Persecuted Prophets: Matthew 5:11-12

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)

We have come to the end of the Beatitudes.  The last one is, in many ways, a more elaborate restatement of the previous one, but it’s worth looking at this one on its own.

In the first place, the prior Beatitude talked about being persecuted because of faithfulness.  This one brings things into sharper focus – you are blessed if you are persecuted because of Jesus.

This is probably not a crowd-pleasing way to end your list of Beatitudes, but it sets up a dynamic Jesus has with his potential followers that we’ll see often enough: he warns them about it.  In contrast to our number-driven efforts to “reach people for Christ,” Jesus makes an effort to thin the herd, so to speak.  Following him means taking up his cross.  It means opposition, it means humiliation, it means suffering, and it means dying, and if you aren’t ok with that, then you should invest your time elsewhere.

This is important for a crowd of followers to realize because Jesus is not simply an apocalyptic curiosity or a philosopher or someone you invite into your heart.  He is the king of a rival kingdom that will shatter all the others.  This mission will be wildly unpopular with “all the others,” and if you’re going to sign up for it, then you need to be ready to find yourself the recipient of the worst that the powers of the age can dish out.

You see how closely identified these concepts are right from the start: being God’s faithful people, the coming of the kingdom, and the person of Jesus Christ.  They are all part of the package.

A very noteworthy part of this Beatitude is that Jesus compares those who are persecuted because of him to the prophets who were persecuted in Israel’s history.  This is noteworthy because those prophets were not persecuted by other empires; they were persecuted by the powerful in Israel.  And they were not persecuted because of their doctrine or being sticklers for morality, but because they were a warning.  They were a testimony that God would act to vindicate the faithful and judge oppressors, even if those oppressors were Israel’s own rulers.

This is also a theme that we will see many times in Matthew – the idea that Israel’s leaders began to use their positions to serve themselves at the expense of the people.  God send prophet after prophet to warn them, but they did not believe.  John the Baptist was perhaps the last of these Old Testament prophets, and now the Lord has sent His Son to the stewards who have been overseeing His vineyard.

By following Jesus and taking up his life and his message, his followers become prophets in this tradition, announcing to the world that the kingdom of God is here and judgement on the world powers is imminent.  They are living, breathing embodiments of the need to repent and embrace the mission God always had for Israel from the beginning – to be the kingdom of peace that will light the way for the rest of the nations.  But Jesus is no fool; he knows both he and his followers will suffer as the prophets before them suffered.

Hopefully it is obvious that today’s followers of Jesus are no longer a testimony to the immanent judgement of Israel’s power structure and the Roman Empire.  That is a historical contingency that was huge in the life of the people of God in Jesus’ day, but it is in our rear view mirror.

We are a testimony, however – not like the Old Testament prophets who called their leaders to repent under threat of exile or worse, but to the reality of the next creation – the Spirit-filled people living together in a kingdom of peace that is a light to the nations – a kingdom that is no longer defined by national Israel, but is defined by all who follow after Jesus.

Will this testimony continue to draw persecution?  Likely.  If you find yourself living comfortably and prosperously in a world that runs off of a very different engine than the kingdom of God, you might wish to do a spot check to see if you are, in fact, modeling that new creation for the world.  Can the nations look at you, or your church, or THE church and come away with the idea that the world you exemplify is the only one that will last, while the rest will become relics of history?  Do we look like a Spirit-filled community that is busily engaged in care, restoration, mercy, and justice?  Or do we look like a religious organization whose only real distinctive is that Jesus is prominent in our theology and worship?

If the gospel is true, then we should look like a new world – a better one – one that anyone who isn’t prospering in this one would love to see made real.  There is no apologetic argument about “the truth of Christianity” worth making if we can’t even do this.

Consider This

  1. What does it mean to be a prophet?  Does it mean more than the ability to predict the future?  What do prophets actually do in Scripture?  How does that translate into activity on this side of the Resurrection?
  2. How can you pray for the people of God in the world that would help us be a living testimony to the reality of what God is doing?
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The Persecuted: Matthew 5:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:10 (NRSV)

In Matthew’s Gospel, and in the New Testament as a whole, really, there are two, main streams of persecution.

One of those streams is the Roman Empire.  However, for as much impact as being under the Empire had in the life of a first century Judean, active persecution was fairly minimal and it remains this way for some time.  In fact, in the New Testament, the Empire tends to act as a mediating force that protects this new Jesus movement from the other stream.

Were they oppressors?  Yes.  We have already looked at how Roman excesses basically condemned the common person to an inescapable life of poverty.  We also know that Rome set up their own stooges not only to govern Judea, but also their own appointed Temple officials.  We know that Rome moved to a deification of their Emperor and early Christians were expected to show deference.  We know said rulers had a tendency to mess with the Temple by putting up images of Caesar and/or the Roman eagle.  We know that Roman soldiers were able to demand labor and manpower from the populace at will.

However, in terms of active persecution, we don’t really see Rome as strong a source for that until later in history.  It is important to note, though, that Jesus knows what’s coming as far as Rome and Jerusalem are concerned.  He also knows that being faithful to God means not accepting Caesar as a rival deity.  He also knows that the kingdom of God is going to run counter to the kingdom of Rome while springing up within its very borders, and it will have a lord who is not Caesar, and this will inevitably lead to conflict.  So, part of this Beatitude may be looking out into the near future.

But there is another, much more active stream of persecution in Jerusalem that we find all through the New Testament, and that is the religious power structure headquartered in Jerusalem.

We must take care not to lump the opposition in the New Testament as “the Jews.”  Jesus was a Jew, his first followers were Jews for some time, and the early church was Jewish.  It will be decades before white dudes start being common in Jesus’ movement.

Jesus and the early church’s opponents were not “the Jews,” but they were a certain category of the elite within Judaism – the powerful who ruled over their own people through a combination of the backing of Rome and the authority of their traditions.  It was this group who emulated Herod in their homes and practices.  It was this group who forced an impoverished people to buy sacrifices in their own coin that had to be exchanged for Roman currency.  It was this group who were the “righteous” as evident from their financial prosperity and the power and fame they enjoyed.  And some of this group was even set up by Rome, herself.

Jesus is not starting a new religion that undoes Judaism.  Jesus has brought the kingdom of God and, with it, come some powerful reforms of the way Jewish leaders have set up their religion.  The persecution he and his followers will receive has very little to do with theology and very much to do with the fact that Jesus is deconstructing the world as they know it.  He has brought a kingdom where the unclean are in the presence of God, the sick are welcomed and healed, the sinners are forgiven, and the poor are cared for and held up as models of faithfulness.  This is the exact, polar opposite of the kingdom the Temple’s power structure have worked so hard to build.

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-10 (NRSV)

The “shepherds” will not take this lying down.  They will try to stop this from happening with every resource they have.  They will try to discredit Jesus and, ultimately, set him up for execution as a criminal.  They will try to silence his followers.

It is largely this persecution that forms the context for this Beatitude – the persecution that will come from being faithful to the kingdom and her King.  It is the persecution that comes from the world that is against the world as it should be.

In some countries, our Christ-following brothers and sisters endure persecutions that are very similar to this.  Their proclamation of another kingdom and another ruler runs afoul of totalitarian governments everywhere.  Their humble love and service to one another prophesies against the greed, corruption, and violence that puts people into power in this world.

In America, we do not endure persecution for righteousness’ sake.  We sometimes endure persecution for being jerks.  We sometimes endure persecution for trying to force all America to live according to our moral standards.  We sometimes endure persecution for insisting that society conform in all sorts of ways to our 21st century American interpretations of the Bible which are invariably incorrect.

But we very rarely endure persecution because of our loyalty to a counter-cultural kingdom.  We are not persecuted because we show love to those society has marginalized.  In fact, we are often agents of that marginalization.  When you think about the people groups who have a rough time in the United States, you probably don’t think, “But at least the Christians are on their side!”  We are rich.  We are powerful.  We are patriotic.  We live just like everyone else except for a small subset of morality that we trumpet every chance we get as our “righteousness,” as if the defining characteristics of the kingdom of God are not being gay and avoiding R rated movies.  This is not what Jesus is talking about.

Jesus is talking about a new world – the world as God dreamed it could be.  And when you are a community that embodies that world, the forces that benefit from the world as it is will invariably rise against you.  That looked a certain way in the first century.  It may look different in our time.  Certainly the key players are different.  But for those pursuing faithfulness, the realization of that world is an inevitable result.

Consider This

  1. Who has power in your country?  How did they get there?  Would those same people be in power if the world ran according to the person of Jesus?
  2. What are areas of your own life where you’ve assimilated into the status quo?  Are there areas you could be more faithful in being the kingdom that could potentially draw some level of persecution or ostracism?

Peacemakers: Matthew 5:9

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)

The concept of shalom (peace) is pervasive in the Old Testament.  In its largest sense, it refers to a state of affairs where everything is as it should be.  It is applied to nations, relationships among people, the relationship between God and his people, and the condition of Israel.

It is very closely related to the concept of Sabbath rest and, in fact, the observance of the Sabbath is a miniature portrait of shalom for the community.

Shalom is something that is both a goal and a hope – something you work towards and something that is the reward of faithfulness.  Needless to say, references to it abound throughout the Old Testament with the cast depending on whatever state Israel happens to be in.  There is a longing for shalom, the enjoyment of shalom, or the hope that shalom will one day come again.

In Isaiah’s day, Assyria loomed large as a threat.  There was no rest for the people because Assyria was poised to lay siege to Jerusalem at any moment, and this was cast by Isaiah as brought about because of Israel’s idolatry.  Faced with a storm of Assyrian forces, God speaks through Isaiah to call the people to repentance, discourage the king (Hezekiah) from allying with other nations to save them, and speak comfort to a people who are about to undergo tribulation.

In Isaiah 32, the prophet looks through the upcoming disaster into what kind of kingdom God will forge out of this trial.  Verses 1-8 describe this kingdom of faithful kings who keep their people safe, physically afflicted people who are healed, oppressors whose plans come to nothing, and noble acts that last.

In verses 9-15, Isaiah warns that this will only come through a great tribulation that will include the destruction of the great city, which will be desolate, until the day when the Spirit is poured out and restores the fortunes of Israel.

The chapter ends with this:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
The forest will disappear completely,
    and the city will be utterly laid low.
Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,
    who let the ox and the donkey range freely.

Isaiah 32:16-20 (NRSV)

It draws together some of the other elements of the Beatitudes and, in fact, ends with a beatitude of its own.  In this portion of the vision, we have this perhaps jarring imagery that, out of the rubble of the destruction, the Spirit-filled people of God will build new lives for themselves: safe, free, and perhaps even a hint of growing beyond the boundaries of their original city.

Jesus is setting down the Law for faithful Israel at a time when tribulation is right at their doorstep.  Rome is Assyria times five.  He urges a certain path of behavior during this time that, in no small part, is meant to challenge Israel’s revolutionary tendencies that could easily bring down their own destruction if they keep pursuing a path of violence and retribution.

But I also think Jesus taps into a larger hope – that of the kingdom of shalom.  He doesn’t urge peace just to keep Rome off their backs; he urges peace because a new kingdom has arrived – the kingdom of shalom whose restoration was so hoped for in the Old Testament.  The people who make this kingdom will be called children of God.

Making peace is bigger than just resolving interpersonal conflict, although it certainly includes that.  The Old Testament concept of shalom defines an entire way of life – an entire world system.  It is the world system of the new creation, and blessed are those who bring that new creation into the here and now.

Consider This

  1. What are the features of an idyllic kingdom of peace?  What are the things in your immediate surroundings that either work against those things or are just simply broken?  Might God be calling you to work in those areas?
  2. What does it mean for your church, your family, and you as an individual to be a kingdom of peace in the world?

Pure in Heart: Matthew 5:8

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Matthew 5:8 (NRSV)

As far as Old Testament sentiments go, this Beatitude has a reasonably direct connection back to Psalm 24.  In this Psalm, people with clean hands and pure hearts who have not allied themselves with what is false have come to Mount Zion seeking Him.  In response, the gates of Jerusalem open and the Lord – presented in terms of military power – comes in to meet them.

This is certainly not the only Psalm to present the idea of a pure heart.  Psalm 73 shows us a psalmist who is very concerned at the prosperity and power of the wicked when God is supposed to be good to Israel – the pure in heart.  However, by the end of the Psalm, he shakes off these thoughts and takes comfort in the idea that God will bring down the wicked and be a refuge for those who remained faithful.

In both cases, purity is presented as steadfast loyalty.  Faithfulness.  This makes sense when we recall that the actual meaning of purity isn’t “not dirty,” but is “unmixed.”  Water with dirt in it isn’t pure, but water with sugar in it isn’t pure, either.  Purity means that a thing is unmixed with any other material – a relatively large dynamic in various Torah laws.  It is being holy (set apart), free not just from stains but from anything that might define the material as something else.

So, as we look at the experience of the Psalmist, he looks at faithful Israel and knows God is supposed to be good to them, but the wicked are prospering.  He decides he has to take a longer-term view of the situation, but he has to remain faithful.  He knows the day of the prosperity of the wicked will come to a terrible end and God will keep His faithful safe on that day.

In Psalm 24, we see the arrival of the Lord to meet His faithful, but it is not some gentle, congenial meeting.  The Lord of hosts has come to Jerusalem.  The Lord, strong and mighty, mighty in battle has come with His armies to Jerusalem and demands the gates be opened to admit Him.

These concepts come together as Matthew looks back on Jesus and his message.  Like the other Beatitudes, this one carries with it the promise of the reversal of fortunes.  If you have remained faithful, you will see God.  And what will this look like?  It will look like God coming with His armies to Jerusalem.  The wicked will be toppled, but God will keep safe those who have been faithful during this whole time – pure, unmixed, in heart.

This obviously resonates with Jesus’ primary warning to Israel – the day was coming when those who did not listen to Jesus and embraced paths of violence and retribution would provoke the Roman army to arrive and destroy the Temple.  That would be a terrible day full of tribulation, but it would also be a day when the the powerful, prosperous wicked would be brought low and the followers of Jesus would have left the city.

The faithful would see God as a concrete, historical reality.  A day of great calamity for the wicked, but also a day of refuge for the pure in heart.

And thus, we come back around to what John the Baptist was trying to do – purify the faithful who believed his message so that they might survive the coming judgement that would bury the power structure in Jerusalem.  Jesus is on this mission as well.  It’s not his entire mission, but it’s a huge part of it.

Our circumstances are somewhat different.  We are not waiting for a day when God will arrive at our city with armies to disenfranchise the wicked.  God can certainly still operate that way, but the Bible does not set that expectation for all believers everywhere.

At the same time, we have a mission to be a new creation people and a promise that the renewal of all things is coming, even the defeat of death itself.  We, like the Psalmist, might look at the prosperity of the wicked in our present world system and wonder why we should even bother being faithful.  How can we credibly say that God is good to the pure in heart when we see faithful Christians slaughtered in some countries, imprisoned in others, and the people on top of the heap are power hungry, wealthy exploiters of their fellow human beings?

Israel asked herself this question many times in her life experiences with God, and the answer was always to persevere and trust.  We don’t turn to various ways of engineering the downfall of the wicked.  We live (and die) as a faithful testimony, and God will move in His way and His time, bringing his people through the storms that threaten them and exalting His faithful dead, in history, until He banishes all that plagues the world and renews the entire creation.  We will want to be revealed as Sons of God on that day.

Consider This

  1. What does being a faithful community of God’s people look like, today?  Does being the people of God in the world mean more than believing particular doctrines?  What does it look like?
  2. What are the things in your culture and in your own life that tend to work their way into pure hearts?  What materials from this present world have become alloys with the people of God?

The Merciful: Matthew 5:7

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Matthew 5:7 (NRSV)

The idea of God being merciful to those who themselves are merciful is found in a handful of Proverbs and Psalms as well as several commands to Israel in the Law.  We could look at various ways that faithful Israel was intended to be merciful and, in the long run, failed in this department in the days that led to her exile.

But I want to point out a psalm of David that isn’t in the book of Psalms, but is rather in 2 Samuel 22.  In this Psalm, God has delivered David from his enemies (Saul, in specific), rewarded him for his faithfulness, and exalted him to a position of power above the nations.  In this psalm, David writes:

With the merciful, you show yourself merciful.

2 Samuel 22:26a (ESV)

This sort of captures the Old Testament relationship of Israel to mercy.  Being faithful to God means being merciful.  David is merciful.  He receives mercy as the outcome of his faithfulness.

Contrast this with the Israel described in Isaiah 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV)

Here, Isaiah talks about a day of disaster that comes from the rulers of Israel oppressing their own people – a day that will result in them being prisoners or dead.  They do not have mercy, so they will not be shown mercy.

These polarities collide in the first century.  Those of Israel who would oppress Israel for their own gain are at it again, and the presence of the Empire is a big help to them.  The poor, humble, disenfranchised, and outsiders suffer under them.  But Jesus (and John the Baptist before him) have announced the day has come when fortunes will be reversed, and those who are currently the oppressors will find themselves as prisoners or the slain.

What ought the faithful to be in a time like this?  Do they, like most revolutions, simply replace the people on top with themselves?  Is now the time to take up the sword?  Has the day come when they can lord their power over those who cannot resist them?

No, instead, Jesus calls them to be faithful Israel, which means being merciful, even to enemies, as David was with Saul.

In Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew will record a parable of Jesus where he tells about a slave who owed the king much money and begged for patience and time to pay off his debt.  The king forgave his debt altogether.  This slave then found another slave who owed him a very small sum of money, and the slave had him sent to debtors’ prison.  When the king learns of this, he is not happy about it:

“You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Matthew 18:32-33 (NRSV)

And in anger, the king sends the slave to prison to be tortured until he is able to pay his entire debt.

This is a shocking, terrible picture in many ways of the judgment that waits for those in Israel to whom the King has been merciful but will not extend mercy to others.

As I’ve pointed out many times, and it is obvious, we do not have an imminent destruction at the hands of the Roman Empire.  But what we do see is that being merciful is something that Israel has always been supposed to be this entire time.  It is a component of what it means to be a faithful witness to the reality of the reign of God in the world.  It is a feature of the new creation – we do not use God’s favor for vengeance, but we use it to show the same mercy we have been shown.  If we will not show mercy – even to our enemies, even to those who are completely undeserving – then God Himself opposes us.

Mercy, of course, does not mean actions are without consequences.  Israel was expected to be merciful, but they still had the Torah, thus showing that mercy is not incompatible with justice.  Mercy does not mean a wife moving back in with her abusive husband.  Mercy does not mean there shouldn’t be consequences for what we do.  But what it does mean is that, whatever we decide is right and just in a situation, we do so from the standpoint of God’s mercy to us.  We have been shown mercy so that we, in turn, might show the world mercy.

Consider This

  1. Are you currently in a situation where someone is unmerciful to you and there’s nothing you can do about it?  What would you do if that situation were suddenly reversed?
  2. It has been said that we will have difficulty showing mercy if we haven’t fully realized the mercy we have been shown.  In what ways has God shown mercy to you as an individual?  In what was has He shown mercy to the people of God in your day and age?

Hunger and Thirst: Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

Hungering and thirsting is a metaphor that is common in the Psalms.  Generally, the scene is that the author is in some predicament where something they depend on is scarce, and they long for it.

For example, in Psalm 42, the writer has been separated from the house of God, presumably by his enemies, and is languishing apart from it, comparing himself to a deer searching for water.  The counterpoint to that psalm is Psalm 63, where the one who is hungry and thirsty enters the sanctuary and is filled with a “rich feast.”

This may provide some of the background for Matthew 5:6.  Entering the Temple in Jesus’ day was largely a matter of A) How clean are you? and B) Do you have the money to buy an animal?  Both poverty and purity laws that went even above and beyond the Torah had the effect of keeping most of the common people out of the Temple – a situation that finds a strong parallel with Psalm 42.

What makes me think there might be more to the story, though, is the hungering and thirsting after righteousness.  Righteousness means being faithful to an agreement or a promise.  It means keeping your word.  The people Jesus is talking about are people who are languishing in the absence of faithfulness.

Could this be Israel’s own faithfulness?  It very well could be.  The faithful in Israel see themselves as in exile for breaking their covenant with God.  If you long for the consolation of Israel, as we saw in the previous Beatitude, then you’ve got to have a spiritual renewal of Israel – a repentance and a reformation around who God always wanted them to be.  A resurrection.  A rebirth.  The repentance, forgiveness, and reformation of a holy Israel is a common feature in the Old Testament prophets, so its quite possible this is the understanding that informs Jesus’ statement, here.  That day is at hand.  John the Baptist started that process, and Jesus is going to bring it to completion.

That very well could be the background.  Psalm 107, in fact, presents just such a restoration in terms of the hungry and thirsty being filled.

But the hungering and thirsting could also be for God’s faithfulness to His promise.

In Psalm 22, we see David, using his experience as representative of Israel (as he often does), describing a situation where he is surrounded by enemies, hurt, suffering, and abandoned.  It appears as though God Himself has left him to die.  But he cries out to God, and God delivers him, producing this reaction:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
    stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
    May your hearts live forever!

Psalm 22:22-26 (NRSV)

This is followed by a scene of the entire world worshiping YHVH because of His faithfulness to deliver Israel and passing that down from generation to generation so that people who haven’t even been born yet will worship YHVH.

It’s hard not to see the mission of Jesus in these terms.  Israel is surrounded by enemies, apparently abandoned by God, but when they cry out, He is faithful to save them (Israel), resulting in Him becoming Lord of of the whole world (not just Israel) and down through future generations (us).  And one of the features of this description is that “the poor shall eat and be satisfied.”

So, what’s the background, here?  Is it Israel being separated from her Temple?  Is it Israel longing for the end of her exile and the restoration of her faithful service?  Is it Israel longing for God to be faithful to deliver them?

I don’t know, but I suspect the answer may be that those are not three, separate things.

Consider This

  1. Several Psalms were mentioned, above.  Take some time to read them throughout the week.  How do they help you understand and feel Israel’s situation when Jesus was speaking to them?
  2. What does it mean to hunger and thirst after faithfulness for the people of God, today?  What is our own condition with regard to faithfulness?  Are we the things God intended His people to be in the world?  What are some things you could pray for in that regard?

The Meek: Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Matthew 5:5 (NRSV)

This line is virtually a quote from Psalm 37:11:

But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

Psalm 37:11 (NRSV)

That Psalm is a great commentary on this Beatitude and, in a sense, the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount.

In this Psalm, it speaks to a people who are experiencing oppression at the hands of “the wicked.”  The wicked, here, are those with power who bring down the poor, who game the financial system for their own benefit but the loss of others, and who are working against those who are trying to remain faithful.

In contrast are “the meek.”  These are the poor, the faithful – those who are being pressed down by the wicked.  Meekness, here, is not so much a personality characteristic as it is belonging to a certain group of people.

Psalm 37, however, encourages the meek to remain patient and to be of good heart, because no matter what things look like now, God will vindicate and exalt the meek.  They shall inherit all the things the wicked currently enjoy, and the wicked will perish.  It is their continued faithfulness that will see them through into a new state affairs.  It is their faithfulness that God will reward.

Of course, the temptation of the meek in Psalm 37 is to give up faithfulness and, instead, embrace the ways of the wicked – to become those who are rich and powerful and living high on the hog.  But God will not reward that.  That is joining up with the people who belong to a world that is about to vanish.  Better to remain poor, oppressed, and faithful than to eat and drink with the wealthy and powerful, because God will exalt one group and bring the other group to destruction.

That is also how this Beatitude fits in.  Jesus has talked about the poor’s fortunes being restored and the mourners being comforted by this great overturning in the world system.  This is simply another facet of it.

And you see this work itself out in Jesus’ ministry.  It’s hard to forget Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler:

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Matthew 19:16 (NRSV)

Jesus is trying to get this young man to move from one group to the other group.  The young ruler may be keeping Torah, and this is good, but he is part of a world system that will be dismantled.  He is both rich and a ruler in Jerusalem.  Jesus urges him to give up his membership in “the wicked” as Psalm 37 defines it and become “the meek.”  Leave the kingdom where this man is a ruler and join the one where he is just like everyone else.  Leave one world for another world.  God opposes the proud, but is gracious to the humble.

Like the other Beatitudes, this reversal of fortunes in Jerusalem and in the Roman Empire at large is in our rear-view mirror.  But it, coupled with what had come before, gives us some good insight into the heart of God.

Because, you see, God has always opposed the powerful when they use it for their own benefit, especially at the expense of others.  God destroyed Sodom for it.  God judged Israel herself more than once for this very thing – the corruption and power and wealth at the top while people below were suffering.  And now we see the dynamic playing out in first century Jerusalem.

While the particulars of the situation Jesus is addressing may be limited to the state of affairs in Jerusalem at the time, they are another instance of something that has been abiding in God’s world from the beginning – man is not meant to oppress other men.  People are not meant to enjoy prosperity while their fellow man suffers deprivation.  It isn’t just a feature of corruption in Jerusalem, but rather something God will have stand wherever His people are and wherever His reign is to be found.

It falls to us to speak out in favor of the poor and the oppressed and work for the reversal of that situation – not with the tools this present world uses to get its way, but by the power of faithful testimony and the Spirit.  By living out in our churches, our communities, and in “the nations” a world where those who have much share with those who have little, and those with power use it for the benefit – the service – of those who are under them, or perhaps even completely powerless – by living out that world, we bring the new creation into this one.We testify that a new world has come and we are citizens of it.  We testify that the traditional uses of power and wealth have no place in the new creation, and those who insist on being allied to that system and perpetuating it will find themselves outside its doors.

And this is a call, too, for us to examine ourselves.  Are we living this way?  Which group have we signed up for?  Which group are we actively trying to get into?  How do we use our wealth and our power?  Is it for the benefit of those without either?

What would your home, your church, your business, your community – what would it all look like if we decided to use everything we have been given and everything we have achieved for the benefit of those who do not have those things?

Consider This

  1. Go ahead and take a few minutes to read Psalm 37.  It won’t take long.  Are there other parts of the Psalm that give insight into Jesus’ sermon?  Are there any parts that speak to you?
  2. God is gentle with us in our path to obedience.  It is almost a certainty that if you are able to read this, you are in a position above where other people are and have things they don’t.  Ask God how you can begin a process of leaving behind a group of privilege to become brothers and sisters with the meek.

Mourners: Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4 (NRSV)

In many ways, this flows from the same streams as the Beatitude about the poor.  Both have strong roots in Isaiah 61 as well as many similar passages in the Old Testament.  To look at some of the specific facets of this particular Beatitude, we need to take a look at that Isaiah passage, again.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)

This passage tells us a lot more about those who mourn.

First of all, they mourn in Zion.  Mount Zion is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  These mourners are in Israel weeping in the Temple.  What are they weeping about?  In Isaiah 61, it’s the condition of Jerusalem.  It’s the corruption, the idolatry, the constant threat of enemies, and the apparent abandonment by God in the face of disaster.

The crowds that Jesus speaks to will have mourners like this – faithful Israelites who mourn over the condition of Israel – conquered by foreigners, governed by pagans, the Temple run by Empire-appointed stooges who aren’t even Jewish half the time.

Luke tells of one such person in chapter 2 – a man named Simeon who “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”  This is the same man who prophesied that Jesus would be for the rising and falling of many in Israel and thanks God that he got to see Israel’s salvation before he died.

He is looking forward to the consolation of Israel – the day Isaiah talks about when the mourning will be comforted by the coming of the Day of the Lord.

And what will happen when this day of comfort comes?  Those that mourn will build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations.  They will take what has fallen over the years and build it back up.  In Matthew, this could be alluded to in order to bring forth the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem, which in the Apostles’ minds, will bring an end to this corrupt power structure in Jerusalem, and those who escape this destruction will have a new life that is rebuilt in the creation and survival of believing communities throughout the Empire.

Or perhaps the image looks backward.  One thinks back to when the exiles were released from Babylon to return to Jerusalem and how they built up the ruins there that had lain for decades.

Or perhaps the image is meant to be more general.  There are other Old Testament passages that describe the ruined condition of Israel as a fallen structure or city.  Perhaps the rebuilding imagery is meant to suggest the rebuilding of Israel as a reborn, holy nation.

Or, perhaps all of that.  Perhaps all of those things are really the same kind of event, just presented at different key points in Israel’s history.

Whatever the specific referents might be, one thing is clear – the Israel that is in exile and suffering under a corrupt power structure is about to be free of it.  The mourners are about to be comforted.  The ruins are about to be rebuilt.  Mourning will turn to dancing.  The world will be turned over, and those who have been crushed into the ground will see the sunlight.

Like the statement about the poor, these events have come and gone in Israel’s history.  Does it hold any power or relevance for the experience of the people of God, today?

I think it does, but we have to adjust our sights a bit.  What we don’t have here is a guarantee from Jesus that we’ll eventually feel better about anything that troubles us.  Nor do we have a guarantee that people who mourn over the condition of the people of God, today, will have a day that overturns those things.

What do we have, then?

What we have is a mission to bring the blessings of the new creation into the dark recesses of this world and a promise and a hope that the whole world will one day be renewed, such that even Death is brought low.  To steal Paul’s assurance to the Thessalonian community and their martyrs, we mourn, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope.

A resurrection is coming.  A new world is coming.  And you and I are commanded in the here and now to testify to this reality by living it.  We make things new as a message to the world that God is making all things new.  Part of this will be giving comfort to those who mourn in the here and now, but with every mourner we comfort in this age, we are breathing out a faithful testimony that an even greater renewal is coming, where God will wipe away the tears from every eye.

Consider This

  1. What would it mean to mourn over the situation of the people of God in the world, today?  What would have to happen for that mourning to be comforted?  Are there things we could be doing about it?
  2. The destruction of Jerusalem was a horrible event by anyone’s lights.  The gospels’ narrative is, as terrible as this event was, God used it to bring an end to the oppression of His faithful.  Does this way of thinking have any impact on how the Bible speaks of other significant past events?

The Poor In Spirit: Matthew 5:3

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3 (NRSV)

In early first century Israel, there was no middle class the way we think of it.  At the top of the heap were the rich few.  These were typically government officials or religious officials who cooperated with the government.  Archaeological finds in Jerusalem tell us, for instance, that Herod’s mansion quickly gave rise to a rich neighborhood (inhabited by the Sanhedrin) who began to copy the features and styles of Herod’s house.

The Roman Empire boasted some truly magnificent accomplishments in architecture, engineering, monuments, etc.  Those things did not come without a price.  That money had to come from somewhere, and where it came from were taxes and levies against the provinces Rome had conquered.  In your region, your tax collectors were probably your own people working for the Roman government, and they didn’t mind charging a little extra for themselves.

In this way, wealth was a uniter of the power structure in Rome and in Judea in specific.  If you were the government-appointed High Priest, you were wealthy.  If you were a tax collector, you were wealthy.  If you were a Senator or a governor, you were wealthy.  If you were Sanhedrin, you were wealthy.  With few exceptions, wealth identified you as being on top of the heap and generally in cahoots.

Most of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, however, was inhabited by the poor – the people who paid taxes, fines, etc.  And these taxes were crippling.  If you had a farm, the odds were good Rome would own your farm in short order and you would be a sharecropper on it.  Most Israelites who owned their own land quickly lost it to the rich because of these taxes.  This debt led to indentured servitude, sharecropping, and a cycle you were unlikely to break out of.  The odds of you and your children getting that land back were slim to none, because the engine of Empire just kept slowly grinding you down, down, down financially.

This provides some context as to why the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was such a clever trap.  If Jesus says yes, then he loses his following of the common people longing for the restoration of Israel.  If Jesus says no, then he becomes an insurrectionist and subject to punishment by Rome.

The insidious power of money!  Taxation, wealth, and poverty were not just bare facts of economic life, they were a political tool used to strengthen Rome and her supporters and weaken those who might dare to raise their heads up.  This is such an important thing to keep in mind as we think about Jesus’ comments about money.  Every coin is covered in the blood of Israel and the breath of the Dragon.

Imagine with me, if you will, the utter hopelessness of the vast majority of Israelites living in slums and temporary housing to work fields and vineyards that might have belonged to their fathers, only to yield up all their labor to the Empire in exchange for some morsels of food and basic staples.  If you have ever been in debt that you felt you would never see the end of, perhaps you can begin to understand that feeling of anxiety, hopelessness, and futility that Israel must have felt a hundred times greater.

In Luke’s version of this verse, he simply says, “The poor,” not “the poor in spirit.”  The spirit part is Matthew’s inclusion and has prompted all kinds of speculation, most of which involves trying to keep Jesus from talking about actual poor people.

But this addition makes sense, especially as the introductory Beatitude, against the Old Testament background Matthew has so freely drawn from.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV)

The word “oppressed” in the NRSV is often translated “poor” in other translations, but the net effect is the same.

This is part of an extended passage in Isaiah about the great Day of the Lord where God will answer the oppression of Israel by Assyria.  From the previous chapters in Isaiah, we learn this Day will include:

  1. The repentance of Israel and the forgiveness of her sins
  2. The removal of corrupt judges and cheating merchants
  3. The overthrow of Israel’s corrupt rulers
  4. The return of God’s presence
  5. The leading of the other nations to the worship of YHVH
  6. The gathering of the exiled
  7. A kingdom of shalom and justice
  8. The deliverance of Israel from her enemies and their destruction

All these things are announced by the Lord’s anointed by the Spirit.  He brings with him the Good News that this deliverance has arrived, and the poor rejoice to see it.  And now we are in a position to understand why Matthew uses the phrase, “ptochoi to pneumati.”  It’s not technically “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “blessed are the poor in THE Spirit.”

The Spirit has anointed Jesus to bring this gospel – this good news – this ministry of the kingdom of God – to the poor.  Luke makes this connection overt when he has Jesus read Isaiah 61 in a synagogue and announce that the Scripture was fulfilled that very day in their hearing.  Matthew takes us down a slightly different trail, but we end up at the same place.

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:4-6 (NRSV)

 

Jesus has brought good news in the Spirit to the poor: the Day of the Lord is at hand.  The power structure that crushes them is about to itself be crushed.  The downtrodden are about to be restored.  Those who are needy now will soon need nothing.

That’s all fine and good for the poor Jesus spoke to, but what about the poor, today?  What about people who live in cyclical poverty – people who are ground under that same engine of power and wealth that makes itself powerful and wealthy at their expense?  The historical moment where Jesus comes to liberate Israel from her oppression has come and gone.  That Empire, that High Priest, those tax collectors (with a couple of notable exceptions) are dust.  Is Jesus still good news for the poor, even though this specific expectation and time in history has passed?

I will say yes, because to hope in Jesus on our side of history is to hope in the new creation.  As we speak, believers are living with and caring for these poor.  They are selling their possessions and giving their money.  They are prophetically speaking out against the corruption and the evil practices of power and wealth in the empires of this world and calling people to a better way – a way of life under the risen Lord Jesus where we sacrificially care for the poor.  These people are spreading new creation.  They carry the kingdom wherever they go, in an ever-expanding sphere.

The poor have a reason to hope when they hear the feet, not of Jesus as the people heard him in Matthew, but of the people filled with his Spirit.  To them belongs the power to bring good news.  To them belongs the authority and mission to heal and restore, not just in Israel, but in all the nations.  In some places and in some times, this mission may go better than others, but even should poverty not be wiped out by love in our time, resurrection and a new world are waiting, and Jesus is already there, beckoning us forward.

Consider This

  1. Why do you think both Testaments show such a strong bias for the poor?
  2. Some have said that proclamation of the gospel must take precedence over taking care of physical needs.  Are these different things?  Were they different to Jesus?
  3. In what ways might you be a blessing to the poor in the Spirit?

Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Matthew 5:1 (NRSV)

This introduces a section that is commonly known as “The Beatitudes” or “The Sermon on the Mount.”  This prologue may not seem that devotional, and you may be right, but I feel like we have to take a look at what Matthew is telling us in the story before going through the pieces.

Matthew’s phrasing has always struck me as funny.  “When Jesus saw the crowds,” presumably the crowds mentioned at the end of chapter 4 who are coming from all over the region and from places as far away as Jerusalem and the cities of the Decapolis.  This text almost makes it sound like Jesus turns around and, all of a sudden, notices all these crowds have shown up.  Man, those guys were quiet.

But of course, what Matthew is saying is that the presence of these crowds gives Jesus an occasion to deliver some relevant teaching.  So, he goes up a mountain and his disciples follow.  Luke 6, by contrast, has Jesus going down to a level place, which is the opposite of going up a mountain.  Why does Matthew have the sermon given “on the Mount?”

I think part of the answer goes to the common theme of Jesus living out the experience of faithful Israel.  We’ve already seen plenty of allusions to the Exodus in the first four chapters of Matthew.  This is probably another one.  Moses delivers the Law from Mount Sinai, and this Law defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day.  It is very likely that Matthew is recapturing that image.  Jesus delivers the Beatitudes from this mountain, and it defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day.

But we also have to consider that “in his day” part.

The Law Moses delivered at Sinai was not the last law Israel would receive.  There would be more.  Further, some of the laws would simply not be applicable as the historical state of affairs of Israel changed.  For example, in Exodus 20:24, we have a law that Israel can just dig up some earth, make an altar out of it, and offer sacrifices there, and YHVH will come to it and bless them.  This law makes a lot of sense when you’re wandering about in the wilderness.

By contrast, Deuteronomy 12:13-14 specifically warns the Israelites not to offer sacrifices anywhere they happen to see, but only in the place that God specifically selects.  This is appropriate when you happen to have a permanent residence.  Further, a permanent Temple would one day take the place of the Tabernacle and be the place of sacrifice.

In other words, while the general principles behind the laws seem to be the same – you have to offer sacrifices to YHVH the way He wants them – the particulars shift based on the historical realities of Israel at the time.

When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, he is giving it to Israel at a particular historical juncture that Matthew has already drilled into our heads – the kingdom of God is at hand, and faithful Israel is to repent and be restored so that she will not fall under the same judgement as her oppressors.  The people who are on top are about to be toppled, and the people on the bottom are about to be exalted, provided they remain faithful and continue to trust in God for their deliverance.

This dynamic is behind many Beatitudes in the Old Testament.  It is a very popular literary form that designates a particular category of person as “blessed,” and often contrasts them with the wicked.  Psalm 112 is a great example and many of its themes show up in the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact the very first Psalm in your Bible is a beatitude.  Here are the blessed people – look at the great things that will happen to them.  And, if we have time to go into it, here are the bad things that will happen to the people who are not like this.

At the feet of Jesus, Israel sits at the brink of a historical and eschatological crisis.  The judgement against their age is coming.  The kingdom is at hand.  What, then, does faithful Israel look like in this period the Old Testament has foretold?  The Messiah has come.  The engine of the coming kingdom is revving.  They are entering into an event in their history that is in a real sense the height of their expectations up to that point.  We need to take into account the fact that these categories are announced to a particular people in that particular historical situation – one that we as 21st century Gentiles, or even Jews for that matter – do not share.

However, as we look through the Sermon on the Mount, we begin to see things that Israel has always been meant to be.  Even in their days of great prosperity, were they ever not supposed to be humble?  Were they ever not supposed to be a city on a hill?  Were they ever not supposed to treasure righteousness more than gold or jewels?

And as we look outward to the future people of God long past the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of pagan Rome, do we not still find the people of God oppressed?  Do we not still find them with enemies?  Do they not wait for the vindication of the Lord, either in their present circumstances or the resurrection and renewal of the creation?

So, on the one hand, we may be asking for trouble to take the Sermon on the Mount and drop it and all its particulars right on top of all Christians everywhere at all times, just like Israel with her Temple couldn’t just pick up the law about digging up an altar wherever they happened to be and drop it and all its particulars on their current situation.  They were in a different situation, and that required new ways of being faithful.

But by the same token, we will find resonances in the Sermon of what the people of God have always been called to be, especially in a world where we still face opposition and hostility.  We will find these things in Jesus and, perhaps most tellingly, we find these things flowing out of Spirit-filled people who “have not the Law.”  We will find in this extended section of Jesus’ teaching markers of the kingdom, and we will find in it hints of new creation.  All these things define our experience, today, and as we go, I expect we will find a good deal of continuity with our forefathers at the mountain.

Consider This

  1. Does it make you uncomfortable to think of God’s laws for his people shifting somewhat with their historical circumstances?  Why is that?  What do laws mean to you?  Are there any parts of the Old Testament law you do not think apply to the people of God, today?
  2. When we look at Old Testament laws, is there a way to recognize a “bigger picture” that might transcend the circumstances of that particular law?  How might that help us as we look at the Sermon on the Mount?