The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is, in most peoples' minds, the paradigm for summarizing Jesus’ moral teachings. Within these chapters some of the most famous statements of Jesus can be found, like "Love your enemy," "Do unto others," or "Turn the other cheek." Many of these teachings are admired and quoted by Christians and non-Christians alike. Chief among these famous quotations are the so-called beatitudes of Jesus, the statements of blessing which open up the Sermon and launch the hearer into the strange world of the kingdom of God. These beatitudes exemplify beautiful, poetic parallelism; they promote an ethic that is hopeful and idealistic; but they can admittedly come across as esoteric, super-spiritual, pie-in-the-sky musings and moral hyperboles meant to inspire people to live good lives, to seek the welfare of others, and to get along in the world. The beatitudes are, many would concede, nice ideas that make God happy and would make the world a better place, but when push comes to shove many would sigh that the real world demands something a little more practical.
reading the beatitudes in nazi germany
The German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945), in his book Discipleship, reflects on the beatitudes. His was a time of tumult and grave concern over the future of Germany and the future of the church. Out of pastoral concerns for Christians to uphold the high call of Jesus at any cost (i.e., in the face of Nazi fascism), he wrote that the only hope for the world was the Church of Jesus being the body of Jesus on behalf of the downtrodden. He had quite a different approach to these words of Jesus. For Bonhoeffer, the beatitudes make sense only when we look at Jesus on the cross. The way Jesus describes the world in the beatitudes is not the way the world is right now; anyone can see that. The poor are not blessed, they are trampled on. Those who seek justice (righteousness) are not blessed, they are disappointed. The persecuted are not blessed, they are killed. In this kind of world, how can words like the beatitudes be true? Bonhoeffer asks the same:
Here at the end of the Beatitudes the question arises as to where in this world such a faith- community actually finds a place. It has become clear that there is only one place for them, namely, the place where the poorest, the most tempted, the meekness of all may be found, at the cross on Golgotha. The faith-community of the blessed is the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything. Now the word comes down from the cross: blessed, blessed.
I think he’s on to something really important here. Separated from the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the beatitudes come to us as foolishness. They read as pious wish-fulfillment. But what Jesus thinks of as blessing and what the world thinks of as blessing are two very different things. The world thinks of blessing as a gradual improvement of humanity, learning to feel good about another and get along. The world thinks of blessing as the technological victory over isolation and human loneliness. The world thinks of blessing as the avoidance of pain, the avoidance of shame, the maximization of pleasure. Jesus thinks of blessing as the world rightly ordered under God's rule.
jesus gives us faith in god's promises
When God’s rule comes we see it as God himself coming, dying for the sins of the world. It is exactly on the cross that Jesus embodies the beatitudes that he preaches. On the cross Jesus is poor, mournful, meek, experiencing injustice, merciful to his enemies, pure as an innocent one led to death, a peacemaker by his blood, and persecuted. And the world looks at Jesus on the cross and says, “Surely you are under God’s curse. God is not blessing you!” But the Father looks at Jesus on the cross and says, “this is my Son in whom I am well pleased" (Mt. 3:17). Jesus goes before us into the curse of the world, he arrests its power as One who overcame death, and he rises, bringing with him the world that God desires. The beatitudes help us see the moment where the world of darkness, the world without God, is overthrown by God’s gracious rule, and that rule begins at the death and resurrection of the Son of God. They give us clarity as the Church to see how and toward whom we are to act as the Body of Christ, the very real presence of Christ for others. They help us, in times when relief feels so far away, to anticipate the moment when the blessings opened by Jesus' sacrifice will be felt by all.
Because Jesus died and rose again, when we experience suffering, when we are challenged to forgive sinners, when we experience loneliness, when our situation in life is dire, we are confident of God’s transformative power. We can turn to the beatitudes of Jesus and wait hopefully on the promise of God. The fulfillment of blessing may not come on this side of God’s final return — it took a resurrection from the dead for Jesus’ suffering to turn to blessing — but it will come. Jesus willingly exposed himself to the curse of human sin, the destructiveness of human power and human fear, the agony of abandonment by his friends, because he knew his status of "blessed" was not dictated by the world or his temporary circumstances. Jesus trusted God in the moment where God seemed furthest from him: in suffering. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” (1 Pet. 2:23-24)
If God can take something as heinous as the shame and suffering of Jesus on the cross — the most evil act ever perpetrated in history — and transform it into a blessing for both Jesus and the whole world (Isa. 53:10-12), then we can trust that God will bless those who embody the beatitudes, whether by choice or by circumstance. God will reach them with life-giving power, God will bless them in spite of the current curse, and God will restore their lives in justice.
Jake Randolph is the Director of Music at Renewal Church