Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 5:1-11

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 5:1-11
Crowds of people are now following Jesus. He begins to talk to them about the Kingdom of God, starting with who is "blessed" and why.

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 5:1-11
For this series I’m reading the Contemporary English Version, which is a version of the Bible I’ve never read. Like most evangelicals, I’m familiar with the Sermon on the Mount and what is called the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they that (blank), for they shall (blank).” The CEV words it like this: “God blesses those people who (blank); they (blank).” It’s a little jarring, but that’s probably a good thing.

Even with the new wording, the structure remains the same. As a technical writer, my first instinct is to take this text and create a table with two columns: Directive and Outcome. (A software engineer might convert them to IF-THEN statements.) I hesitate to frame it this way for a couple of reasons. First, the story of Job shows that good behavior doesn’t always mean happy outcomes. (Life itself is a stern teacher of THAT lesson.) Second, I’m looking at Jesus’ teachings as the description of God’s Kingdom. The teachings are counter-intuitive to how the world operates, including (especially?) religious institutions. Currently we don’t live in the Kingdom of God; although, I do recall that somewhere in the Bible it says the Kingdom of God is being built in our hearts. That’s good news. I think that’s why the phrase “be the change you want to see” has resonated with me. In other words, live as if we are currently residing in the Kingdom of God on earth.

On to the text. The directives that resonate most with me are:

  • God blesses those people who are humble
  • God blesses those people who are merciful
  • God blesses those people who make peace

I see great value in these virtues and actions. I can also see how they can be used by people in power to coerce people into submission. Perhaps that’s why the Bible gives many warnings and frowns to “false teachers.” What is remarkable is when you see these traits of humility, mercy, and peace-making being practiced by people who are whole. I don’t think Jesus is speaking about people who are submissive to the point of being disengaged. He isn’t lauding those who find it easier to submit to the teachings of a certain pastor or denomination than to practice authentic self-reflection and truth-seeking. That kind of submission can seem like humility or peace-making, but with whom are we making peace? With whom are we being humble and merciful? Certainly not those who disagree with said pastor or denomination! The three people I think of most when I consider these beatitudes are Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Mother Theresa. Each was a strong and intelligent person; each committed to justice, mercy and peace. They were also humble in that they were unwilling to display violence in word or deed.

The directives which didn’t resonate with me at first, but are starting to gain some traction, are:

  • God blesses those people who depend only on God
  • God blesses those people who grieve
  • God blesses those people who want to obey him more than to eat or drink
  • God blesses those people whose hearts are pure
  • God blesses those people who are treated badly for doing right

Let me tackle the first one. I honestly don’t know what it means anymore to “depend on God” let alone “depend only on God.” I think, for me, there is still so much baggage associated with that phrase. The first meaning was depending on God alone for salvation from hell. But it was also a mantra that I used often in everyday life. In my small world, depending on God meant that I asked him to give me strength to do homework, to not masturbate, to do my daily devotions, to not feel socially awkward, to witness for him on the street, to “fix” my “broken sexuality,” to win a race at a track meet, to feel better about how I looked, and so on. It was so vague and so behavioral. So, at this point, I still don’t know what it really means to depend only on God. Depend only on God for what, exactly? I think I have a mental block for this one.

Moving on to people who grieve and people whose hearts are pure: I can understand grieving in the sense that there are some awful, awful things in this world. In addition to our own existential sadness and dread, we have various pockets of hell on earth: poverty, violence, diseases, war, cruelty, betrayal, horror. Yeah, this one I completely get. There is too much about which to grieve. I am glad that the outcome is that they will find comfort! It gives me hope that the people who suffer such atrocity in this world, no matter who they are, have something better ahead of them.

As for hearts that are pure: that seems to be hearts that are authentic. Again, this resonates. How can we really connect with and love each other if we aren’t able to be our authentic selves? Even in my fundamentalist days, when a “pure heart” meant sexual purity only, I had a sense that Jesus was speaking of something deeper than physical lust. The outcome of this directive is especially interesting: they will see him (God). So the outcome implies that a pure heart is also an authentic longing for God and God’s Kingdom.

As for those people who want to obey him more than to eat or drink: I can understand this in the sense that I want to see justice done in the world. I want to do the things that bring this idea of God’s Kingdom closer to reality. But similar to the first beatitude, this one carries some baggage. “Obeying God” can mean so many different things according to who’s around you!

The last two verses of the passage have to do with being treated badly, being insulted and slandered, because of Jesus. I think anyone reading these verses wants to think that it is they who are being treated badly. People hate me and misunderstand me and tell lies about me because I believe (blank)! I think the Western culture (the Christian culture in particular) has made a kind of fetish with martyrdom. Even though Christians make up the majority of the population in America, and every single American President has been a professing Christian, we still have a sense that we are persecuted. Yes, there are mean and hurtful people out there; but persecution is going a bit far. Plus, Jesus and the prophets were persecuted by religious leaders of the day more than any other group. Honestly, since Jesus lived and died, there has been so much atrocity done in his name that it’s very difficult to pinpoint when someone is being treated badly because of actually following Jesus, or for more nuanced reasons. My opinion? The blessing is for those who are actually doing the work of Jesus—such as helping the poor and oppressed—and being treated badly for it, rather than those who are treated badly because they are trying to sell a worldview.

Now that I’ve written more about the other beatitudes, I have an idea about the first one (the one about depending only on God). Perhaps it means depending only on God for doing all these things that are necessary to live as a true citizen of the Kingdom of God? Maybe? The outcome is: “they belong to the kingdom of heaven.“ Thoughts on this still spinning around the ol’ noggin….

Whew. I had a feeling once I reached the Sermon on the Mount, these blog posts were going to get denser. I hope you find some good in reading these posts, but more than that I hope it inspires you to read the Gospels for yourself.


Anonymous said...

With regards to “Our Hearts” being the kingdom of Heaven. Luke 17:21 Jesus refers to the (God Seekers) saying that here it is or there it is but rather that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our hearts. I’m not sure but I suspect that this might be the verse that you allude to. In any case The assumption that the Kingdom of Heaven only exists in our hearts I don’t’ believe is to be taken literal here but rather refers to that the “Christ Believer” holds dear to his heart that the existence of God’s Heaven exists and one day we’ll all go there. I believe that what Jesus was preaching here was that unless you had the desire to know him and believe that he is the Messiah unlike the religious leaders of the day (The pharisees and Sadducees) you need to put your trust and faith that Christ is the Messiah and in your heart you have placed Jesus on a Kings Thrown of sorts.

• God Bless those people who are humble
• God Bless those People who are merciful
• God Bless those people who make peace

These are wonderful attributes to posses there is no arguing this fact. But I think it’s hard to find such people in a facebook society where people think soley of themselves and look for their friends and loved ones for adoration and gratification. I am not pointing fingers here I’m just stating the obvious. But more to the point if these people still exist they by all means God Bless THEM! A few weeks back at church Pastor Dan told of a story of when he was in Seminary School of an instructor asking a question about Ghandi and if the class felt that Ghandi was in heaven??? This was quite an analogy that he was bringing up but the point is so true and to though provoking. This I feel is your true thoughts in this blog Kev. What do Christians know about self sacrafice, humility, and martyrdom? It’s quite sad really that the (American Christian Church) preaches to be like Christ and to show love and to be a light in a lost world yet they backstab cheat steel lie and divorce one another like it’s no big deal! So if there be any Humble, or Merciful, or Peace makers I agree with Matthew God Bless you wherever you are and whoever you are! God Bless Ghandi, God Bless MLK, and God Bless Mother Theresa! For they surely will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

With regard to depending wholly on God; I think Matthew actually does a very good job of telling us just how to do this… In Matthew chapter 6, He tells us not to worry but to trust in our Heavenly Father for he knows what we have need of. In verse 26 he mentions the sparrows of the air and that they don’t toil for food or work for lodging, yet God clothes even the grasses of the field and nature is cared for, how much more valued are we to Him than the sparrows? This is a pretty simple yet very profound passage of the gospels one of my personal favorites actually. The quandary here is how are we able to put our trust in someone we can’t see or touch or perhaps even feel? I guess it all comes down to faith and isn’t that actually what Matthew is trying to tell us to do here all along?
You and I have been brought up pretty much the same way and taught the same things all through our adolescence. I feel today that I was fed a line of doctrine and just short of being told to go join the circle and drink the purple cool aid. But today I find myself freer and more in-touch with my personal beliefs and the scriptures that I find myself a more Humble, Merciful, Peace Loving (Christian) than I ever was when I was in Bible College going to Church every single day of the week and Bible studies in the evenings 3 nights a week, and lets not forget about door to door witnessing every Saturday for 3 hours! Today I find myself more in touch with my fellow lost soul and those striving to live a right life and finding the challenges of being and doing the right thing for God and Society!

Kevin said...

TJH - Wow thanks for reading & responding! Sounds like you are working out a lot of this stuff too. :-) Thx for your insights!

Kevin said...

forgot to add that there is a really good blogger who writes a lot about Kingdom of God stuff. Her name is Kathy Escobar and she blogs at

belongfellow said...

I've been reading your Gospel blogs at my own leisurely pace. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

Since associating myself with the Nazarene church, I've become quite familiar with the phrase "the already-not-yet kingdom." I think this is just another way of expressing what you articulated, and I appreciate this view because it doesn't excuse a determinist approach to the Christian life . . . well, the world's going to end and Christ's going to come, so it doesn't matter what decisions I make as long as I've said the salvation prayer at some point. This perspective only encourages destruction of earth's resources, exploitation of peoples all over the world and various other injustices. The already-not-yet kingdom, in contrast, recognizes that Jesus has already redeemed the earth and its peoples and leaves us with the responsibility to incarnate the ways of living in this passage the way he incarnated them.

The verse about the persecuted has troubled me for some time as well. Having followed the same educational path as yourself - Christian K-12, Christian college, etc. - I was twenty one before I entered to any extent into the world of the un-churched. I expected persecution for my faith, as this idea had been drilled into me for years within the bubble. I was shocked and dumbfounded: not only was I not persecuted, I was actually liked, not for my faith particularly but just for who I was. Strangely enough, it was this seemingly small discrepancy between what I had been taught (or at least the idea I had absorbed somehow) and how I was actually received by the non-Christian world that began my questioning of (eventually) everything about my faith. But that's not what I intended to write here. Prior to Constantine, Christians were outsiders, in true conflict (either openly or secretly, I assume) with their governing powers. But upon Constantine's declaration of Christianity as the government sanctioned religion (4th century, I believe), the church suddenly became part and privy to the most influential power structures and has remained such ever since (at least in the Western world). So while I trust it's still possible, I've come to conclude (as an educated Caucasian heterosexual American male - though being five foot six feels like oppression sometimes) it's unlikely I'll have many chances to place myself in this category.

Anyway, this idea of the Constantinian period of the church was a real eye-opener for me, and it made sense with my experience. Chapter One (and perhaps chapter two) of Rodney Clapp's A Peculiar People is where I found this idea best explained.

Kevin said...

I would like to bestow 1,000 "likes" on your comment, Brian. Your insights about the "already-not-yet-kingdom" and the ongoing Constantinian period of the church are new and eye-opening to me. Very helpful; it makes more puzzle pieces fall into place! Thanks!!!