We don’t remember great leaders simply for who they were or what they did, but also for the things they said. George Washington’s Inaugural speech as president and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, come to mind. So does Winston Churchill’s speech in May 1940:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat; and his stirring and challenging words the following month: ‘We will fight on the beaches… We will never surrender …’
The greatest speech? What we often overlook is that the speech of Jesus of Nazareth known as the Sermon on the Mount, is generally regarded as one of the finest speeches ever.
Significantly, Matthew has not recorded any words of Jesus before his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ thus giving it greater weight. In the previous chapters (1-4) Matthew develops one vital theme: Jesus is God’s long-promised Messiah. Jesus, we find, stands in the line of the great kings of Israel: he is a descendent of the greatest of all Israel’s kings, King David (1:1). Significantly, foreigners called the Magi, come and worship him as king (2:1-6). At his baptism (3:14-17), Jesus is called God’s ‘Son’, a title uniquely reserved for the kings of Israel (Psalm 2). By the time we get to the end of Matthew 4, we learn that people have come to hear Jesus from every corner of the vast empire that David and Solomon had ruled in the golden age of Israel’s history (4:23-25).
Now in chapter 5 Matthew introduces us to the first words of the king – what we might call ‘The King’s Speech’.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,… Jesus began. How easy it is to say these words. Yet as we will see over the coming weeks, they are challenging and disturbing.
What does it mean to be ‘blessed’? ‘Happy’ is a poor substitute. Those who are blessed will generally be profoundly happy, but blessedness cannot be reduced to happiness. To be ‘blessed’ means to be approved, or to find approval. When God blesses us he is approving us.
JESUS’ CHALLENGE TO US
Jesus’ first words challenge us to ask, ‘Whose blessing do I want more – other people’s or God’s?’ Do we covet more the blessing of family or friends or of a superior at work? Jesus wants us to see that God’s blessing is worth infinitely more than anything else. If we agree with him, then his beatitudes speak to us very personally and very deeply.
One significant feature is that the first and last beatitudes promise the same reward. The first is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The last is:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. To begin and end with the same expression is called an ‘inclusion’. Everything that stands between the two can be included under the one theme – here, the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ Beatitudes set out the standards that he, as the king, expects of his people. They serve to introduce the Sermon on the Mount which, taken as a whole, sets out what we might call the constitution of God’s kingdom. Jesus is not interested in people who live a veneer of holy living. He is committed to seeing lives of integrity – integrity in the home, in all our relationships, in the world of commerce and on the field of play, in completing tax returns and in the use of the internet, in the movies we watch and the magazines we devour.
When, by God’s grace we work at living out Jesus’ words, then we discover God’s blessing.