This is a reworking of a Morning Watch post from December, as the Lectionary for today was the same, and this seemed the best way of bringing the material to the congregation. If you read the earlier post, you'll find significant differences, though the overall idea is the same. Remember, you can always find us at www.the-morning-watch.blogspot.com
Yours in Christ,
Lord’s Day Message, January 30, 2011
Immanuel Community Church, Concord, NH
As we continue our look at the normative expectations God has of every Christian, the Nine Calls of the Christian as we are defining them, we’ve arrived at the very core of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. We’re also just about half-way through this series. This week and next week we’ll be looking at Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of Sermon on the Mount. So these two messages are probably the most critical in terms of what you and I cannot dispense with and still call ourselves Christians.
The Sermon on the Mount, and especially the opening section that we call The Beatitudes offers a wonderful moment of drama. Matthew 5:1 says, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.”
Now, I think most of us generally pass right over this scene-setter because we want to get to the good stuff. But without understanding the setting and the people involved, we cannot comprehend that Jesus is not just being poetic or hypothetical with the Beatitudes. What he is about to share is a practical framework for Christian life and ethics. And what we have to grapple with in these coming verses is that Jesus actually meant what he said; he actually did what he talked about; and he actually expects every person who wants to be called “disciple” to do the same.
Setting and Characters
The scene is a hillside just north of Capernaum, the resort and fishing community where Jesus was living and where he began his ministry in earnest. There are two groups of people here on the hillside. The first is the crowds. Matthew 4 and Luke 6 tell us the several places these people came from: Some came from Syria, a part of the old Selucid Empire, now under Roman rule. Syria did not have primarily a Jewish population.
They came from Galilee, which was the whole northeastern part of First Century Israel. If you were here last week, you heard the area called Galilee of the Gentiles because the ancient Jews who settled here around 1600 BC intermarried with the locals to produce a kind of half-way Judaism that allowed them to maintain the pagan practices of the Canaanites with whom they shared the land. By Jesus’ day, the area may have had a Jewish plurality, but it was very much a melting pot.
Some of the people on the hillside that day came from the area around Capernaum, including many non-Jews, especially those who lived east of the Jordan and in the north. Some came from the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria, but way west of Capernaum. The Decapolis cities were centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region that was otherwise Semitic.
Some came from Jerusalem, which lies just into the southern third of the nation at the time and was the capital of Judea. It was occupied mostly by Jews at the time, as was the rest of Judea, the whole of the southern kingdom. And some came from “beyond the Jordan,” an area then called Peraea, in what is the modern-day Kingdom of Jordan. Peraea is non-Jewish. Finally, they came from Tyre, and Sidon, on the border of Syria – a very cosmopolitan area; very mixed in terms of culture and ethnic background.
So… who was coming out to see Jesus? Was the audience on this particular day a group of card-carrying Jews? To be sure, it was not. In most cases, these people have traveled a very long way, mostly in search of healing for various diseases.
So here is this amazing scene: thousands of people, many of them poor, sick, and probably on the brink of starvation, who have left the little security they had at home to find out what this Jewish rabbi might possibly do for them. Many probably died along the way trying to get here. Many more will not live to see home again because they came. And most of them are being tolerated at best, and hated at worst by the Jews in the area simply because they are of the goyim – the nations – the “everybody else.” This isn’t mere bigotry. This has been bred into these Jews because it is the only way to maintain the integrity of their culture. All of them have climbed this small hill where, it has been rumored, Jesus is going to speak.
Toward the top of the hill is a group of between 12 and 60 men and women, some of whom Jesus had only recently invited to be his disciples. It is a great honor in the first century for a young Jewish male to be asked to be a disciple of a rabbi. It means a lengthy time of teaching on top of the study of Torah and the rest of Holy Scripture that those invited by the rabbi were assumed to have already mastered. But it is the only avenue to becoming a rabbi yourself; the only avenue to the honor and respect a rabbi receives. Peter, John and James, Andrew, Philip, Matthew, and a few of the others had not mastered the teaching. They were already adults working at trades in the area, and had no further hope of being tapped by a rabbi. They were too old. They were not good enough. So when, weeks before, Jesus had gone around Capernaum and picked them, out of all real scholars and good students that were available to be his disciples, they had jumped at the chance.
At the top of the hill sits an unremarkable man. He is unremarkable because he is not rich, he is not powerful, he has no political connections to speak of, and if you pass him on the street you will probably think nothing of him unless you have heard of the miracles that seem to follow him everywhere he goes. This is, however, the first time he is to give a major message. This is why the rabbi Joshua ben Joseph, Jesus, has come here.
There. That is Matthew 5, verse 1 in time and space.
The last thing that must not be missed is a bit of placement. Jesus will be preaching this day downhill, directly to, or perhaps we might even say through his disciples. In order to speak to the crowds, he has to speak past the disciples. While the message will be addressed to the general audience, it seems really clear that the people he wants to impact the most with the message are the ones sitting closest to him. Because, let’s face it. These disciples of his are not like most of the people who have shown up here to listen to the preacher. It may be that the only middle-class working stiffs in the whole group were those 12-60 disciples. They may have been among the few who could get up after the message was over and return to their homes and have dinner. But we will discover this soon enough.
Now, on this hillside these newly minted disciples of his who are made up of an almost an even split between fishermen and men climbing the ladder of religious leadership in a couple of different Jewish sects, are undoubtedly facing him. Only one of them that we know of comes from a different background. His name is Matthew. He is wealthy because he was, until a few weeks ago, a tax collector by trade, he has been lived on the fringe of Jewish society because he is an aggressive, competitive man who has made himself wealthy by cheating poor people and by doing business with Rome. We must not miss the fact that he is the one who years later will recount this scene on paper for us. We are seeing Jesus preach primarily through his eyes and ears.
Matthew and the rest of the disciples cannot possibly be oblivious to the tremendous crowd sitting just behind and below them on the hill. And with every word Jesus will speak, they will become more and more aware of who they are, and more and more aware of the challenge that is sitting just behind them.
Now that we know where we are and who is here, listen carefully, because verse 2 says, “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 it simply says, “Blessed are you poor…” I don’t know which one Jesus said that day or whether the two reports are of two different messages, or whether Matthew, years later, writing it down still couldn’t get over the bald economics of what Jesus was saying. But for a rich man to hear that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor? Don’t think for a moment, Matthew, that the poor are of secondary concern to Jesus. And don’t think for a moment, Matthew, that Jesus is not telling you that they are not to be of practical concern to you.
Jesus may be speaking down a hillside through a small group of middle-class disciples to the poor. But if the poor gain the kingdom of heaven, the clear implication for Matthew is that the only way for this tax collector to enter the kingdom of heaven is through the poor.
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, Matthew, for those who have lost loved-ones along the way coming to hear this message? Don’t think for a moment they are not your responsibility. They are here. Don’t think for a moment that you can wish them well and send them on their way. It isn’t good enough to say to yourself that God will comfort them. You must engage with them. You must sit and learn their story. You must comfort them. The context of the scene leaves you no way around it.
(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 respectfully, even though many of them had heard that in order to be healed all they needed to do was touch Jesus.
When he tempted Jesus, Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus would only worship him. But patience like the people had that day – a meekness that obeys the Master’s voice like a sheep does his shepherd? That is the kind of people you want to pass the Kingdom of God along to.
Matthew: All your ambition, all your striving to get ahead, all your political maneuvering won’t get you anywhere in a kingdom like this. You wanted to build an inheritance. Who were you going to pass it on to anyway? The people you walked over to climb to the top? This turns all your ambition on its head. Now your only ambition must be to sit and listen to the Master, like the meek crowd waiting patiently behind you.
The context of the scene leaves you nothing else to do.
(vs. 6) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Luke’s account of this sermon leaves out the words “for righteousness.” Did Jesus add those words that day, or writing years later, did Matthew realize that feeding the hungry and offering drink to the thirsty is 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 linking your faith with practical ethics. Matthew, when Jesus is finished preaching today, who is going home with you to enjoy your meal?
It is going to cost Peter, Andrew, James, and John as well. They have a catch of fish back in town. No time to sell them. This is their whole income today. And Matthew, do you still have money from your tax collections? You give them something to eat.
The context of the scene – righteousness -- demands it.
(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 all the rest and so often gives them the idea they are in a position to judge. And Matthew, you are not going to be able to do any of the rest of what Jesus has challenged you to do as long as you hold onto your title of tax collector or disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or deacon or church member. Until you are willing to receive the mercy you need, you’ll never offer mercy.
The people on this hillside need to see hearts that have been forgiven of their hardness. The people on this hillside 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, do nothing, and use your title: tax collector or disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or deacon or church member as the excuse of why you didn’t engage with them.
The context of the scene won’t allow you to.
(vs. 8) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. We today don’t understand what it means to have a pure heart about something. In the 21st century we have so divorced motive from action that we can talk about a person having a pure heart even though they sin by their actions. “Oh, he meant well,” we say. In the first century you only meant well when you did well.
The people in the crowd behind Matthew didn’t come to make a statement, or to picket for a cause, or even to be religious. You can do all those things with mixed motives. Most of the people in this crowd simply came to be healed. Their motive was absolutely pure on that point. And before Jesus ever began this message, he met their need. The phrase also doesn’t say, “blessed are those who see God, for it will make them pure in heart.” You cannot come to God with mixed motives and with your pretenses in tact.
There is no pretense here on this hillside. Here are people coming completely empty of all agenda but just to get to someone who might be able to heal them. Here on this hillside this disciple is suddenly and embarrassingly stripped naked, his pockets empty, his heart broken, his false religiosity exposed.
The context of the scene has devastated him.
(vs. 9) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Just over your shoulder, Matthew, are groups of people that until today you would have been glad to have an argument with, and they with you. It is a group of pagans, half-breeds, Greeks, and a few zealous Jews, all of whom would be glad to stick a knife in your back because you are wealthy, because you are a tax collector, because your gain has been at their expense.
The politics of the Middle-East is on this hillside. And the hatred goes both ways. Until today a gathering like this would have been cause enough for you to fight; 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. Why? Because, if all the other things Jesus has said to this point aren’t practical enough for you, then consider this, “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.” (Isaiah 53:7) No, you are not your Master. But today he is asking you to meet life as he does. And you will never be able to forget today, when so many of your “enemies” were gathered with you on this hillside. And you won’t be able to forget the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward you.
The context of the scene means that you will be a peacemaker.
(vs. 10) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Here on this hillside, gathered around you are people who have each been persecuted at some point for the sake of political expediency. Here are people who have been persecuted because they didn’t fit into someone’s cultural or religious mold. Here are people who have been persecuted as wrong-doers because of people who had “the Law” all nailed down. But Matthew, if you do all the things we just talked about, they will persecute you because your life toward God will be an offense to your Jewish leaders; your life toward God will threaten the Roman authorities; your life toward God will seem ridiculous to all who place partisan interest and self first.
Don’t forget the context of the scene. You will need to remember it when they begin to persecute 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. It isn’t enough that you do what is right. The Pharisees have made stock-and-trade out of that for years. Just doing the right thing isn’t enough because it 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. His words to you are life.
You are ready now in a way you weren’t before today to give everything 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 gives 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 gently speak truth when other speak lies about you. Your relationship with him gives you a hunger you never knew before, a thirst for his words and to be in his presence.
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 them -- HE is the context of the scene.
Questions for Action:
What will I do to engage with the poor?
What will I do to engage with someone who is mourning?
How will I demonstrate meekness?
With whom will I share my food and drink?
To whom will I extend mercy? From whom do I need to receive mercy?
What motives or actions are blocking me from seeing God?
How will I become a peacemaker? Is there someone I need to make peace with?
What needs to change in my life that will put the kingdom of heaven first?