Matthew 5:1-12: Blessed Are You

Take a moment to think about your blessings, to count your blessings, as the saying goes. You might even jot them down in the margins of your bulletin. In the next minute, list silently in your head or in writing in your bulletin all of the blessings you can think of.

{Give folks a minute}

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that it is very common for Chris and me, when we are sitting out on our deck enjoying a cigar and a glass of whiskey, to turn our thoughts and our conversation to the many ways in which we feel blessed. I think it is because we enjoy this time together so much, and we realize that things like good cigars, good whiskey, and time to sit and enjoy them are precious commodities. When we think of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world—all 7.8 billion of us—we are immensely fortunate, and our good fortune is largely undeserved, largely a function of circumstances beyond our control: where and when we were born, the families we were born into, and the opportunities that came our way because of these things.

And what do we count when we count our blessings? That we have good jobs, a relatively good house to live in, good health and good doctors to visit when become unhealthy, plenty of food to eat and enough income that we really don’t have to think twice about what we spend when we go to buy that food, kids who have grown up to be responsible and independent, hobbies and activities that we like to engage in and the time and resources to engage in them, a good marriage, reliable cars, friends, family, a sweet pet that we dote on. I could go on and on and on.

I’ll bet that many of the things that I’ve just listed are in your lists too. For usually when we count our blessings we are counting the things we have, the things we believe we need in order to be happy. And it’s true that we can and should be grateful for all of these things. They support our lives and our families and enable us to do good work in the world. Jesus himself says of the material things that we need, “Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32).

So doesn’t it seem a little odd that when Jesus counts our blessings, his list is so different from ours: Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst? Blessed are the persecuted? What is going on here? Jesus spends so much of his ministry with the poor, restoring the lives of those who are mourned, lifting up the meek, feeding the hungry, and giving refuge to the persecuted that it is impossible for us to think that he really expects the poor, the grieving, the downtrodden, the hungry, and the persecuted to simply accept their lot and be happy with it. His whole life speaks against such resignation.

So what does he mean? Another stories in Matthew’s gospel gives us a clue:

[One time] the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matthew 18:1-7)

In this story, the disciples of Jesus are craving prestige, reputation, and a place of honor in the kingdom of heaven, but Jesus upends their expectations by placing among them a little child of humble circumstance, a little child who has nothing. And then he points out the inevitability of encountering stumbling blocks when we walk a spiritual path.

All over the gospels, Jesus talks about the stumbling blocks to walking a spiritual path, and many of them have corollaries in the Beatitudes:

Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25) 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. (Luke 16:25) 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:46-47) 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

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

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:19-21) 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 22:2-4) 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

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

Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, . . . Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 

Riches, arrogance, indifference to suffering, violence, pride of reputation, grudging, injustice, self-securing, calculating . . . these are the stumbling blocks that the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees . . . sometimes even the disciples themselves . . . and definitely we ourselves encounter on the path toward seeking the kingdom of God.

The poor, the gentle, the ones who can cry with the suffering of the world, the non-violent, those who risk their reputations for truth, the merciful, the just, the persecuted, the pure in heart . . . these are the ones who have already emptied themselves of the temptations that trip us up on our spiritual path. That’s why they are blessed. That’s why they are happy. They have nothing else to lose and everything to gain. Jesus turns our notions of blessedness and happiness upside down and shakes them out. May we be so blessed as we walk our own spiritual paths. Amen.