“According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 6: Mountain Top Sermon
In this section we take our first look at the preaching of Jesus. A Mountaintop Sermon.’. The sermon we have in both Matthew and Luke appears to be edited highlights rather than a blow by blow report. Luke places some of the sections in different contexts and later in timeline of the ministry of Jesus. Matthew places them all together in an extended section of teaching that both outlines principles and offers examples of how those teachings work out. We begin where Matthew 5 begins; verses 1 & 2.
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2 and He began to teach them…”
There are hints in the text of the importance of this teaching. Firstly, Jesus delivers the sermon from a high place. It’s a mountaintop event. Locations are significant to Matthew.
Secondly, Jesus sits down. Rabbis traditionally would stand to teach, only sitting to deliver words of particular importance. His disciples are pictured as seeing Him sit down and then gathering around Him to expectantly wait for His words.
Thirdly, the phrase ‘began to teach’ (translated in the King James Version “He opened His mouth, and taught them”) carries the sense of this being a serious utterance. The Greek word for used here for mouth ‘stoma’ can also be translated as ‘the edge of the sword’. Metaphorically speaking this is cutting edge teaching.
In verses 3-12 each statement is preceded by the word ‘Blessed’, sometimes translated as ‘Happy’. In Greek ‘makarios’ does not translate easily. There is no verb in the original. It’s all in the present tense. “You’re blessed when so and so happens because it means that you have….”
If you browse different translations and commentaries on this section of Matthew you will quickly become aware that these statements have many layers of meaning and that there are numerous suggested ways of interpreting them. For myself I have found the biblical versions of J.B. Phillips and Eugene Petersen’s ‘The Message’ particularly helpful.
The way I’m suggesting we look at the sermon is to place different versions alongside each other, whilst also stating an opposite viewpoint.
So here goes!
Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
NIV Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
J.B Phillips How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!
Opposite! Happy are the self possessed, for they do not need a god
The Message You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and His rule.
There is nothing particularly enabling about poverty. In its most extreme forms it cheapens life, destroys relationships and turns daily life into a struggle for mere existence. The word used here is ‘ptochos’ and indicates not simply physical poverty but any form of need. Some translations, such as ‘New Living Translation’ use the word ‘needy’ ("God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for Him”)
In the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, recognizing ones situation of poverty is seen as a doorway into receiving comfort from God. For example Psalm 40:17: ‘As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.’
To quote the New International Bible Commentary ‘From the time of the composition of the Psalms, “the poor” had been understood as a characterization of the true people of God, those who know their lives are not in their own control and that they are dependent on God. “Poor in spirit” makes this explicit. Persons who are pronounced blessed are not those who claim a robust ego and strong sense of self-worth, but those whose only identity and security is in God.’
A translation produced in 2006, the ‘MIT’ ‘The Idiomatic Translation of the New Testament’ brings out this meaning; ‘Blessed are those not full of themselves, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs’. J.B Phillips, as we see above, links ‘poverty of spirit’ to humility: “How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!
Although we have welcomed Jesus as King, it is only now that we begin to see that the values of His Kingdom are not what people expected! His Kingdom is one where everything is turned upside-down and inside out. His values, just like His life as a King, are in sharp contrast to those of the world.
The entrance to this Kingdom comes through acknowledgment of need. The way of the world, as we have stated in the opposite view, seems to be “Happy are the self possessed, for they do not need a god”.
Today religion is often pictured as a crutch or as a weakness. To admit that we can’t ‘know it all’ and ‘do it all ‘and ‘have it all’ and ‘be it all’ is beyond what some people, in their pride, are willing to acknowledge. They have no room for the reign of God because they believe they alone are the masters of their own destiny.
It is only as we realize our need that God’s Kingdom finds an entrance into our lives. Sometimes that only happens when we go through the hard times and all our usual protections and defenses are down. Which is why Eugene Petersen’s version of the first beatitude captures it so well: “You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and His rule.” (The Message)
Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
NIV Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
J.B Phillips How happy are those who know what sorrow means for they will be given courage and comfort!
Opposite! Happy are those who seek only pleasure, for they can always escape reality
The Message You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
As with poverty, mourning, in and of itself, is a horrible place to be. It hurts. It eats at your soul, causes you to lose sleep and even question the existence of a loving God. To describe the whole grieving process of denial, anger and emptiness as a ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ time in our lives would be nonsense.
However, in Biblical literature (though we seldom go to these particular passages) there is a strong and deep tradition of lament. There’s even a whole book on the Old Testament called ‘Lamentations’ in which the author writes from exile of the despair felt by the community seeing their nation devastated, the temple destroyed and Jerusalem laid waste.
Lamentations offers no explanation for suffering nor suggests that it is possible to come up with a program to eliminate it, but rather insists that God enters into our suffering as a companion to help us and sustain us. In the midst of Lamentations declaration of hopelessness we also find passages that shine as rays of light through darkened clouds, for example: Lamentations 3:25-33 (NIV)
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; 26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. 27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. 28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him. 29 Let him bury his face in the dust-- there may yet be hope. 30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. 31 For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. 32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. 33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
Passages such as this resonate with J.B Phillips words: “How happy are those who know what sorrow means for they will be given courage and comfort!” The alternative to mourning is not rejoicing, but being in denial. Within Christianity there have been those who teach that we are to rejoice in whatever comes our way as being a blessing and all part of God’s will. I just don’t buy it! The Bible tells us in its shortest verse that in His grief over the loss of Lazarus, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35)
The psychological damage that can be done by living in denial that life has a side that can be painful, destructive and terrifying seems obvious. People are hurting throughout all levels of society and rather than lament or mourn turn to every kind of escapist activity. Addictions to Drink, Drugs, Promiscuity, Gambling… these are the obvious tip of the iceberg. The reverse of this beatitude is “Happy are those who seek only pleasure, for they can always escape reality”.
The tragedy of escaping from the pain is that it leads us to head in the opposite direction from the One that can really help us through. As with the previous teaching it is only when we acknowledge we are hurting and need help that we can be embraced by the love of God. Again the Message captures this notion, the notion expressed in the biblical passages of lament, “You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (The Message)
Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
NIV Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
J.B Phillips Happy are those who claim nothing, for the whole earth will belong to them!
Opposite! Happy are the important, for they are so very special to themselves
The Message You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.
In the very satirical movie Monty Pythons ‘The Life of Brian’ a crowd are pictured listening to Jesus preach. Way at the back are a group not hearing everything. A spectator comments “Hear that, blessed are the Greek!” Another comments ‘The Greek?’ ‘Yes apparently” he replies “He’s going to inherit all the earth!” “No” pipes up a nearby woman, “It's the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that's nice, innit? I'm glad they're getting something because normally they have a hell of a time.”
The popular view of meekness is that of a meek person being someone who has become a doormat allowing everybody to walk all over them whilst they in their shyness do nothing about it!
The biblical view is that the meek are those who trust in God’s goodness and control in any given situation. Meekness is seen as the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. Thus J.B Phillips writes: ‘Happy are those who claim nothing, for the whole earth will belong to them!’
The corresponding negative view then becomes ‘Happy are the important, for they are so very special to themselves’. Biblical meekness is about accepting our limitations, that we can’t save the world single-handed and that we need each other. When this verse speaks of inheriting the earth, the focus is not the physical world but the world of relationships where love can flourish and life can be truly enriched.
Again the Message catches this nuance as we read “You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.”
Matthew 5:6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
NIV Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
J.B Phillips Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for goodness, for they will be fully satisfied!
Opposite! Happy are the easily satisfied for they always find an excuse for their inactivity.
The Message You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
Righteousness is an important concept for Matthew. It means actively pursuing the will of God. People who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not those who merely long to be personally pious or idealistic dreamers or do-gooders, but they are persons who are working to make things right with the world around them. The thing about hunger and thirst is that you don’t give up on them. Until they are satisfied you remain hungry and thirsty. So J.B. Phillips has it: ‘Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for goodness, for they will be fully satisfied!’
The reverse of this beatitude would be along the lines of ‘Happy are the easily satisfied for they always find an excuse for their inactivity.’ Or as one cynic has commented ‘Those who aim at nothing usually achieve it”.
It feels good when you are part of something that is making a difference. It gives life shape and meaning and purpose. For the Christian there is no greater good than doing the will of God. In Matthew’s gospel that means bringing the reign of God’s kingdom to rule in the affairs of humankind.
William Barclay points out that ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ means “give us the whole deal”. That it is not just “Give me a nibble of the crust to satisfy my cravings’, but “Give me the whole loaf of bread so I can prepare a feast’.
His point is that this hunger and thirst is a whole hearted commitment to seeing that right is done and the things of God take center stage. It’s a “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and then all these things shall be added unto you’ type of quest. (Matthew 6:7)
The Message has it; “You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.”
Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
NIV Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
J.B Phillips Happy are the merciful, for they will have mercy shown to them!
Opposite! Happy are those able to take care of themselves, for they don’t need anyone else
The Message You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'carefull,' you find yourselves cared for.
In the Lord’s prayer we use the phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. We acknowledge that the path of discovering forgiveness for ourselves is closely related to our ability to forgive others. When we carry hateful attitudes they prevent us from truly loving. So in this verse there is a relationship established between ourselves being shown mercy, and the mercy we show to others.
What is mercy? Partly looking unto others interests as much as our own. Thus it’s negative would be ‘Happy are those able to take care of themselves, for they don’t need anyone else’. Mercy builds community, encourages forgiveness and renewal, opens doors of possibility in the face of failure and breaks the cycle of revenge and payback. There’s almost a karma-like aspect to mercy. You give it out and it comes back at you. The Message transliteration: “You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.”
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
NIV Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
J.B Phillips Happy are the utterly sincere, for they will see God!
Opposite! Happy are the broad-minded for they never do anything wrong in their own eyes.
The Message You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
A re-occurring theme in Jesus teaching is that it’s hard to put the world outside you to rights if there are things wrong on the inside. That out of our ‘heart’ (our spiritual center) flow actions for right and wrong. The first and greatest commandment remains 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' (Matthew 22:37-38 NIV)
When evangelists encourage people to ask ‘Jesus into their hearts’ they are inviting them to place Christ’s presence and teaching at the center of all they do. The earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord” implies a person focussed upon seeking to live under the guidance and reign of the love of God that is found in Jesus Christ. They have a particular aim and purpose in mind. They are single minded, not double-minded.
The opposite of course is having no particular focus or aim in mind. The opposite would be “Happy are the broad-minded for they never do anything wrong in their own eyes. If the only arbiter of our actions is our own standards then we can get pretty close (as long as we keep then low). Better the advice Jesus offers. “You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
NIV Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
J.B Phillips Happy are those who make peace, for they will be sons of God!
Opposite! Happy are the aggressive because no-one can get close to them.
The Message You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.
J.B Phillips makes it clear that making peace is an activity that we have to pursue. ‘Happy are those who make peace, for they will be sons of God!’ This places peacemaking within the context of seeking to be a community. We are not talking here about an individual quest to find inner solitude but the work of a community seeking to recognize each other as fellow children of God. The antithesis of this verse would be along the lines: “Happy are the aggressive because no one can get close to them.’
Peacemaking requires an aptitude for hearing other points of view than your own and the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. Scripture speaks of the Church as the body of Christ and how we all have different roles within that body. Although we all have different functions we are all equally valued by God as God’s much loved children. None of us has significance beyond that of any of the others! We are called to work together, to get along, to work out our differences in such a way as those outside our community even say, “See how these Christians love one another”.
The Message transliterates this verse “You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family”.
We reach our final phrase in the first part of the sermon:
Matthew 5:10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
NIV Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
J.B Phillips Happy are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of goodness, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!
Opposite! Happy are the adaptable for they never have to take a stand for anything.
The Message You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
The early church, just like Jesus Himself, faced persecution. In the face of strong opposition the temptation is to back down and deny what we believe. Matthew will later illustrate how much of a temptation this is to the most faithful disciples, by giving us the example of Peter’s denials following Christ’s crucifixion.
The opposite of making a stand for our faith is to so water down what we believe that it becomes meaningless. Hence our opposite view would be ‘Happy are the adaptable for they never have to take a stand for anything.’
Not many of us go out looking for conflict. But there are situations when what we believe will be in conflict with the way of the world. One thinks of the battles that took place within both the church and the nation in regard to the abolition of slavery. Or of Martin Luther’s confrontation with the Roman Church as he declared “Here I stand”. Or Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s stand against Hitler in the Second World War that led to his imprisonment and eventual execution.
In his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ Bonhoeffer writes “Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact it is a joy and token of His grace. The acts of early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for His own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of His presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for His sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with Him. To bear the Cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for Him” (Chapter 4 : para 10)
Let us conclude this session with ‘The Message’, verses 10-12
‘You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.’
Next Time: Even More Mountain Top Sermon-ing