In the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian”, there is a scene relating the story of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Those who were distant from Jesus were arguing with one another because they were having trouble hearing, and arguing because their arguing was making it hard to hear. As a result one of them asks what he said, and they were informed that Jesus said, “Blessed are the cheese makers.”
“What’s so special about the cheese makers?” they reply.
“Well,” they explain, “It is not meant to be taken literally, he is referring to all who work in the dairy industry.”
This movie reveals a mistake that is often made concerning the so called sermon on the mount.
Firstly, the section, commonly called the beatitudes, is only a portion of the whole teaching that Jesus gave on the mountain. They are not, in themselves, the entirety of the sermon on the mount.
Secondly, the sermon was not given to a crowd. Certainly a crowd had gathered and, ‘when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them.’ The Sermon on the Mount was teaching for the small group, at that time, who were Jesus disciples, not an evangelistic sermon for those not yet a part of Jesus company.
This means that the beatitudes are not commandments, rules, attitudes one must have, ‘entrance requirements’ as one commentator put it, in order to become a disciple of Jesus.
Note that the first beatitude, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit (with a small ‘s’ not a capital ‘S’ indicating that it is not the Holy Spirit that is being referred to here), and the last beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, both have the reward (for want of a better word), ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Just a reminder that Matthew, because he is writing to a Jewish audience, uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ instead of ‘kingdom of God’ because it would have been offensive for them to use the Holy Name. So when Matthew uses ‘kingdom of Heaven’ he means the same thing as ‘kingdom of God’.
Because the beatitudes begin and end with the reward of the kingdom of heaven, we are to understand that these things are expressions, fruit, if you like, of being a part of the kingdom of God, in our case, Christian community. The kingdom of God is not, as we often think, something that passively exists because we gather in the name of God, nor is it something that is passive. As the Holy Spirit has power in our lives, so too does the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom has power to change our lives; it is active on and in our lives, as individuals and as a church. If the kingdom of God is present, we will be transformed by it. Like the fruit of the Holy Spirit described in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; I can’t help wondering that one way of understanding the beatitudes is to think of them as fruit of the kingdom of God.
We should note as we read these beatitudes, is that there is no sense that they are denying that these things do not exist in the kingdom of God: we will feel poor in spirit, we will mourn (there will be death and end), there will be meekness, there will be a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, there will be the need for mercy, there will be the want to see God, there will be the need to make peace (note: make peace, not keep the peace), and there will be persecution. Jesus addresses the reality of persecution of those who are his disciples as the prophets were persecuted.
The presence of the kingdom of God and being followers of Jesus, disciples of Christ, is no promise that we will not feel depressed, that we will not grieve, that we will be great, that we will see justice for all, that there won’t be situation that require mercy, that we will always know God’s will for us, that there will be no tension and conflict, that we will be completely safe; however we interpret these emotions and experiences to mean. Being a part of the Christian Community, the kingdom of God, is not an insurance police against bad and difficult things. The message of the beatitudes is that bad and difficult things happen to good people.
The question we really need to be asking is what does ‘blessed’ mean.
‘Blessed’ is often translated as happy, but the original meaning is not so subjective, its not so individualistic as your or my happiness, it is a much more general, or objective sense – the wellbeing of the community, of which we, as individuals, are a part, is strong. There is a good and positive atmosphere in the community.
Another way of understanding this word ‘blessed’ is of being fortunate, ‘How fortunate is…’, in the same way would say how lucky someone was to find $50 on the footpath on the way to church. But this carries too much of the sense of passiveness – surely there is something we need to bring to this sense of being community. It can’t be that some have it and some don’t purely by luck.
A third way of thinking about ‘blessed’ is the idea of congratulations – congratulations you who are peacemakers… This seems to express the opposite of ‘fortunate’ it is not passive, but is the success of our own efforts, completely our own actions; we have been successfully poor in spirit, we have mourned when we should, we have been successfully meek, etc. This is not a reward for our effort.
The beatitudes are concerned with the kingdom of God, the fruit of being a true Christian community. If the kingdom of God is where faithfulness and loyalty to God are concerned then we will be people who are trusting in God and the community of faith he has invited us to participate in. When we have times when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning some loss, when we feel like we are the least on the face of the planet, when we feel we can’t see God and desperately want to, when those around us are in need, when our hearts are aching for others, when we are in the midst of conflict in relationships within the community, and when we are facing rejection because of what we believe, it is our ongoing trust in God and those with whom we are connected by faith that sustains us.
The beatitudes call us into the kingdom of God and into a true and deep experience of community.