We have come to the second part of an extended series on discipleship and the teachings of Jesus in Matthew. These teachings are found in five blocks of material that are found at various places in the Gospel. We continue our examination of The Sermon on the Mount where we find at the beginning what are known as the beatitudes.
Those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed. Unsaid, though clear, is the fact that God is the One who blesses such people and rewards them with a place in the kingdom of heaven. Every disciple is characterized by the qualities mentioned.
In other passages in Matthew, the poor are those who lack money and possessions; but, in the beatitudes ‘poor in spirit’ doesn’t quite mean the same. We may have a clue to its significance later in the Gospel. In Matthew 11: 5 John the Baptist’s disciples on behalf of John ask Jesus if He is the One who is to come. Jesus answers that the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor have the Gospel preached to them (Matthew 11: 4.5 ESV). The poor are receptive to the message. In Isaiah 57:15 we read: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite heart and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (ESV) The spirit of the lowly is comparable to the poor in spirit. They are the ones who are receptive to the Gospel message and will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn wait with expectation and fervent hope for the turning of the ages that will bring in the fullness of the kingdom. Their hearts yearn for what has not been fulfilled. In Isaiah the One upon whom the spirit rests is anointed, among other things, to comfort those who mourn in ashes. With rich imagery the prophet declares that their predicament will change from mourning to gladness. Those who mourn will receive a beautiful headdress, the oil of gladness, and the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. They await the eschatological act of God that will change their condition from mourning to gladness.
In Psalm 37 we find a reference to the meek. “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Psalm 37: 10-11 ESV) The Psalmist contrasts the meek with the wicked.
There are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Matthew righteousness is, first of all, a characteristic of God. Jesus says to John the Baptist, when the prophet resists baptizing Him, “Let it be so for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3: 15 ESV) Jesus is set on His mission to bring salvation. He is the One the Father declares from heaven to be the beloved Son. The angel tells Joseph to call the baby to be born, Jesus, which means “. . . he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 21 ESV) Jesus perfectly fulfills the Father’s will, God’s righteousness. He is faithful to His mission that culminates in the sending of the disciples into the world with the saving message of the kingdom of heaven, made possible by His sacrificial death and victorious resurrection.
God is merciful. When people in desperate need come near to Jesus, they cry, “Lord, have mercy.” Jesus heals them. Christ who is merciful expects His disciples to be merciful. He bids us, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 13 ESV) The context for this saying is a house, perhaps Matthew’s, where Jesus was at table. Matthew was a tax collector. The Pharisees wondered why Jesus was eating among such notorious and persistent sinners as Matthew. Jesus points out that the healthy don’t need a physicians, but the sick do. He is the physician who can make us well. Jesus’ going to the sinners is an act of God’s mercy. We disciples are to proclaim the mercy of God in Christ.
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a parable of a servant whose master forgives him his debt; but, he would not forgive the debt of one who owed him money. The master says to the unforgiving servant, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18: 32-33 ESV) This parable reminds one of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer where we pray, “. . . and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors..” (Matthew 6: 12 ESV)
The pure in heart are clean within, not like the scribes and the Pharisees. In Matthew 23 Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders for being clean on the outside but unclean on the inside. Disciples are clean inside out. They serve justice and mercy and faithfulness, the weightier matters of the Law.
Disciples are also peacemakers. Matthew 10, where Jesus sends out the apostles (the Twelve) to evangelize, may give some insight into what this means in the Gospel. Jesus sends out the disciples to go to the “lost sheep of Israel.” The Gentile mission will come after Jesus’ resurrection. The Twelve are to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” the same message that both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim. They are also to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, that is, to do what Jesus was doing.
Jesus tells the disciples while on this mission to stay with those who are worthy–a word used often in chapter ten and twice elsewhere. In chapter 22 in the parable of the wedding feast, those invited who refuse to come are not worthy. Upon a worthy house the apostles are to pronounce peace. This tangible peace can be withdrawn from the house that is not worthy. This peace but specifically is the peace which is God’s salvation. Peacemakers are those that both receive and bring salvation. They are receptive to the message of the Gospel.
Finally, the blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The righteous follow Jesus and produce fruit in what they do. They represent the good tree that bears good fruit. A disciple’s righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5: 20) who “. . . preach but do not practice. . . ” (Matthew 23: 3 ESV) God’s will and persecute the truly righteous. God is righteous, and we are called to conform to His righteousness.
And yet, Jesus has not come to call the righteous, but sinners. In Matthew’s house, where He is reclining at table, Jesus is criticized for eating with sinners. Jesus had come among the sick as a physician. We have known His mercy; thus, we too are to be merciful. Our calling is to be among the sinners so that we may bring them to Christ, the Merciful One. We cry, “Lord, have mercy,” and Christ shows us mercy.
In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us of our identity, ” You are the light of the world . . . ” (Matthew 5: 14 ESV) “. . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see you good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 16b ESV) These words remind us of I Peter where we are urged to do the good and suffer only for righteousness’ sake so that we will be blessed–words reminiscent of The Sermon on the Mount (I Peter 3: 13ff) Our witness and defense are greatly undercut by any misconduct. “. . . it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (I Peter 3: 17b ESV) It is in this section of I Peter that our verses for this blog about giving a good defense with gentleness and respect are cited.
Michael G. Tavella
Saint Hilary of Poitiers
January 13, 2024