All Saints’ Day • Matthew 5:1–12 • November 6, 2016
By Joel Elowsky
Crowds are always following Jesus looking for something. These crowds come from everywhere, not just the locals, and they’re filled with expectation. He always takes their expectations and transforms them into something more significant than they perhaps knew they needed. His Sermon on the Mount is a classic example.
He ascends a mountain to teach the commandments of God, just as Moses had ascended a mountain to receive commandments which Jesus would reinterpret beyond the letter to include the spirit of those commands. While people approached the presence of God on Sinai with fear and trepidation, they approach this mountain where God is present without fear and filled with great expectations as God sits in their midst to teach them like lambs gathered around their shepherd.
The Beatitudes are not just about being “happy,” as in “Don’t worry, be happy,” even if your situation doesn’t look very good right now. Happiness has a different quality to it than the Greek word “makarios,” although the word’s lexical meaning does indeed often include this emotion of happiness. But happiness can be rather fleeting as anyone knows who has been happy one minute and then gotten a phone call about a loved one diagnosed with cancer or who has gone to be with the Lord. “Blessedness” moves beyond emotion to a state of being, one that is not swayed by what happens to someone in the moment, but is instead characteristic of a person’s identity. The “poor in spirit” are not necessarily all that happy about their present state of affairs; but they are blessed in knowing that they are loved by God and their destiny is the “kingdom of heaven.” Those who mourn could hardly be considered happy; but they are blessed in knowing that as children of the God who has triumphed over death, they can truly find comfort. The meek are usually the ones who get trampled in the stampede of life; but they are blessed in knowing that the Lord of the universe humbled himself, taking the form of servant, even to the point of death on a cross so that they could inherit the earth.
Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” sound rather needy—and they are; but acknowledging that, they know the righteous one will satisfy them with good things as he gives them his Spirit and all the gifts the Spirit has to bring such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23). The “merciful” usually get taken for a ride, or get taken advantage of—rarely leading to happiness; but the merciful know that the Psalms are filled with the mercies of the Lord (Pss 18:25; 30:10; 57:1–2; 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8) because mercy is an attribute of God they not only share but benefit from that mercy every time they come to him in repentance and faith. “The pure in heart” are considered either naïve or too innocent to ever get very far in life; but they know the One who has called them by name has deigned to live within them and make himself known through his word which points to that day when they will fully know him and see him with their own eyes (Job 19:25–27). “Peacemakers” may be applauded for a time, but strife and envy soon follow—and the world knows that’s the way it is; but the peacemakers know the One who has brought peace to a broken and confused and utterly sinful world, who has brought them peace through the forgiveness of their sins and a conscience cleansed by water, the word, and his very own body and blood.
And finally, it is doubtful that “those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake,” those who are reviled and have all kinds of evil spoken against them falsely because of Christ” are ever really happy; but they are blessed in the knowledge that they follow a great line of prophets and apostles who understood their identity in the One who was martyred for them.
In an “upside-down world” (to use Paul Bretscher’s phrase) enamored of the idea of “happiness,” a world that doesn’t know what it wants or needs, a world filled with great expectations but no capacity to deliver—we have our Lord’s words of wisdom and blessing that moves us from moments of happiness to the state of being blessed in the One who calls us “blessed.”