Week 3 - The invitation to kingdom living...
Read: Matthew 5:1-12
So far we have explored the awful reality of the opposite to the Good and Beautiful life as described by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. We’ve also looked closely at the good news that Jesus proclaimed and noted the centrality of the kingdom of God in the Gospel message.
In this session we’ll explore more fully the invitation to enter this kingdom life. We’ll do so from a very particular perspective as we look at the invitation Jesus issues in the ‘blessed are’ statements at the start of the sermon on the mount
It’s easy to read the ‘blessed are’ statements as prescriptions for blessedness. We’re familiar with the words, Jesus says that the ‘poor in spirit’, ‘those who mourn’, ‘those who are meek’, and ‘those who are persecuted’ are blessed. Because of our innate human tendency to try to earn God’s favour through our actions, we sometimes tend to assume that these states are a way to get God to be happy with me. I.e if our inner attitude is one of meekness, God will be happy with me. If I’m ready to be persecuted, God will be happy with me.
The natural follow on from this goes along the lines of: If I’m willing to be persecuted, if I’m meek, then God is happy with me and I must therefore be one of the truest of all believers, or in the words of James Bryan-Smith, ‘I must be one of the Marines of the Christian army’ part of Gods special forces.
A similar train of thought is often espoused from the pulpit. How often have we heard sermons in which we’re encouraged to be more meek, more poor in spirit, more willing to stand up for Jesus in the face of persecution – in doing these things, so the narrative goes, we’ll be blessed.
Reflect: Do you approach the beatitudes in this manner? Have you, or do you, feel a pressure to ‘be more….’ In order to be more blessed? Why might this be the case? What does this say to you about your view of God and his favour?
But what if this is wrong?
What if the interpretation above is wrong? Well, obviously if the interpretation of the opening lines of the sermon on the mount is wrong, we’re likely to drift further and further off course as the message continues. We’re now going to unpack the opening verses of the sermon on the mount to see if there may be an alternative interpretation to the one above.
It’s all about the context
This is true for interpreting any scripture. The words had a particular meaning as they were spoken by a particular person to particular people in a specific time and place. It is a mistake to see the words of scripture as existing in a timeless vacuum. It is true that the words spoken and recorded in scripture still speak to us today and that the Holy Spirit works in this process – in that sense they are timeless. But, in order to understand the meaning of the words being spoken it is important to be able to understand the meaning of the words as they were spoken and as they relate to the original hearers. From this we are able to build an interpretive framework and interpret the meaning of the words within our own culture and context.
The context of the sermon on the mount
The words Jesus spoke in the sermon on the mount, like many of the words he spoke, were shocking for some, and deeply exciting for others. As he addressed the assembled crowd on the plateau he spoke to a group who had many long standing ideas about the kingdom of God. For his hearers the kingdom of God was a well known concept.
The Jews of the New Testament era had 5 dominant requirements for entry into the kingdom of God:
1 – Entry to the kingdom of God was open only to the Jews
2 – The recipients of the kingdom of God would be male only
3 – The recipients of the kingdom of God were only faithful keepers of the Torah Law, those who were holy and ritually pure.
4 – The kingdom of God was open only to those who were physically whole – sickness was a sign of sin and a curse from God.
5 – The kingdom of God was not open to the poor. The poor were abandoned by God and their poverty was a sign of this.
So, the guest list for the kingdom of God was pretty narrow. Male, ritually pure, wealthy, healthy, Jews. If you’re name wasn’t down, you weren’t going in.
Reflect – this seems shocking to us now. The idea that the kingdom of God would be open to so narrow a cross section of humanity. The idea that God would place such narrow and harsh requirements on entry is difficult for us to swallow and it’s frankly offensive. But perhaps this is an opportunity for us to examine our own inner feelings about the kingdom of God. Do we perhaps harbour, deep down, ideas that the kingdom is fundamentally closed to some people? Perhaps not the poor or the ill, but perhaps people identified in other ways? Are we too quick to place a more stringent entry requirement than God himself does? It may be that we need to repent of prejudice.
The invitation to God’s kingdom blessing
In the opening phrases of the sermon on the mount Jesus confounds and opposes the Jews narrow and strict understanding of who is able to access the kingdom of God.
In starting his sermon as he does, with the ‘blessed are’ statements Jesus is issuing an invitation. The poor are invited, says Jesus. The ill and unclean are allowed in. The outcasts have a seat at the banquet. The oppressed minorities are on the guest list. The invitation that Jesus issues is an invitation to commune with God, to know the treasures that he has in store. And the invitation is to all, regardless as to what they have done, their station in life, their gender, ethnicity etc etc.
This is why Jesus proclaims to this list of outcasts that they can be truly blessed. Blessed are you…he says to them, you’ve been told that you are not blessed, but I tell you that you are.
Jesus looked out over a crowd who’d been told that they could not be blessed and to this crowd of desperate, broken, and persecuted people he said ‘you are blessed’ – the word blessed (Makarios) is a deep and wonderful word which can be translated ‘those for whom everything is good’ – they would have been shocked to the core of their being!
Let’s unpick Jesus words to these different groups of people.
To the poor in spirit Jesus says, ‘you are blessed, because contrary to what you’ve been told, the kingdom of heaven is yours.’ He’s saying to them, you have nothing good going for you, you’re the spiritual no-bodies – but you’re invited into the kingdom.
We could translate the beatitude as: ‘blessed are you who are feeling marginalized from God, who have nothing going for you spiritually – you too are invited into the kingdom’
To those who mourn Jesus says, ‘ even though your current situation is wretched, you can find blessing and relief.’ He effectively invites them to enter the kingdom of God where eventually every tear will be wiped away and suffering will cease. People who grieve in the kingdom grieve with a hope for the future.
We could translate the beatitude as: ‘blessed are you whose situation is really dire, who are overwhelmed with sadness, because in the kingdom of heaven there is comfort and hope.’
To those who are meek Jesus says ‘you too are blessed because although at the moment you’re helpless and oppressed, one day you will be granted justice.’
We tend to think of ‘meekness’ as a virtue, and in some senses it is. But Jesus doesn’t refer to the virtue of humility here. The ‘meek’ he has in mind are the ‘praus’ (Arabic for those who cannot retaliate when harmed) he’s thinking about those who have no land and who are abused by the rich and those with land.
And so we could translate this beatitude as: ‘blessed are those who are victimized and cannot retaliate or demand justice, because although they are denied a share of Gods provision now, one day they will get their due because the whole earth belongs to God and so theirs in the kingdom.
To those who hunger for righteousness Jesus says ‘blessed are those who desire righteousness because they will be filled up’. To those who earnestly desire righteousness and goodness, to those who are desperate for them, Jesus says ‘the longing that you have will be met in the kingdom. All will one day be put right. That putting right begins with Jesus himself.
We could translate the beatitude as ‘if you’re longing for justice and for righteousness, then come into the kingdom and be assured that one day all things will be redeemed.’
To those who are merciful Jesus says ‘if you show mercy you’ll be shown mercy and in this you will be blessed.’ The merciful, not the nice, but those who make a habit of showing mercy even when it costs them will be blessed. Mercy is a kingdom value and it doesn’t go un-noticed.
We might translate the beatitude as: ‘mercy is a kingdom value, and when you show it to others it is noticed and will be shown to you too.’
To those who are persecuted Jesus says ‘if you’re persecuted for doing what is right, then good news, the kingdom of heaven belongs to you.’ Living the kingdom way is not easy and often means going against the grain of societal opinion and wisdom. And in doing this people are often marginalized and experience persecution. Jesus knew what awaited those who would take up his invitation to enter the kingdom life and here he encourages those who would follow him that in doing so they would find the ultimate blessing of life in the kingdom.
The beatitude could be translated as: ‘ If you’ve accepted the kingdom invitation, then things might get tough for you. But remember the kingdom of heaven is yours and that’s a promise.’
And so an invitation is issued to a great number of people who had been told they were outside of Gods kingdom blessing. Jesus says ‘it’s not true, you are invited to share in the kingdom blessings’.
So from this we take the following important interpretive point. Jesus is not saying to the people he’s talking to ‘you are blessed because you are poor in spirit / meek / mourning (etc)’. Instead he is saying ‘even though you are poor in spirit / meek /mourning (etc) you are blessed by me.
The condition of the people is unimportant – what matters is that they are invited to take up their share in the kingdom when previously they had been told the invitation was not for them.
This is a very different, but ultimately more accurate way to read the blessed are statements than the narrative offered at the start of the session.
Reflect – how do you think / feel about this interpretation of the sermon on the mount. How does this affect your view / understanding of God, if at all?
A reflection from Pope Benedict XVI to close
“The beatitudes, spoken with the community of Jesus disciples in view, are paradoxes – the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in their rightful perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their suffering. The beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus.”
Response: - Hospitality
The beatitudes are invitations to marginalized people to enter into the kingdom of God and know his blessing. We see that God cares deeply about those who are pushed to the margins and left out, and there are many who fall into this category in the world. Sadly the church too can sometimes become exclusive and marginalize those who are not on the inside.
In response to this weeks session why not consider our own choices about who we do and do not include – deliberately or without thinking about it. Living in the kingdom of God requires radical hospitality as a demonstration of Gods love and the inclusiveness of his kingdom.
Who might we, as individuals, or as a group show hospitality to? Can we go so far as to show hospitality to someone very different from ourselves? Who might that be? James Bryan-Smith says that other person is…
“…the liberal if I am conservative, and rich if I am poor. He is the guy who does not go to the same places I go, the family that does not worship where I worship or shop where I shop. The other is the person from the neighbourhood that I avoid, the person I don’t want to sit next to on an aeroplane.”
This might mean stepping out as an individual, or it might mean re-organizing our social group so that it is less of a clique and more open to others.
Why not close in prayer