The Sermon on the Mount is still causing people to shake their heads in wonder and confusion. Who can live like this? What is this teaching really about? Who are the Blessed? Who’d want to be? ♦
We had another grandchild born this past week. Our 9th. Many people are sending congratulations and commented that we are “blessed.” Blessed. That’s a very popular word. Webster’s dictionary defines it as follows: happy or prosperous in worldly affairs, enjoying spiritual happiness and the favor of God.
That’s understandable and works for the good and happy things that happen to people in life. Who wouldn’t want to be “blessed” in all matters of our daily existence?
What’s confusing for many though is when Jesus uses the B-word in his Sermon on the Mount. I’ll insert the word “Happy” here (the Greek word for blessed, makarios, means happy) to help it perhaps be more accessible. Nevertheless the text can be confounding:
“Blessed (Happy) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (Happy) are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed (Happy) are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed (Happy) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed (Happy) are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed (Happy) are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed (Happy)are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed (Happy) are those persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (Happy) are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:3-12
Yes, the Sermon on the Mount today is still causing people to shake their heads in wonder and confusion. Who can live like this? What is this teaching really about? Who really are the Blessed?
Who’d want to be?
Texas A&M Class Assignment
I heard this week about a college freshman writing assignment at Texas A&M University on the Sermon on the Mount. Upon investigation, I discovered the story was referenced in a 2012 mini-sermon by Dr. Timothy Keller, the well-known pastor/author at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The instructor was actually Virginia Stem Owens, who documented it in an 1987 article, God and Man at Texas A&M, published in Reformed Journal.
Expecting some reverence and piety in the student’s responses, the instructor was surprised at what she read from students coming primarily from a conservative even marginally Bible Belt part of the country. Here are some of the statements:
- “In my opinion religion is one big hoax.”
- “There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read’ and it applies in this case.”
- “It is hard to believe something that was written down thousands of years ago.”
- “In the Bible Adam and Eve were the first two people and if they were then where did black people come from? Also the Bible says nothing about dinosaurs and I think God would of mentioned them.”
- “The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.”
- “I did not like the essay ‘Sermon the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.”
- “The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery? That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.”
The instructor began to realize that many of these responses were coming from a position of naiveté or religious illiteracy rather than maliciousness. As she says, “There is something exquisitely innocent about not realizing you shouldn’t call Jesus stupid.” She laments the growing Biblical illiteracy of her time and what it bodes for coming generations. Note that this Texas A&M class assignment was conducted in 1987. Considering the state of the college-age generations today and their continued waning Biblical literacy, her fears were well founded.
On the other hand, she points out that with the neutering and stripping away of cultural religious binds, today’s modern culture may perhaps be ripe for a new wave of Biblical teaching, even open to the teachings of Christ. In many ways today’s secular society is similar to the hedonistic culture of the Roman Empire.
Blessed in a Backwards Kingdom
But I bring you back to the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically the Beatitudes section. Certainly here and the teachings of Jesus in general can and did create a sense of loss, inferiority, even despair in the hearts and minds of His audience. Who can achieve such standards? How can I ever achieve such righteousness? Who wants to live in poverty? Who wants to go hungry? Who wants no social standing or authority? Who wants to not have fun and live a little? Who wants to be sad?
Nobody does. It’s not normal. And that’s the point.
The Kingdom of God, heralded by John the Baptist at the onset of the 3-year ministry of Jesus, and espoused by Christ throughout His teachings (as in the Sermon on the Mount), and ushered in by the death and resurrection of Christ, and then the releasing of the Holy Spirit on earth at Pentecost, was anything but normal. In fact, it didn’t/doesn’t make sense. It seemed/seems backwards, illogical.
Which is actually the life of one following Christ. It’s counter-intuitive. But then upon further review it actually starts to make sense. Try looking at it this way:
“Blessed (Happy) are those who submit their heart, mind, and soul to the Lord Jesus, as they see their own spiritual poverty; who ache, even mourn over their own brokenness, loss and depravity; who resist the world’s status and humbly hold others better than themselves; who selflessly seek goodness and right behavior in themselves and others; who are gentle, kind and caring in all situations they encounter; who resist dark impurities of heart and mind in favor of holy purity in all things; who seek love and peace and drive others toward those goals; who can absorb the hurt, pain and rejection, even persecution, of an anti-Christian culture that does not yet know truth. Be blessed, be happy, for the Lord will always be with you.”
This way of living is beyond the norm. It’s actually impossible in our own will and humanness. It is only possible through the transforming, saving grace of Christ. After years of Mike-Christianity, I ultimately submitted my own life and human will to God – it actually started with a simple prayer I repeated in many different situations: “Jesus, I can’t do this alone.”
Then my world became counter-intuitive. It became different. Now, like other imperfect but devoted Christ-followers, I can daresay I am blessed.
Are you blessed?
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. – 2 Corinthians 9:8