The Blessed Life
I want to share a story with you. It’s not my story. It’s Roxy’s story. Roxy isn’t a person, she’s a horse, a beautiful, sorrel (for non-horse people, that means brown) Quarter Horse with a white blaze and four white socks. When she arrived at PEACE Ranch, a local facility that rescues and rehabilitates horses and uses them to help people, she was suspicious of humans and couldn’t be touched. Little was known about her history other than that in the months prior to her rescue, she had to fight to survive. When she was rescued by authorities, two horses on her farm had already died of starvation and were being eaten by dogs, and seven more, including Roxy, were being stalked by the dogs and when they were removed from the farm, several had body scores of 1, the lowest body score a horse can receive. If they aren’t at least 1, they’re dead. When Roxy made it to the rescue farm, despite the efforts of several very experienced horsemen and women, she couldn’t be caught for veterinary evaluation. She was labeled aggressive, dominant, and dangerous. Not an adoptable horse by even an advanced horseperson. In desperation she was sent to PEACE Ranch to see if Jackie, the director and herd manager could do anything with her. It took a while and the efforts of several patient trainers, but she came around and slowly allowed herself to be caught, groomed, handled, and eventually ridden. It was my job to work with her on allowing her feet to be handled. Because she was untouchable, no farrier had been able to trim her hooves in some time. It took a while, but it was a great day for me to see her stand while the trimmed her hooves. Today, after a lot of loving retraining, she regularly participates in therapeutic sessions with veterans and at-risk adolescents, and has also been successfully shown in local shows. Outside of fighting for survival, that’s one of the most high-stress environments a horse can find itself in. She was a throw-away. Good for nothing. Heck, she was flat-out dangerous. Certainly the most dangerous horse I’ve ever worked with. But if you saw her today, it’s almost like she’s been reborn. She’s found hope. She’s found purpose. And with Roxy’s help, so have dozens of veterans with PTSD and teenage survivors of sexual abuse. She was a loser, a throw-away, who has found life.
Today we’re starting a new series called Thy Kingdom Come: Parables of the Kingdom. We’re going to be looking at several of the parables in Luke’s Gospel, parables about the kingdom of God. But today we’re in the book of Matthew. Matthew 5:1-12. The opening words to the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, when Jesus taught, he typically used examples from everyday life and his immediate surroundings as a way to connect his message to the everyday lives of his hearers. And his primary message was “The kingdom of God is here.” In Matthew 4:17, Matthew tells us that from the moment he began his ministry, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” That is what Jesus talked about. His parables, his teaching, his illustrations, and his analogies all served to hammer home his point that the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, had come. And he used the characteristics of the people in the crowds as well as things in the environment around him at the moment to help his hearers understand in practical ways. Jesus’ teaching was always done in ways that there was something in it familiar to the masses.
At the same time, there was something strangely unfamiliar, something new, even radical about his teaching. His teaching about the kingdom of God didn’t fit anyone’s preconceived notions. He used phrases and terms they were familiar with, even phrases from popular teachers of his day, but in every case he turned them on their head, turned them upside down. He was telling them, “Everything you thought you understood about the Kingdom of God is wrong. You’ve got everything upside down.”
He completely turned upside down the world of the elite and the outcasts alike. The elite heard words like “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you” and were angry. The outcasts heard, perhaps for the very first time, that there was hope. That they were invited too. And they flocked to Jesus. They tore holes in people’s roofs and pushed their way through crowds, even climbed trees just to be near him, or to catch a glimpse of him.
In fact, just before delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us that Jesus was with the masses of people, touching and healing them of disease. As the crowds pressed in, he wanted to teach his disciples and whoever else would listen, so he climbed up on a hill where they could see and hear him. And He began with what we call the Beatitudes. Our tendency in the Christian church is to view the Beatitudes as divine standards for being blessed by God. After all, it says over and over again “Blessed are …” I read those words and think, to be blessed by God I have to be humble-minded and recognize my spiritual poverty. After all, that’s what it means to be poor in spirit, right? We’re spiritually destitute apart from Christ but we know it, we claim it, and we call that being humble-minded. Just be humble-minded. Just be “poor in spirit.” That’s the key to being blessed by God.
Here’s the problem with that mentality: I’M still in control. If I do these things, God WILL, or maybe MUST bless me. It becomes salvation by works, or at least salvation by attitude. Maybe even salvation through your circumstances if you happen to find yourself being persecuted or grieving a significant loss. It’s the attitude that says, “If I can just attain one of these characteristics, I’ll find myself accepted by God.” Christians who read the Beatitudes in this way, and believe me, it’s most of us, find themselves hopelessly guilt-ridden, assuming “For God to bless me, I have to be like that.” Many just give up and figure they’ll do their best at humility, as they misunderstand it from this perspective, or they reject Christianity outright as hopelessly impossible.
Some who understand the Beatitudes in this way jump from guilt to shame because they can’t meet this standard of discipleship to assuming, “Well, these things aren’t for today.” In other words, they’ll mark my life someday when Christ returns and I am transformed. But until then, they don’t have much to offer me.
The problem with that is Jesus’ message in the Gospels. He wasn’t saying “The Kingdom of God is coming.” His primary message, in fact his only message, was “The Kingdom of God is here.” Yes it has a future fulfillment as well, but the Kingdom of God is here now. That was the good news the masses were looking for. They were no longer striving to attain a hopeless standard for some supposed future blessing after death, they were a part of the Kingdom of God now! All the promises for the future held, but they were also, in Christ, becoming a reality in their own lives. Somehow, without doing anything at all on their own, they found that through this peasant teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, they had stumbled and fallen right into the outstretched arms of a loving God. Through no earning on their own, without becoming male, or Jewish, or healthy, or rich, they had made it into the Kingdom of God. Now that’s good news! The Beatitudes aren’t a “how to list.” If that’s the case they introduce a new legalism every bit as deadly as the legalism of the Pharisees.
Now, before we unpack the role these verses play in the coming of the Kingdom, we need to understand what “blessed” means. The phrase “Blessed are …” is an English translation of the Greek word “makarios” which means something similar to “pretty well off” or “those for whom everything is good.” Today we associate being “blessed” with material comfort and happiness or some sort of religious piety. In our culture today the best translation is probably “well off.”
Well off are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Let me say here that “poor in spirit” has nothing to do with our normal conception of it. We tend to assume that it means “those who know they are spiritually destitute.” That isn’t what it means at all. If Jesus were speaking to us today, he might say something like (Dallas Willard) “Blessed are the spiritual zeros – the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of religion – when the Kingdom of Heaven comes upon them. These are people who live a life of spiritual poverty. Spiritual lack. Spiritual nothing. Today it no longer conveys anything of the sort. We’ve whitewashed it, even made it into a praiseworthy condition. Rest assured that being spiritual bankrupt is not praiseworthy. These are people with no spiritual qualifications or abilities at all. They readily admit they can’t make heads or tails of religion and probably that they have no need for it. They aren’t the sort of people church leaders seek out and ask, “What do you think?” They’re typically viewed as hopeless. And yet … “He touched me.”
Let’s look at the rest of Jesus’ list of what Simon and Garfunkel call the “written off, sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” Blessed, well off, are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. A parent in gut-wrenching grief, men and women who’s spouse has left them, those nearing the end of their careers, or who have lost their career, or their business, or their life savings because of an economic downturn. These will find comfort in God’s kingdom here now. If you’ve experienced real grief, you know it isn’t a blessed condition. As someone with significant experience with it, with grief as a constant partner in life for many years now, I can tell you that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But the promise of the kingdom is comfort, not necessarily the removal of grief, but comfort as the loss is experienced.
Well off are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. These are the shy, unassertive, meek and mild, intimidated ones. They never push. They always get out of the way. When others cry out in anger at being treated unfairly they shrink back, unable to find words, retreating into a silent corner, often filled with a rage they cannot find a way to express.
Well off are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. They burn with desire for things to be made right. They have a strong sense of justice. Maybe they have been severely wronged and suffered injustice and are consumed with a longing to see the wrong made right. Or maybe they find the wrong inside themselves. Maybe they failed so badly that day, and they cringe at the thought of what they have done. The affair at the office, the lies to the boss, and they cry out inwardly for the wrong in them to be made right.
Well off are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. We don’t live in a merciful culture. We don’t live in a culture that celebrates self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The merciful leave themselves open to being taken advantage of. At a previous church I served I was responsible for disbursing funds to aid those in need in our community. And we did our best to make sure that the people we helped were not using the system. But rarely can you be 100% sure. People would often ask me, “Yes, but how do you KNOW for sure that their story is true, that they aren’t using the assistance to do something irresponsible, even dangerous?” My response was always the same, “We can’t be 100% sure. Ever. If I know of someone who uses the system we won’t help them. But for the rest, we’ll err on the side of generosity. I’d rather be accused of helping someone not using the resources well than of not helping someone genuinely in need. The merciful are always despised by those who know how to “take care of business.”
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These are the perfectionists. They are the ones for whom nothing is good enough, including themselves. Their food is never right, their clothes and hair are never right, they can tell you exactly what is wrong with everything. How miserable they must be. But at last they will find something that satisfies their pure heart … they will see God. Perhaps there was a Pharisee, maybe a Nicodemus in the crowd. Someone who had spent his life trying to be good enough. Trying to be religious. Trying to be the perfect Jewish man. And he knew he couldn’t do it. As a Pharisee, he knew in his heart no one could do it. We don’t know for sure if there was a Pharisee or two in the crowd or not. But the crowd was large, and those seeking hope found themselves there that day. And we do know that a Pharisee named Nicodemus found Jesus one night, after dark, and questioned him when no one was looking.
Then we have the peacemakers. Outside of the Kingdom of God they are called every name but child of God. They are the ones who wade into conflict and try to smooth things out. Neither side likes them. Neither side trusts them. After all, if you are looking at both sides, you certainly can’t be on MY side.
Then there are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They are attacked because of their stand for what is right, even if culture says it is wrong. And they aren’t suffering momentary trouble or harassment. Their lives have been ruined, their lives have been threatened, or they have been killed for refusing to comply with what is wrong. And lastly there are those who are insulted, persecuted, even lied about because of their stand for Christ.
So what is Jesus’ point here? The kingdom of God is open to everyone. It’s open to you, and to you, and yes, even you. There is no one who is too far gone. No one who doesn’t have what it takes to be a part of God’s kingdom. There is no one who can say, “I don’t meet the criteria.” Every one of us, even those who could never imagine that God would or could do anything good for them can be a part of his people, his community, his kingdom now.