I thought I’d do a short series on Jesus’ first words in the four Gospels (his first in sermon form where there is such a thing). I started looking at the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) one morning about a week ago, and I’ve been stuck there marveling at them since.
Some preachers tear these short lines apart, eager to find just what it takes to be blessed. I’ve gained good things from that kind of preaching, but I really doubt that’s how anyone heard them that day on the Mount where Jesus was teaching them.
I doubt Jesus intended them to do that. Dallas Willard (whose Divine Conspiracy is excellent on this passage) proposes that Jesus was not only a great moral and spiritual leader but (being God in the flesh) also the brightest intellect ever to walk the earth. If so, and I think he’s right, then Jesus understood communication. The first thing any speaker needs to do is to get his audience’s attention, and let them know that he is speaking specifically to them.
That, I think, is what the Beatitudes did for his audience that morning. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he began, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He had been preaching around the region before then (Matthew 4:17), saying, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That kingdom turned out to be his chief topic throughout his ministry. Here on the mountain he said essentially, “Listen well, you who are poor in spirit or who mourn, you who are meek, you who desperately seek to be rightly related to God, you who give mercy and make for peace, you who are troubled for doing well: listen well, because this is for you.”
I doubt he would open his first sermon the same way in our culture. It would depend on who was sitting before him, of course. Back then there was a combined politico-religious aristocracy of sorts ruling Israel’s hearts and minds, if not their actual government. It was the joint parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the scribes, and the lawyers: the powerful religious elite.
Jesus was famously involved in confrontation with that group until they finally arranged for his execution, for they were smug and self-righteous. This message on the mount was for those who were religiously oppressed by their own leaders, who “tied heavy burdens on their backs, and would not lift one finger to help them (Matthew 23:4).”
Jesus’ message was for those who had problems, even religious problems. It was for people with needs, with pain, with brokenness; people who didn’t have it all figured out.
This strikes at my heart as a blogger because what I write about, naturally enough, is what I think I understand. I don’t communicate my confusion. There’s a lot I don’t understand, though. I was out of commission for a good part of this week with an asthma episode, too tired even to read. I don’t know why. I’m facing a potentially confusing conversation later today with one of my kids regarding one of their relationships. I’ve never done that before as a dad. Behind all that, I’m painfully aware of how often I violate my own understanding of how to live in Christ. That’s a fancy way of saying I have an ongoing problem of sinning in real-life practice.
When I write I usually share what seems right. When I pray it is quite the opposite. I hold on to what is right in God, throwing myself on his mercy for what is not right in me.
These Beatitudes encourage me that he is speaking to me. Without doing deep analysis (am I really “poor in spirit, meek, a peacemaker”?) I can still tell he’s addressing someone who doesn’t have it all put together. For this I am forever grateful.
This does raise the question of religion, power, and truth. If Jesus was opposed to arrogant pronouncements by the religious elite, does that mean we believers should keep our heads down in culture? Does it mean it’s wrong to stand up and speak what we think is true? I’m thinking especially of Christians taking stands on politics, economics, abortion, gay “marriage,” religious freedom, and so on.
I don’t think so. Chesterton said it best:
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.
This was modeled in the prophets and the apostles: they trusted in their message, not in themselves, and they spoke boldly. We can speak truth to power, and we must. We can seek to influence, and it is our responsibility to do so. Our message is based on the truth of God’s revelation, not on our own specialness.
Israel in Jesus’ day was a theocracy struggling under empire. Theocracy is dangerous, for it is the rare leader who will hear himself speaking truth to power when he or she is the power; but that’s a mere theoretical observation, for there are no Christian theocracies in the world today. There are some on the small scale–the petty power-hungry pastor who rules in his own domain, running his church for his own aggrandizement, for example. But there are none in public life.
And so we speak out publicly and without apology for God’s truth. Privately and among those we know we can trust with it, we share our deep struggles. There might be an appropriate way to publicly reveal our own humility about ourselves, but I’m not sure how to do it. Maybe you could pray for me as I try to learn.
One more thing. Jesus connected with his listeners every time. His message was for them in tangible ways. I’m working behind the scenes to make this blog more audience-connected. You’ll hear more about that over the next few weeks, until I unveil it at the first of next year. I’m excited about the changes. More to come.