Blessed Persecution

Activist Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells Barnett

The final beatitude (Matthew 5:11-12) like all the rest of the beatitude takes what we would regard as a negative–persecution for the sake of righteousness–and reveals that in the economy of God it is a good thing.

Persecuted or Annoying?

It’s important to emphasize, especially with this beatitude, that the Beatitudes name the experience and effect of Discipleship.  They do not offer a legalistic set of standards that we should strive after.  In other words, we all know people who go looking for persecution.  It’s not godly.  It’s just annoying.

Persecution for the Kingdom

Even so, the Gospels were written on the other side of the resurrection and after the ascension.  They were written with a clear awareness that missionaries get arrested, apostles get beheaded, and saviors get crucified. As the Kingdom of God advances into the world it confronts the Kingdoms of the Earth.  And the Kingdoms of the Earth rebel.  That rebellion takes the form of persecution.  So Jesus answered encouraged the Disciples to interpret the suffering of persecution as blessing.

Certainly as we reflect on this Beatitude we could think of the persecuted saints through the centuries.  Among my favorite heroes of the faith are Watchman Nee, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King–all of whom suffered persecution for their stands.  In the name of Jesus Christ, they spoke truth to power and they suffered because of it.  If we are to faithfully follow Christ in this world, we too must be willing to speak truth to power.  Even if the power to which we speak has the power to do us harm.

Blessed Purity

Purity of Heart by Pompeo Batoni

The language of the Beatitudes did not spring uniquely from the mouth of Jesus or off the pen of Matthew.  The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount interpret the First Testament.  The sixth beatitude–blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God–is a good example.  The purity beatitude summarizes the middle section of Psalm 24.

The Beatitude is an answer to the question posed in verse 3, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”  And who shall stand in his holy place?”  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  The Psalm’s own answer is, “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.”

Clean Hands come from Pure HEarts

The metaphors of clean hands and pure hearts point to the integrity which Disciples have.  Pure-hearted people work from the inside out.  Evil deeds also work from the inside out.  Matthew 15:1-20 contains a dispute with Jesus about what makes a person clean or unclean.  Jesus challenged their obsession with tradition in place of compassionate acts toward others.  Jesus concluded by saying that what goes in the mouth passes through the stomach and goes out the body.  “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person” (15:19-20).  The clean hands and the pure heart are not far apart.

The reward, if you will, of the Beatitude is also reflected in the Psalm–“Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob” — They will see God.

Purity of Heart in a Time of Wickedness

Like the other beatitudes, this beatitude has challenges for us.  Purity of heart is a difficult thing to sustain when it seems that the wicked thrive.   Read Psalm 73–it also speaks of the pure in heart, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.”  Yet the Psalm is far from a celebration of all the good that comes toward those who are pure in heart.  He laments those who are wicked.  They are praised by people (vs. 10).  They deny God.  And there are times that it feels like the purity of heart is vain.  “All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.”

Eventually this Psalm finds its resolution not in the earthly score-keeping where it feels at time that the wicked win bigly and the righteous suffer.  The resolution is in the person of the Lord.  The Psalmist prays, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire more than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

In a few words, Jesus has gathered up so much of Psalm 24 and Psalm 73.  Both Psalms speak against the reality of suffering and pain and declare the faithfulness of God and the ultimate redemption of the righteous.  This is the story which Jesus embodies and of which Jesus is the climax

Blessed Merciful: Mercy received means mercy given

“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Most biblical scholars today do not believe that Matthew wrote Matthew.  It’s possible that he did.  The gospel text itself never identifies the author.  That was done later by tradition.  The knowledge the author of the Gospel shows of Hebrew scripture does not seem to be the kind of knowledge a tax collector would have.  That said, Matthew the Gospel tells the story of Matthew the Disciple in Matthew 9:9-13.

Jesus saw Matthew collecting taxes and called him with the familiar words “Follow Me.”  Both Luke 5:27-32 and Mark 2:13-17 say, “Levi.”  So, Matthew left his tax collecting booth and followed Jesus immediately. This is also a familiar pattern with the calling of Disciples (see Matthew 4:18-22).  In Luke’s version of this story, it’s Levi/Matthew himself who throws a great banquet for Jesus; in Matthew the text just says “at dinner.”  Either way, Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and good people saw this and grumbled about it.  Jesus responded with the words of Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice; knowledge of God not burnt offerings.”  He made reference to the same passage again later in the gospel (Matthew 12:7).

Mercy through Matthew

Indeed mercy was a central theme in the ministry of Jesus.  The New Testament offers us at least two understandings of what it means to be merciful.  One acts of mercy are acts of kindness shown to those who have experienced hardship.  Mercy is the cup of cold water, the healing touch, and the gracious visit.  Mercy also means forgiveness.  To be merciful is to acknowledge wrong-doing and choose not to punish it.  And I believe that it is this second use that comes into focus here in this beatitude.

Matthew 6:14-15 provides one key piece of additional teaching.  “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” expands on the part of the Lord’s prayer in which we pray, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  The words used in Matthew’s version of the prayer does say “debt” and “debtors”.  However, the expansion makes “sins” and “those who’ve sinned against us” appropriate replacements.

Matthew 18:21-35 includes the dialogue between Jesus and Peter concerning the amount of times a person should forgive another.  Thinking that he was being incredibly magnanimous Peter suggested “seven times.”  Jesus multiplied that by eleven (Matthew 18:22).  The point wasn’t really to give a concrete number but to emphasize the limitless nature of mercy.  Jesus then went on to tell the story of the unmerciful servant who was shown mercy.

Forgiving in Forgiveness

All of this is rooted in the grace we have received from God.  The beatitude sounds a bit like quid pro quo–you have to forgive first and then God will forgive.  However, the future showing of mercy is a promise.  Robert A. Guelich in his incredibly helpful commentary The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding wrote that in SOTM, “the present does not condition the future as much as the future conditions the present.  The display of mercy shown by the merciful is already the mercy that will be expressed ultimately in the consummation.  What God has done and is doing for one through the accepting and forgiving ministry of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Kingdom now will be expressed openly and with clarity at the consummation of the Kingdom, the last judgment.  In other words, those who will receive mercy are those who now have experience it and practice it in view of God’s work through Jesus Christ” (p. 105).

Pastoral Word

A pastoral word should be spoken here.  Forgiving another person of their sins is not the same as putting one’s self in a position to be repeatedly hurt, abused or taken advantage of.  We do not do anyone a favor by dismissing their actions.  Matthew 18:15-20 makes it clear that we are to seek people’s repentance not tolerate people’s abuse.  This passage should never be used to coerce someone to tolerate an abusive marriage or repeatedly disregard an abusive relationship.  Tough love parenting also understands the needs to put limitations and boundaries for the sake of self-preservation and for the moral growth of children who have developed destructive habits or aggressive actions.  Mercy and forgiveness means that we are choosing not to retaliate against those who have hurt us.  Discipline, accountability and boundaries do not amount to retaliation.  They tools we often need to use to keep our selves whole and work toward the wholeness of others.



Blessed Hungry: Disciples Seek God’s Way Like People Seek Food and Water

If I were permitted to speak on behalf of the whole church, I would ask to have certain words returned to us.  Words like awesome, fellowship, grace, and blessed have been stretched to the point where they would not be recognizable by the biblical authors.  Admittedly, in some cases, we’ve done this to our words ourselves.  Two words that people here, instantly make meaning of, but may misunderstand in their biblical context are “righteous” and “justice.”

Matthew has added the “and thirst for righteousness” to the original beatitude which said simply, “Blessed are you when you hunger” (Luke 6:21). This does not mean that Matthew is unconcerned with the literally hungry.  It does matter.  Matthew’s understanding of righteousness and justice both begin with God’s activity.  They are not human achievements.  They have implications for human behavior, but they are not principally things that people achieve for themselves.  They are gifts of God.  Righteousness is the restoration of a right relationship between God and humanity.

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to desperately want that fulfillment. It is to want it as badly as we need food and water.  It’s fulfillment is realized in small ways throughout our lives as we participate with God in reconciling the world to God.  We ritualize this reality each week through in the sharing of bread and cup of communion.  And it will be ultimately realized in the final establishment of the Kingdom of God that is symbolized in a great feast (Matthew 26:29).

Blessed are the Meek

I searched for “meek” in a graphics library I subscribe to and got back images of tiny chickens. I got the result pictured here when I searched the “humble”:  You search returned no results.

Like the other Beatitudes, our culture does not value meekness.  As Mordred sings in the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot, “It’s not the earth the meek inherit; it’s the dirt.”

Our world values pride and dresses it in morally upright terms.  Our world values elitism and calls it gravitas.  Our world values arrogance and calls it swagger.  Our world values self-promotion and calls is branding.  Our values build us up rather than lifting high the cross.  The beatitudes confront our values when we shake them from of their familiar poetry.

Meekness As Discipleship

In his classical work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer interprets each of the Beatitudes as applying to the Disciples whom Jesus had called (see Matthew 5:1-2).  Having responded to Jesus’s call and left the crowd, they participate in God’s work.  God reclaims and remakes the world.  Discipleship participates in God’s agenda.  Christ does not require meekness of Disciples. Christ’s call brings meekness about.  The inheritance of the earth is not a reward for meekness; it is the consequence of joining God’s renewal of all creation.  Bonhoeffer wrote, “The renewal of the earth begins at Golgotha, where the meek One died, and from thence it will spread.”

Meekness cannot be converted into one of a series of virtues which Disciples of Jesus Christ are meant to exemplify. We cannot turn the Beatitudes into a new set of Ten Commandments.  The Beatitude on meekness, like the whole Sermon on the Mount, is rooted in God’s grace.  The words are spoken to Disciples who have been chosen by Christ and have been encircled as among Christ’s own.

Meekness and Obedience

The whole Sermon on the Mount calls for undivided obedience to the will of God.  It’s parts are not meant to become ticks on a to-do list.  Rather, the Sermon on the Mount catalogues the various parts of ourselves that must be submitted to God.  The parts are emblematic of the whole.  Here, Jesus stresses the submission of our egos to the call of God.  This is not accomplished through the willful suppression of a person’s pride.  It is accomplished through the constant acknowledgment of God’s gracious act.

Finally, the Beatitude on meekness is both good news and challenge.  It is Good News to know that what Disciples gain when they submit their egos to God far outweighs what they have lost.  Yet, when we recognize just how often we reassert our wills and our pride, we recognize our constant need to repent.

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Blessed are Those Who Mourn

One of the questions we must ask when reading the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) is whether to read them eschatologically or ethically.  The eschatological reading reads the Beatitudes as promises that will be fulfilled in God’s time.  Eschatology is the part of theology that looks at what we believe God will do in the future.  The popular Left Behind novel series of the past decade was one version of eschatology.  Not one I subscribe to, but a popular one nonetheless.  When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,”  he was also speaking eschatologically.  The eschatological reading of the second Beatitude would simply be that God will one day comfort those who mourn.  In the words of Revelation, “God will wipe every tear from their eye” (Revelation 21:4).

The ethical reading of the Beatitudes sees the Beatitudes as things we ought to do.  We ought to be poor in spirit.  We ought to be peacemakers.  We ought to live our lives in such a way that we are persecuted.  So, how does the ethical reading of the second Beatitude read it?  We ought to mourn our sin?  We ought to be so moved by the pain around us that we grieve with those who grieve?  I’ve always thought of the ethical reading in terms of our capacity to be comforting toward those who mourn. As the hands and feet of Jesus we ought to be the ones to place a hand on the shoulder, offer the encouraging word, bring the casserole, write the card, or in some other way provide comfort for those who mourn.

The eschatological reading focuses on what God will do.  The ethical reading focuses on what we should do.  The eschatological focuses on what will be.  The ethical reading focuses on what should be.

All of this seems to be fairly sterile until I get honest with myself. Until I read the Beatitude personally. I’m not sure I live up to any of the other Beatitudes.  I’m not sure I hunger and thirst for righteousness or that I am a peacemaker.  What I do know is that I mourn.  I suspect that I have performed close to 300 funerals in my ministry.  I mourn many of those I have buried—including my father and the my father-in-law.  I mourn friends.  I grieve with those who cannot seem to move past their grief and who get caught in cycles of unhealthy attention-seeking through their grief.  I mourn the mistakes I’ve made.  I mourn the sins I commit.  I mourn the absence of people I love even though I know why they can’t be in close proximity to me anymore, I mourn their absence.

When I read this Beatitude with my heart instead of my head, I come to a place where I simply admit that I grieve.  I grieve and I long to be comforted.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

It was an affirmation exercise gone horribly wrong.  In my youth ministry days, I thought we could do a study of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and affirm each other in the same breath.  As we talked about each beatitude, I asked the youth to think of which beatitude best suited different people in the group.  I imagined that they would say to each other, “You hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  “You are a peacemaker.”  I said to one of my youth sponsors, “you are poor in spirit.”  She was highly offended.  I was working from the definition of “poor in spirit” that I had read in Clarence Jordan’s accessible commentary on the Sermon on the Mount.  He suggested that “poor in Spirit” was the first step in a progression toward entering the Kingdom of God.  It meant that a person had recognized their dependence on God.  They relied on God’s grace.  No matter what I said by way of clarification, the adult I had recruited to work with our kids could not hear it as anything other than as a put-down.  Even though Jesus himself had used it to identify blessing.  I’ve since learned that many people are determined to play the victim and you usually just have to let them and move on.

It taught me something important.  It taught me that despite my naïve reading of the beatitudes, we who are formed by our cultures are challenged by these words.  When we think of being blessed in our culture, we do not think of poverty we think of prosperity:  Blessed by good health, blessed by friends, blessed with talent, blessed with material possessions.  Jesus now as then turns our value system on its head.  He declares blessing upon things we try our best to avoid—poverty, hunger, mourning, persecution . . . .

Blessed are those who don’t have material blessings, Jesus said.  Having failed to inherit the blessings of this world and our culture, they are in position to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The parallel passage in Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).  Some people believe that Matthew has muted Jesus’s preferential concern for the actual poor by spiritualizing the beatitude and making it something less real.  We can only make that assumption if we haven’t read the rest of Matthew which reveals that Jesus in Matthew—as in the other gospels—is clearly concerned for the actual poor.  With the phrase “poor in Spirit,” Matthew includes a both/and perspective.  It is both the literally poor and those—often because of their experience of poverty—are committed to Kingdom values rather than material values.  It is both the literally poor and those who are allied with the poor through generosity, advocacy and sacrifice.

It is essential that this move into the political realm.  Unfortunately, it too often drifts into the realm of partisan politics with one party claiming to care more about the poor and accusing the other of harming the poor through the policies they advocate.  It seems to me that our current political climate does with the poor what other cultures have often done—used them as ways to advance the agenda of competing power structures against each other rather than directing meaningful attention to their needs. The poor in spirit may have differing ways to be allied with the poor.  We will disagree with one another as to how to best achieve the protection of the vulnerable. How we seek to manifest the kingdom of God must still be subjected to rigorous analysis and debate.  The poor in spirit meet on this common ground politically—they believe that a society’s greatness is measured more faithfully by its concerns for the vulnerable than it is by the increasing opulence of the advantaged. The poor in spirit evaluate the effectiveness of policies in terms of the impact on the poor.  To state it as bluntly as I can, I believe the poor in spirit are those who give a damn.   And if that last phrase offends you, I apologize.  I’ve managed to offend others with this beatitude.  Just don’t let me inadequate vocabulary get in the way of being truly challenged by Jesus’s words.  Jesus wasn’t leading an affirmation exercise when gave these teachings, he was launching the overthrow of the values of his culture and ours.

Keeping Our Balance

Decades ago, New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd proposed a theory that the early church who two layers of communication–kerygma and didache.  The kerygma is what Christians preached to non-believers to introduce them to Christian faith.  The didache was their instruction to people once they became Christians.  The theory has been largely abandoned, though it did raise important questions about how particular forms of discourse worked within the early church. And I must admit, there are times as a preacher that I want to say–this isn’t intended for the new Christians.  OR this isn’t intended for the old timers.

It’s not that I think that we should shield the truth from anyone.  Far from it.  I just think that faith can be overwhelming at times and I wish there were a convenient way to say–this is for the advanced Disciple.  OK, I know, there’s no such thing as an “advanced Disciple.”  We are all just disciples or not.  Still, the Sermon on the Mount has a sense of “advanced” teaching to me.  It should be read in balance with other truths that are equally important.  This past week, I’ve wrestled with how to express some of the balancing act that has to be maintained as a I read SOTM.

  1. I believe that each teaching within SOTM should be read and interpreted on its own, but the Sermon also conveys an important truth when read as a whole.
  2. The teachings within SOTM can and should be read as the ethical teachings of Jesus and respected as such.  However, Jesus cannot be reduced to his ethical teachings.  He is what he taught, but he is more than what he taught.  And it is the fullness of Christ that makes this sermon significant.
  3. The Kingdom of Heaven is both a future destination and a present reality.  The distinction between present and future vanishes when we understand that the teachings Jesus calls forth from us are a gift that draws us toward the heaven we long for.
  4. The sermon was given to the Disciples (it is didache) but it was given with the crowd in sight (kerygma).

Kingdom Come

Kingdom is an especially important metaphor both in the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) and Matthew as a whole.  Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” thirty one times.  In SOTM, it comes in 5:3–the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven as do those persecuted for righteousness (5:10).  Teaching anyone to violate the commandments is least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19) and only with exceptional righteousness can anyone receive the kingdom of heaven (5:20).  It is something that can’t be entered into with the simple acclamation, “Lord, Lord” (7:21).  It seems clear that the kingdom refers to the other-worldly experience of eternal life.  However, within SOTM there’s a model prayer that prays, “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10).  Disciples are told not to strive for tomorrow’s worries but to strive for the “kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).  Kingdom, kingdom of heaven, and kingdom of God refer to a present and future reality.

The kingdom is both a horizon for all eternity and the call to embodies God’s vision in the here and now.  The kingdom is that place where God’s commands are followed and the outcomes that God desires are realized.  It’s where God retrieves everything that belongs to God.

The question that confronts believers around SOTM is this:  does one have to obey all the commands to enter into the eternal kingdom of heaven?  I believe we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Then, how does a commitment to following Christ’s way fit within a commitment to salvation by grace and not something we can earn?  A rhetorical question might start the question.  What if the teachings are not the things we must do to inherit eternal life?  What if the teachings–and the vision of human life they represent are what we inherit when we inherit, by grace, salvation?

I believe the kingdom proclamation is the proclamation that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.  Jesus proclaimed a rule other than Roman rule.  He taught people to live by a pattern that did not conform to the patterns of this world.  The world–through Rome’s decision to execute Jesus–rejected Jesus’s proclamation and the kingdom vision.  I do not believe that that we get to distance ourselves from this rejection claiming that because we are not Romans, we did not reject the kingdom.  We have rejected the kingdom and we will reject the king.  We reject God’s kingdom on a repeated basis.  And God leaves an open invitation for us to choose God’s rule instead of our own.  Living according to God’s vision, God’s will, the Way as revealed in Jesus’s teaching leads to the sort of peace, fulfillment and joy that we hope heaven will provide.  When we get to heaven, we will not be freed from God’s will and allowed to do whatever we want.  We will be in that place of new creation where we can accomplish all God intends without the great struggle we experience now. Obedience to the commands are not the means by which we inherit heaven.  The teachings of Jesus are a vision of heaven itself.  To the extent that we obey, we live within God’s vision as disclosed by Jesus Christ, we live within God’s kingdom–we experience heaven on earth.

They Don’t Preach Sermons Like That Anymore

By my count there are 2329 words in the Sermon on the Mount (using the New Revised Standard Version).  Normal English speech is somewhere in the range of 125-150 words per minute.  So, to deliver the Sermon on the Mount orally would take between fifteen to nineteen minutes.  That’s about how long I preach currently.  But the ground covered by the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is far broader than the ground I–or any preacher I know–covers in the span of a normal Sunday morning sermon.

It’s likely that this sermon is not a transcript of a sermon Jesus actually preached.  Much of the same content shows up in Luke in different forms.

Matthew Luke
Beatitudes–Matthew 5:3-12 Blessings and Woes–Luke 6:20-26
Love of enemies–Matthew 5:43-48 Love your enemies–Luke 6:27-36
Judging other prohibited–Matthew 7:1-5 Do not judge others–Luke 6:37-38 with the parable of the blind leading the blind, and the attempt to remove the speck of sawdust from a neighbor’s eye.
Tree and Fruit–Matthew 7:15-20 Luke 7:39-45
Wise and Foolish Builders–Matthew 7:24-27 Two foundations–Luke 6:46-49

Other teachings like the model prayer that is recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 is paralleled in Luke 11:2-4.  What does all this mean?  It likely means that Matthew collected several sayings of Jesus and compiled SOTM in a way that made sense.  Here’s the structure then, of the whole sermon

  1. The Beatitudes (5:3-11)
  2. Being Salt and being light (5:13-16)
  3. The completion of scripture (5:17-20)–A series of You have heard . . . But I say statements
    • Concerning anger (5:21-26)
    • Concerning lust (5:27-30)
    • Concerning divorce (5:31-32)
    • Concerning oaths (5:33-37)
    • Concerning Retaliation (5:38-42)
    • Concerning Enemies (5:43-48)
  4. Acts of Piety (6:1)
    • Generosity (6:2-4)
    • Prayer (6:4-15)
    • Fasting (6:16-18)
  5. Series of “Do Not Statements”–Do Not:
    • Serve God and anything else (6:19-24)
    • Worry (6:25-34)
    • Judge Others (7:1-5)
    • Give Pearls to Swine (7:6)
  6. Concluding Teachings
  7. Tree and Fruit (7:15-20)
  8. Confessing and Doing (7:21-23)
    • Wise and Foolish builder (7:24-27)
    • Ask/Seek/Knock (7:7-11)
    • Golden Rule (7:12)
    • Narrow and wide roads (7:13-14)
    • The Difference between pretending and accomplishing

What we see then is that SOTM is actually a summary of several different sermons.  It is a compilation of Jesus’s most important works.  If there is a single theme that ties all this together, I would suggest it is this:  God cares about every piece of your life.  Your thoughts, your words, your attitudes, your finances, your prayers, your giving, your fasting, your actions.  God cares about every aspect of God.  The journey of being a disciple is one that involves working our way through the aspects of our lives a piece at a time and submitting it to God’s control.