggests enduring contentment. Happiness is kind of like, “I’m happy now. I’m in this mood right now.”
Whereas blessedness is ongoing state. The sense of perhaps being right with the world. Happiness suggests a more temporary feeling of joy, whereas blessedness has this normal long-term feel, knowing that there’s more to it than just being okay with the feeling right now. John Blanchette in his book on the Beatitudes explains it like this, “This word translated blessed in our English Bible comes from the Greek makarios, and the culture of New Testament times gives us a fascinating clue as to its meaning. Because of its geographical location, balmy climate, fertile soil, and rich mineral resources, the Greeks believed the island of Cyprus had everything necessary for a perfect life of happiness and fulfilment. As a result, they called the island, “hê makaria,” the feminine form of the adjective makarios.” There you go. “The word,” he goes on, “is related to character and not emotions.” I don’t know if anybody’s been to Cyprus. I went there one November and it was nice, and warm, and sunny, and full of happiness and fulfilment, apart from the fact I was woken up every morning about 5.30 with a call to prayer. Related to character and not emotions. This emphasizes Matthew’s thoughts about characteristics coming before law. When we think of our own character, we know that it doesn’t match up to God’s perfection, and if we compare ourselves to the absolute goodness of God, and the love and forgiveness, and grace that he pours out upon his creation, then we’re nowhere near him.
We know that we sin. We know that we mess up, and even when we know there’s forgiveness, and grace, and mercy, we still often choose to go off in our own way. Independent of whether or not we’re Christians, because he’s a God who gives, and gives, and gives, and loves, loves and loves. W hen we think of the poor in spirit, it’s not a financial thing. It’s nothing to do with the giving of stuff. It is God deepening our relationship with him by reminding us that in comparison to his utter love and goodness, we really are spiritually bankrupt. Remembering the example that John read to us in Luke 18, a great example of being spiritually bankrupt, or as Jesus says, “Poor in spirit.”
Firstly, the Pharisee stood in front of everyone and shouted in a loud voice, that he was beyond reproach. Parading in public his fabulous virtues of not being like all the others, but giving his money, and fasting, and praying. In comparison, the tax collector, the lowest of the low. Not even daring to look up from his lowly position at the back of the building. Not even daring to approach God. Being so aware of his bankruptcy, whether that be spiritual or moral, he knew his station in life wasn’t, in comparison with anybody else, t hat brilliant. But yet there’s hope.
The upside- down Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is a wonderfully different kingdom. This man if we could do a spiritual X-ray and see his true character, he knows that he can’t cut it. He knows that his sin blocks his way from entering God’s presence. He’s destitute, he’s dirty, he’s sinful. The hope is knowing that God looks at the heart. The hope is that God sees through all the muck and the mire, all the sin. God looks at the tax collector through the eyes of Jesus and sees a well-loved individual who, though, undeserving, is welcomed wholeheartedly into his presence.
When Jesus talks about being poor in spirits, he’s not talking about people who have no clue about what it’s like to be spiritual. He’s not talking about people who live on or below the poverty line. Everything Jesus says has a spiritual edge. When he talks about the poor in spirits, it’s those who know that they’re at the end of the line. Those who have no more to give. Those who know that they’re just not good enough for God.
If we were good Catholics, this week we would have commemorated Ash Wednesday. A priest would have would have marked our foreheads with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words originally spoken by God in the Garden of the Eden, telling Adam that this would be part of his punishment for taking part in sin. We would have been reminded of our place before God. Sinful, not able to bear his presence because of his almighty perfection, and his almighty purity. As spiritually bankrupt people that would have been a reminder, but yet it doesn’t have to stay like that.
When I worked with Christians Against Poverty, I worked with a chap who is in thousands and thousands of pounds of debt. I don’t know how much it was. I was thinking probably around 60,000. I remember meeting him and he said, “I don’t know what to do.” He gave us all of the paperwork that went with his debts. My friend and I, we took it back to my house and the whole of the living room was strewn with bits of paper, and we tried to work out which paper went with which debt. That took a good couple of hours. In the end, he decided to declare bankruptcy. Ironically, it costs money to do this, but I went with him to the court. Once the funds had cleared and the paperwork completed, he walked out of the court a bankrupt. He had decided to go to court, tell the people that he owed money that there was no way, no way, that he could pay back the debts.
Bankruptcy was his way to get clean again. After we left the court, we went for a coffee. He was still alive, he was still here, and he felt free. He felt free. Time and time again, this is what people who worked with Christians Against Poverty often say, “I felt a weight was lifted. I felt free.” Because God doesn’t want us to remain in our debt. He doesn’t want us to just almost stay in our bankruptcy either. There’s more. There’s more because bankrupts can enter his kingdom. Bankrupts can go clean again. The cost is knowing that there’s nothing we can do about it, except know that this is where we are in front of God.
Knowing how poor in spirits is the starting place to having the Kingdom of – Let me start that one again. Knowing how poor we are in spirit is the starting place to having the Kingdom of Heaven, to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Acknowledging our spiritual bankruptcy is the first step to being right with God. Once we know that, then ours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Once we know that everything we have and are can’t compare to God’s almighty goodness. Even our own goodness fails into insignificance. The psalmist writes, “For God knows how we are formed. He knows that we are dust,” in Psalm 103.
Yet we are also reminded in Psalm 34 that, “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” In spite of our urge to walk away from God and seek our best and not God’s, he always provides a way back home. In our poor in spiritedness, God welcomes us to share in his Kingdom. He is near to those who are crushed and poor in spirit. We’re reminded of the story of the prodigal son, when he returns, knowing how awfully he has treated his father and his family. He says, “Father, I’ve sinned against you and against heaven. I’ve sinned against you and against God. I’m not worthy to be called your son.”
He is both physically and spiritually bankrupt. He knows he can’t hold the position of sonship any more. He can’t repay all he has misspent, and he can’t do anything to make it better. Even to say sorry to God. Yet the father, who has been looking out for him all this time, restores him to sonship. “You’re always my son.” The father re-establishes that relationship with a son that he thought he’d lost. The Father knows that his son has messed up, but in this moment, it doesn’t matter. The son is home. He is safe. That’s the most important thing. That’s the most important thing.
The tax collector and the son both knew what it was like to be bankrupt, but it didn’t stop them from being loved by almighty loving God. Today, Jesus invites each one of us into his kingdom. Not by our own righteousness, but because our Father loves us and wants to be with us. Not because we give up cake for Lent, or give money to the poor, or have a perfectly moral life. This is the place we start, but it’s not the place we end. The Beatitudes, the blessing verses, are all in the present tense. They are for now. They are for eternity.
As we close today, I wonder where you’re at. Are you blessed because you know the truth about yourself? Or are you kidding yourself that, “I’m all right, Jack.” Whoever Jack is. Jesus invites us to be bankrupt and to get clean again. It’s the place to start our spiritual journeys. It’s the place to start afresh, but it’s not the place to wallow in. Let’s get washed. Let’s move on with God. Let’s follow Jesus. Should we pray?
We thank you, Father God, for the teachings of Jesus. We thank you that when we spend time sitting or standing at his feet, these truths become real for us again.
Lord God, we recognize that in front of you we are poor in spirit, but the journey doesn’t end there, you invite us into your kingdom. Thank you, Father God, that as we have taken communion today, a s we have perhaps spent time with you searching our hearts, getting right with you again. Thank you that you, like the father in the prodigal son looks out for us and welcomes us home, thank you that you love us. Would you please be with us and help us in the things that we need to do this week? We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.