Lucky Are The Unlucky
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
Last Sunday we took a look at the ministry of John the Baptist--a ministry designed
to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of their Messiah. The message of John,
later to become the message of Jesus, was a message of "Repentance"--a challenge
to change one's ways and to return to God.
Shortly after the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus' ministry began to take shape.
The end of chapter 4 tells of Jesus traveling throughout Galilee, "teaching in (the) synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom"(v.23). Along with His authoritative teaching, Matthew tells about the miraculous
healings of Jesus--how He healed epileptics, paralytics, and those possessed by demons(v.24).
By the time we come to chapter 5, John the Baptist has called the people to repent
in preparation for the "kingdom of heaven". Jesus has also called the people to repent. Jesus has miraculously healed the sick
and now thousands of people are flocking to Him--for healing, and to hear Him teach.
Acclaimed as the most famous sermon of all time, this discourse from chapter 5 through
7 has been commonly referred to as the "Sermon on the Mount". It would, actually,
be more accurate to call this the "Sermon on the Hill" since the Greek word used
here literally means "hill" and is to be distinguished from the Greek word that is usually translated "high
mountain". We also run into some difficulty when we turn to Luke, chapter 6, verse
17, because we read that Jesus "stood on a level place" before giving the "Beatitudes".
So which is it? The "Sermon on the Mount" or the "Sermon on a level place"? The key
phrase is found in Matthew 5, verse 1--"When He saw the multitudes, He went up
on the mountain; and after He sat down His disciples came to Him
". The idea is that, though being followed by thousands, only the disciples did--or
could--follow Jesus onto the hill. And while Luke doesn't mention any hill, he does
specify before Jesus' sermon that He "turned His gaze on His disciples"(6:20) as if to teach them rather than the multitude. The end of Matthew 7 tells
us that the "multitudes were amazed at His teaching", but we do not need to conclude that they were immediately present--they were perhaps
a remote audience at the foot of the hill--since it is clear that Matthew 5:11-16
is exclusively addressed to His disciples.
Now to the "Beatitudes". Note that in Matthew, there are 8 beatitudes while in Luke
there are 4. And in Luke the 4 beatitudes have corresponding "woes". The discrepancy
here, however, should tell us nothing more than that these lists of beatitudes are
not meant to be exhaustive--this is NOT a New Testament version of the Ten Commandments.
For all we know there could be a dozen, but Matthew chooses to highlight eight, while
Luke highlights four.
The word that begins each Beatitude, "Blessed", is a misleading one. It is the translation of the Greek word, makarios
, which literally means "happy". However, makarios
is not the usual word for happiness. Makarios
is the word employed by classical Greek poets and philosophers to refer to the attainment
of LIFE'S IDEAL(Hugh Martin, The Beatitudes, p.10). In this context, Jesus is expounding
the DIVINE IDEAL. By contrast, the worldly ideal--the ideal we battle every day of our lives--tells us that happiness is found in riches, careerism, and leisure.
In a day and age where our society's motto is "survival of the fittest", the Beatitudes
gives us a different motto, "triumphant are the victims"--or as author Philip Yancey puts it--"lucky are the unlucky".
John the Baptist and Jesus both call us to "repent" and "bear fruit". What does this "fruit" look like? The Beatitudes, rather than describing eight types of people, describe
eight characteristics of a true Christian--a "fruit-bearing" Christian.
The first characteristic then is to be "poor in spirit"(v.3). The phrase "in spirit" warns us immediately that Matthew's thought here is not material poverty as Luke
presents, but spiritual poverty. To be "poor in spirit" is to be keenly aware of one's sinfulness. John the Baptist condemned the Pharisees
for seeking baptism because they had no understanding of their own sinfulness--they
thought that they were altogether "good" in God's eyes. If we, as Christians, are
to have any confidence that we are "good" in God's eyes it is ONLY because Christ's goodness
has been imputed to us. And knowing that we are "good" only "in Christ", Christians
should always endeavour to be HUMBLE--humble because without Christ, we are spiritually impoverished. You often hear skeptics say, "Christianity is a crutch for the
weak"--well, those skeptics are right--Christianity is a crutch, AND MORE. We are
spiritually crippled, but when we become aware of that, Christ enables us to walk.
John the Baptist and Jesus both warned us to "repent" since the "kingdom of heaven is at hand", and here we have the first step in that repentance--poverty of spirit. For those
who are "poor in spirit", Jesus promises that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven".
"Blessed are those who mourn"(v.4) sounds even stranger to modern ears. Jesus doesn't present the divine ideal
as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", He presents the divine ideal as
"mourning". It must be said, however, that "those who mourn" are not necessarily the bereaved. Jesus is NOT saying we who suffer the loss of
loved ones are really blessed--that is not His point at all. The concept of "mourning" flows naturally from being "poor in spirit"--we mourn our sinful condition. We mourn our poverty of spirit. Even as forgiven
people, we mourn because we long to be with God and to be perfected by Him.
For those of us who "mourn", Jesus promises us "comfort". Notice that it is not necessarily an immediate comfort or a present comfort, but
the promise of comfort is framed in the future tense, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they SHALL be comforted"(v.4). There will come a day where we will no longer have to mourn our sinful condition
because we will holy--through and through. There will come a day where will will
no longer have to mourn our physical separation from God because in heaven, we will
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"(v.5). This is not the first occurrence in Scripture of this concept--Ps.37 spends
a great deal of time explaining who shall inherit the earth, or "the land". In Psalm 37, meekness is described in terms of "waiting on the Lord"(Ps.37:9-11; 34). Three times in the Psalm is the warning, "Do not fret"(Ps.37:1,7,8). "Fret!", well that's exactly what most of us do all week long! We
fret about getting to work on time, we fret about those at work not pulling their
weight, we fret about what are children are doing, we fret about what our spouse
is not doing, and the list goes on and on . . . "Fretting" is what adults in the 90's do best!
Scripture, however, provides an antidote to "fretting", and that's "waiting on the Lord", or "meekness". A "meek" person, is a patient person, but more than that a "meek" person is patient ONLY because they are trusting God(Ps.37:3-5, 7, 40). Unless
we trust God in all things we will continue to fret.
What does it mean to "inherit the earth"? Is this a promise of wealth? No. Again, this promise is framed in the future tense--"they SHALL inherit the earth". "Inheriting the earth" is a synonym for salvation--it always has been. The "promised land" of the Jews
was the symbol of communion with God. In fact all of the promises of the Beatitudes
are characterizations of heaven, just as the Beatitudes are characterizations of
a fruit-bearing Christian. Heaven is a place where we will be comforted, a place where we
will be completely satisfied, a place where we shall see God and have eternal fellowship
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"(v.6). The idea of having a "hunger" or "thirst" for righteousness continues the
metaphor of spiritual poverty. When we do not have food we become hungry, and when
we lack righteousness we should hunger for it. I really like that image of "hunger"
and "thirst"--I am reminded of how I feel when I skip lunch and end up devouring my supper
as a result. I think of working outside on a scorching, hot, summer's day and how
we crave a cold glass of water or lemonade. Now how often do you feel like that in
your Christian life? Did you wake up this morning and say, "Wow! I just can't wait to get
to church", or did you just come here automatically like you do when you go to work?
How often do you "crave" to read the Bible? This is the attitude Jesus wants us to
develop--we should hunger and thirst for righteousness. Again, we may see only partial
results during this life, but in heaven we will no longer mourn our sinful condition,
but we will be satisfied with our transformation.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy"(v.7). Mercy is not so much a feeling as it is an ACTION. One who is merciful acts
mercifully. You may have heard the story of Jacob Bright traveling from town to his
home when he noticed his poor neighbour in great trouble on the road. His horse had
met with an accident and had to be killed. People were crowding around the man saying
how sorry they were. To one who kept on repeating this most loudly, Jacob Bright
said: "I am sorry five pounds. How much are you sorry?" And Jacob Bright passed around
the hat to buy the man another horse.
Mercy is more than an emotion we feel, it is something we DO. Notice the reciprocal
nature of mercy in the text--those who show mercy "obtain mercy". I often hear people say, both positively and negatively, "what goes around, comes
around". There is a sense where this is very true--the Beatitudes communicates that,
and so does the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us".
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"(v.8). By pointing to the "heart", Jesus is pointing to the inside of the person. Some people, while capable of deeds
of mercy on the outside, are filled on the inside with hate and malice. While calling
us to live a fruitful life, Jesus is careful to note that the final analysis will
be of the state of our heart. Does our inward nature correspond with our outward profession?
Is the Spirit of God ruling our hearts? If it is, be assured, we will someday "see God" face to face.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God"(v.9). "Peacemakers"--something the Christian Church must be in this world of strife and conflict. I
don't mean to say we should try to revolutionize the government, rather, what I am
proposing is that if every Church was distinguished as "peacemakers" we would make
a difference in a great many more lives. How can we expect to be a light in this community
if there is strife and bitterness within these walls? Just as God is the supreme
peacemaker(Eph.2:14-18; Col.1:20), we distinguish ourselves as His children when
we mimic the act of peacemaking.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven"(v.10). Notice the qualification, "for righteousness sake". Some Christians may think that "what" they said brought persecution, but it actually
may be "how" they said it that brought the insults.
If we are faithful to God, persecution will come. Jesus is speaking from first hand
experience here--He had just spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness being
tempted by the devil. Jesus did not run and hide, but faced His opposition, His persecution, by relying on God's Word. In the end, Matthew tells us that "the devil left Him"(4:11).
I don't think Jesus is trying to convince us here that persecution is enjoyable.
I'm not even sure He is saying that mourning will some how feel better as a Christian. What all the Beatitudes point to is something beyond the present--the kingdom of
heaven, comfort, inheritance, satisfaction, mercy, and fellowship with God.
Everything is tolerable when we look beyond the present to future glory. Some will
insist that it is foolish to live with "your head in the clouds", but this is what
Jesus is asking us to do--not disregard our present responsibilities, but live in
the present with a vision for eternity. That means mourning over our sin more than we mourn
a Toronto Maple Leafs' loss. That means hungering for righteousness more than we
hunger for worldly possessions. That means being more concerned with mercy than with
getting even. It may mean enduring hardship in the present for the sake of eternal joy.
C.S. Lewis was once quoted as saying that he never chose Christianity because he wanted
to be happy, he always knew a bottle of whiskey could do that. Lewis goes on to warn
that if we are looking for blissful happiness, Christianity is not the answer. Jesus warns the same. The Christian life is filled with anguish over our spiritual poverty.
The Christian life is filled with anguish over hungering for a righteousness which
keeps eluding our grasp. The Christian life challenges us to be merciful when we
would rather get even. It challenges us to be "pure in heart" when we would rather curse
quietly under our breath. It challenges us to be peacemakers when we think we have
a good case to pick a fight. It guarantees persecution when we would prefer to be
There is very little that is "blissful" about Christianity, but what we get as Christians
is much better than "bliss"--we get FULFILLMENT. Joy in the midst of sorrow--joy
rooted in the expectation of residence in the kingdom of heaven.
It must also be said that the Beatitudes are not meant to be burdensome. Yes, they
are demanding--we are called to mourn and endure persecution--but their intention
is not to make life onerous. The Beatitudes are gifts intended to prepare us for
the kingdom of heaven.
It's like when I was a child, I remember being sick and having to receive medicine
by the doctor from a needle. I was sure he was trying to hurt me, but in reality
he was doing whatever was necessary to make me better.
The same can be said with God--His intention is not to do us harm, but to heal us.
Only sometimes to become healed, we must endure necessary pain. God will do whatever
it takes to make us better. Until we meet Him in eternal glory, the Beatitudes are
God's gift to us, His children. Amen.