For more than a year now, my writing for the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute has focused on the analysis of contemporary issues in the light of biblical and theological reflection. It is important to do this task; we need to ask how the Bible and Christian theology can speak to the issues of our day. But we also need to look at the Bible on its own terms, exploring the questions that it presents and seeing how those questions might be better ones than the questions that we are asking.
So, over the next several weeks, we will be exploring a familiar passage of Scripture—the Sermon on the Mount. This will not be an academic exercise, although our work will be informed by the original language of the text and the insights of important Christian thinkers when possible. Instead, it will be a devotional and theological exploration of this important collection of Jesus’ teachings. Of course, we will have an eye on how these teachings may address the concerns of our day, but our focus will be on reading the text on its own terms and seeing how it might present us with questions and problems that we never saw coming.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Let’s begin by looking at possibly the most famous part of this collection of Jesus’ teachings, the so-called Beatitudes. Here is my translation of verses 3-10.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven belong to them.
Blessed are those who are sad, because they will be encouraged.
Blessed are the gentle, because they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, because they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God.
Blessed are those who make peace, because they will be called “sons of God.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted on account of righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
This section is about “the kingdom of heaven.” We know this because that phrase forms the bracket for the section. (We can see that verse eleven is likely an addendum to the section because the blessings no longer address unspecified third parties but are instead addressed to people in the speaker’s presence.) It is an appropriate topic for our consideration given what we discussed last week, and it is also a central topic of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels.
It is common knowledge that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” where other gospels use “Kingdom of God.” This fact places Jesus’ teachings here firmly within the larger context of his overall message. But Matthew’s way of phrasing the subject may also allow his readers to understand these blessings in light of what Jesus says in the model prayer (cf. Matthew 6:9-13).
The “kingdom of heaven” is a precious possession. It is the place where God lives and where God’s will is done. It is the place where the brokenness of our world is addressed and where righteousness is rewarded.
So, how does one come to possess this kingdom? Jesus provides a surprising answer. A person can only come to possess the kingdom by allowing the kingdom to possess her or him. The evidence of this giving over of one’s self to the sovereign rule of God is seen in a person’s acknowledgement of their own spiritual poverty and willingness to endure opposition for the sake of righteousness.
Jesus’ presentation of the kingdom has always stood in stark contrast to the natural inclinations of humans—even those who claim to be representatives of Jesus. We so easily equate blessing with our ability to exercise physical, political, social, and/or economic influence over others. In truth, we ignore the message of vv. 10-11 because we hope that they never come true in our lives, and we ignore the message of v. 3 because we assume our spiritual impoverishment would endanger our status in church and society.
The question for everyone who encounters this text is simple. Will we give up our pretensions to spiritual self-sufficiency and our preference for power and self-protection in order to find true righteousness in the domain of the divine King? Or will we settle for a counterfeit version of the Christian faith, one that demands nothing of us but cannot offer us anything of value?
Criteria of Evaluation
Really, what we are talking about here is how we know that we are living a good life. And framing the question in that way makes Jesus’ teachings even harder to accept. I have experienced plenty of sadness in recent years, and it does not strike me as evidence that God loves me or that my life is working out well. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a good thing, but it can seem extraordinarily unsatisfying when it is only accompanied by social exclusion and emotional upheaval. Sometimes, we don’t want God’s comfort; we want God to make our lives more comfortable and more productive, less painful and more joyful.
This is why the road to the kingdom is so difficult to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13-14), Jesus is not asking us to ignore the present, but he is asking us to reinterpret the present in light of the future. Our present sufferings are evidence that we have found the narrow road, and if we continue to walk that road, we will experience some things that are, at best, unpleasant (cf. Hebrews 12:4-12). But we will also receive the kingdom of heaven. Everything that really matters will be ours, and we will be forever united to Christ and God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
Now let’s look at a couple of miscellaneous observations. First, the word that most translations render “meek” is very interesting. I have heard a lot of sermons about how meekness does not mean weakness. I have even heard preachers say that the word we translate “meek” really refers to “power under control.”
Notice, though, how the Greek lexicon that New Testament scholars most often use translates this word. It says that it pertains “to not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” In the way that we think, it refers to humility, but that humility comes out in our actions via gentleness.
Thus, the word does not have anything to do with whether we have a strong or weak personality or whether we have been granted authority and/or influence by those in our social group. It has to do with how we see ourselves and how that self-perception influences our behavior. Have you ever been around a pompous person? How did they treat the people around them? Jesus is pronouncing a blessing on the opposite of that kind of behavior. Those who are “overly impressed” with their own importance will not “inherit the earth.” Those who are more concerned with promoting the importance of God and others will.
It is also interesting to me that yearning for righteousness (which could also be rendered justice) is placed right next to showing mercy at the center of this collection of blessings. These elements are also brought together in Micah 6:8 (see especially the Greek translation of that verse), but they are often seen as opposites in our own thinking. So what are we to make of this juxtaposition?
One thing that I think we can learn is that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do other people. Too often, we are quick to extend mercy to ourselves and condemn the other person. We would do well, both in terms of the health of our soul and in terms of the effectiveness of our evangelism, to flip that script.
I also think that we need to incorporate the practice of mercy into our perception of what it means to do the right thing (both personally and socially). As Americans, we are always afraid that an attempt to show mercy will allow someone to “get away” with something. I understand that concern. I really do. But I also think that we sometimes have an over-inflated view of our role in the justice-making process. Ultimately, we are not the ultimate judges of other people’s conduct. Yes, we may have to pass sentence on someone if we are actually a criminal or civil judge or if there is a matter of church discipline. But otherwise our role in bringing justice upon the earth is somewhat limited. And it starts with doing the right thing ourselves and with extending mercy to those who do not.
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