What is the “good life?” What constitutes success in life? These are questions that all of us answer. Some of us answer these questions explicitly, by speaking of the things we most treasure in life, and some of us answer implicitly, by the way we live, or the people we envy or look up to. Our Wednesday Word this week deals with these issues of what constitutes success or blessing in this life. The speaker in this passage is Jesus, and he is speaking to his first disciples after their first foray into his ministry.
Matthew 4:23-5:16 (Kingdom New Testament Translation)
23He went on through the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing every disease and every illness among the people. 24Word about him went out around the whole of Syria. They brought to him all the people tormented with various kinds of diseases and ailments, demon-possessed people, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, Judaea, and beyond the Jordan.
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the hillside and sat down. His disciples came to him. 2He took a deep breath, and began his teaching:
3“Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
4“Blessings on the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
5“Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
6“Blessings on people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
7“Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.
8“Blessings on the pure in heart! You will see God.
9“Blessings on the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.
10“Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
11“Blessings on you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! 12Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.
13“You’re the salt of the earth! But if the salt becomes tasteless, how is it going to get salty again? It’s no good for anything. You might as well throw it out and walk all over it. 14“You’re the light of the world! A city can’t be hidden if it’s on top of a hill. 15People don’t light a lamp and put it under a bucket; they put it on a lampstand. Then it gives light to everybody in the house. 16That’s how you must shine your light in front of people! Then they will see what wonderful things you do, and they’ll give glory to your father in heaven.
1. Life isn’t so easy for the disciples.
The passage above immediately follows Jesus calling his first disciples to follow him. Try and put yourself in their shoes for minute. You had a somewhat stable and comfortable life fishing for a living with your family. You weren’t rich, but you had a bed, and a roof and food and a reasonably normal social circle, and all that good stuff. Now you are on a spontaneous road trip in ancient Galilee: less food, some nights without a roof, potentially on the wrong side of civil authorities, and interacting with people with some pretty significant issues (demons, diseases, and destitution). At this point, you might wonder if you made the wrong decision to get out of that boat and follow this Jesus guy. You might think if he were really the Messiah things would be easier, you’d feel a little more “blessed,” your side would be winning, and life would be full of happiness and celebration and success and the like. You might think: this isn't the good life. Now, keeping the above train of thought in mind, Jesus turns to speak to the disciples and takes on the reality of their hardships…
2. The "good life" can only be determined by how the story ends.
In order to understand Jesus’ words in 5:3-12 (the Beatitudes) we must ask what Jesus considers the greatest blessing to be. If we look at 5:3 and 5:10, the “blessings” that book-end this little section, we discover an answer: the greatest blessing is to participate in the “kingdom of heaven” (or kingdom of God). As a reminder, the kingdom of heaven does not mean “going to heaven” when we die. It means being a part of God’s people who live under his rule now and who will be resurrected when God steps definitively into history judge and renew the world. In Jesus’ opinion, this blessing is so great and so valuable that all the things that are considered “blessed” in the eyes of most people (i.e. being rich, powerful, happy, comfortable, dominating others, getting your way) are essentially rendered worthless when compared to the kingdom. In other words, it’s far better to be on the team that appears to be losing at the moment (and thus suffering) but will ultimately win the championship, than being on the team that appears to be winning but whose defeat is ultimately certain (even though they have it good now). The Beatitudes then are Jesus’ recognition of the struggle his disciples have stepped into, and his reminder to them that their sacrifice is worth the reward.
3. Sharing in Jesus’ mission means sharing in his struggle.
The goal of a disciple is not to make oneself fit the description of all of the Beatitudes. The goal is to imitate Jesus in being “salt” and “light.” However, if we are seeking to imitate Jesus with all our heart and to carry out his mission we will find ourselves conforming to Jesus’ words. We’ll find ourselves mourning the state of our world. We’ll get less comfortable with the standard injustices that surround us. We’ll find ourselves showing mercy, and trying to make peace, and throwing our weight around less, and perhaps even looked down upon or scorned for all these things. The condition of the “blessed” people in the Beatitudes is the condition of people who are sharing Jesus’ mission, because sharing in Jesus’ mission means sharing in his struggle. Conversely, if we find ourselves content with the world around us, confident in our own power, believing that we deserve God’s love and gifts, and not troubled by the pain of our neighbors then we are probably not sharing in Jesus’ mission.