Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” This is such a loaded entr’acte, and we generally pass right over it because we want to get to the good stuff.
There are two groups of people here on this hillside. The first is the crowds. Matthew 4 and Luke 6 tell us where these people came from: Syria, a part of the old Selucid Empire, is now under Roman rule and has a non-Jewish population. Galilee is the whole northeastern part of First Century Israel. Galilee is the area around Capernaum, where Jesus has been working. It includes many non-Jews, especially east of the Jordan and in the north. The Decapolis is a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria, west of Galilee. The Decapolis cities are centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region otherwise Semitic. Jerusalem is just into the southern third of the nation and is the capital of Judea. It is almost exclusively Jewish. Judea is the whole of the southern kingdom, and is also Jewish. The area “beyond the Jordan” is called Peraea, and is largely non-Jewish. Tyre, and Sidon, on the border of Syria, are cosmopolitan melting pots. The only region in the area not mentioned specifically is, notably, Samaria. Is this audience primarily a group of card-carrying Jews? No. In most cases, they have traveled a very long way, mostly in search of healing for various diseases.
Here, then, is the context of the scene: Thousands of people, many of them poor, sick, and probably on the brink of starvation, have left the little security they had to seek what healing this Jewish rabbi might possibly offer them. Many probably died along the way trying to get there. Many more would not live to see home again because they came. And most were tolerated at best and hated at worst by the locals because they were of the goyim – the nations. Their crime is that they are “everybody else.” All of them have climbed a small hill, where Jesus is to speak.
The other group at the top of the hill full of pilgrims is a cluster of between 12 and 60 men and women, some of whom Jesus recently invited to be his disciples. It is a great honor for a young Jewish male to be called to be the disciple of a rabbi. It means a lengthy time of teaching beyond of the study of Torah and the rest of Holy Scripture these crème-of-the-crop types have already mastered. But Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Philip, Matthew and a few of the others didn’t master the teaching. They are already adults working at trades in the area with no further hope of being tapped by a rabbi. They are too old. They are not good enough.
At the top of the hill sits an unremarkable man. He is unremarkable because he is not rich, he is not powerful, and he has no political connections to speak of. But miracles seem to follow him everywhere he goes. And this is the first time he is going to give a major address. That’s why he sat down here on this hillside.
The last thing in setting the scene is a bit of placement. Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples. In order to speak to the crowds, he has to get passed the disciples, so to speak. So while the message is addressed to the general audience, it seems clear that the people he wants to impact most are sitting closest to him. Jesus is issuing a challenge to them in this message. If in the scene they are facing him on the hillside, then the challenge is just behind them. If they are facing the other way, the challenge is right before their eyes.
There. That’s the scene the way my mind’s eye has it. I think it is historically accurate. God forgive me if it isn’t. That is Matthew 5, verse 1 in time and space. Now that we know where we are and who is here, listen carefully, you would-be disciple, because “he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:”
(vs. 3) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. In Luke’s version, in Luke 6, it simply says, “Blessed are you poor.” I don’t know which one Jesus said that day or whether the two reports are from two different messages. But don’t think for a moment that the poor are of little concern to Jesus, and don’t think for a moment that Jesus is not telling you, would-be disciple, that they are not to be of practical concern to you. The context of the scene leaves no other possibility.
(vs. 4) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. What are you going to do, would-be disciple, for those who have lost loved-ones along the way to hear this message? Don’t think for a moment they are not your responsibility. They are here. You cannot wish them well and send them away. You must comfort them. The context of the scene leaves you no recourse.
(vs. 5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. This gathering could so easily have become a riot. The disciples could so easily have become a police barricade struggling to save their Master’s life against a well meaning, but insistent mob. But the people sat down on the hillside that day and listened patiently. And patience like these people display: a meekness that obeys the Master’s voice like a sheep does his shepherd is how Jesus intends to build his kingdom. It isn’t that they have no ambition. They will simply submit their ambition to sit and listen to the Master. Do you have the ambition to lead? Those in this kingdom must follow. The context of the scene demonstrates that to you.
(vs. 6) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Again, Luke’s version leaves out “for righteousness.” On other days in other places Jesus will ask his disciples to feed crowds of this size with a few fish and some scant loaves of bread. And they will do it. But today there are hungry people right here. And today Jesus is not going to perform that particular miracle because this is a lesson in practical ethics. Would-be disciple, when Jesus is finished preaching today, who is going home to enjoy your meal? This will cost you, Peter, Andrew, James, John. You have a catch of fish back in town. No time to sell them. This is your whole income today. Matthew, do you still have money from your tax collections? You give them something to eat, would-be disciple. The context of the scene demands it of you.
(vs. 7) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The person who is in a position to withhold mercy is a person who is in a position to exercise judgment. There is something that tends to happen when people gain a title. It separates them from the “everyone else” and so often gives them the idea they are in a position to judge. And, would-be disciple, you are not going to be able to do all the rest of what Jesus has challenged you to do as long as you hold onto your title of disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or elder or deacon. This is a lesson in practical ethics. There are people on this hillside who need to see hearts that have been forgiven of their hardness. There are people on this hillside who need to see hearts of stone that have become hearts of flesh. When you stand up after the message and turn around, don’t think for a moment that you can walk back through the crowd and do nothing. The context of the scene won’t allow you to.
(vs. 8) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. This one is the hardest to come in touch with. You don’t understand what it really means to have a pure heart. But this crowd didn’t come to make a statement or to picket for a cause or even to be religious. They came for healing. Their motive was absolutely pure on that point. Before Jesus began to teach, he met their need. He didn’t say, “blessed are those who see God, for it will make them pure in heart.” There is no pretense here on this hillside. All that has been stripped away. The context of the scene leaves you suddenly naked, your pockets empty, your heart broken, completely in need before God.
(vs. 9) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Just over your shoulder are people who, until today, you would have gladly had an argument with, and they with you. Sitting here on this hillside are not just Jews like you, would-be disciple. They are pagans, half-breeds, Greeks, Romans, and Jews. The politics of the Middle East is on this hillside. Until today, a gathering like this would have been cause enough for you to start a war. But there is no reason to start a war or to fight in a war or to support a war ever, anywhere from this day forward. You remember the prophecy from Isaiah, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” No, you are not your Master. But he is asking you to meet life as he does. And you will never be able to forget today, with so many of your “enemies” gathered on this hillside. And you will never be able to forget the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward you. The context of the scene has taken that possibility away from you.
(vs. 10) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Gathered just down this hillside from you are people who have each been persecuted at some point for the sake of political gain. Here are people who have been persecuted because they didn’t fit into someone’s plans. Here are people who have been persecuted because of those who had “the law” on their side. Your Jewish leaders called it ceremonial righteousness. But, would-be disciple, when you do all the things Jesus just talked about, you will be persecuted because of your life of righteousness toward God. Just take a look down the hill from where you sit. The context of the scene confirms this to you.
(vs. 11-12) “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Now your eye turns. You were looking down the hill as The Master spoke. With this last line you suddenly look up the hill again. It isn’t enough that you do what is right. The Pharisees have made stock-and-trade out of that for years. Doing the right thing – even being persecuted for doing the right thing – isn’t enough, and always ends in cold legalism. Just up the hill from you sits the one whom your soul loves. He is not just rabbi to you. He has the words of eternal life. You are ready now to give everything, even your life, to know what he knows and do what he does. Your relationship with him gives you the reason to do all that he has talked about here on this hillside. Your relationship with him will give you the ability to bless when others revile you, to bless when others persecute you, to respond kindly when others speak evil of you, to speak truth when other speak lies about you.
You look around you one more time and realize that in all of them: the Poor, the Mourning, the Meek, the Hungry, the Thirty, the Merciful, the Pure, the Peacemakers – in all of these around you, he is the context of the scene.
For Tim, Alice, and River.