It is one of those memories that still causes me shame. Years ago, I was attending a meeting in Washington, D.C. One evening, I had some time to kill, so I went walking the streets not far from the White House. I was about to turn in a bookstore and do some browsing when a street person approached me.
It was getting late. I wasn’t familiar with downtown D.C. Frankly, I was a little frightened. For some shameful reason, I put my hand up, palm outward, in his face. Much like a traffic crossing guard, I directed him away from me. No words were exchanged. I just brushed him off without so much as a “Hello,” not to mention, “Can I help you?” I’ve often wondered what Jesus thought about me when he saw me behave so selfishly.
In this study, we come to the Sermon on the Mount, which answers my social ethics question, among many others, especially with this text in Matthew 5. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ seminal sermon. Everything Jesus ever said or did before and after the sermon can be traced back to it. It’s teachings run as a common theme throughout the rest of Jesus’ public ministry. It would not be a bad idea at all to read the entire New Testament using the Sermon on the Mount as the lenses through which we read.
Over the last several years, there has been a significant shift in the way people describe those we traditionally call “Christians.” Many have opted for a more graphic, action-oriented word, “Jesus followers.”
In the sermon, we have those wonderful and familiar teachings of Jesus, especially when we are broken, downhearted or completely lost. There also are those terrifically difficult teachings of Jesus that are warnings about not living a shallow life.
At the very beginning of the sermon, Jesus also did something that teaches every bit as much as anything he said. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and after he sat down … .”
Jesus sat down to teach. His words contain what are commonly known as the beatitudes. They were words laser-focused on wounded, bleeding hearts and souls. Words shaped specifically to salve wounds in places in people’s souls where only God can see. Words so powerful they still comfort and encourage 20-plus centuries after Jesus spoke them. They are invaluable words.
Before he spoke them, however, Jesus sat down. He got down on the people’s level. He entered into their world. In doing so, Jesus followed the pattern set from the beginning. “In the beginning, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John records in the first chapter of his Gospel.
It is the way of God, not to leave us hanging in our sin but to enter our world as one of us. In a sense, Jesus levels the playing field by demonstrating how God enters our suffering with us.
It was the tradition of rabbis to teach from a sitting position. In Jesus’ case, however, sitting down before he said a word, went beyond tradition all the way to speak volumes about Jesus’ spirit, God’s own heart, for those who are suffering and struggling with life.
We spend so much time focused on how to get people to come to church. At the very beginning of the gospel record, however, we have, in Jesus, a Great Commission example to follow. Fulfilling the Great Commission doesn’t begin with a call to others to come to us. It begins with our willingness to go into their world, to sit where they sit and, in so doing, not only saying that we care but, in following Jesus’ example, proving it with our very bodies. That good news is best shared on the level others are suffering.
These first words in the sermon are quite literally words of blessing. Tweaking the fine-tuned difference between the root meaning of the word as “happy” instead of “blessed” is not as important as understanding the spirit of them. Jesus pronounces his followers as already blessed, at the beginning.
Jesus’ Father blessed him when he was baptized. “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), Jesus heard from heaven. It was the blessing of his father on his life before he did or taught one thing for which we have biblical record. Jesus had his Father’s blessing to live out of from the beginning, not to work toward hoping to achieve it.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “pays it forward,” passes the blessing along. In so doing, he empowered those gathered that day and generations of Jesus-followers to come. If we have to work for the blessing of God, we end our days frustrated and frightened, always wondering if we’d ever be good enough to get the blessing. When we know we have our heavenly Father’s blessing from the start, we live out of it, able to pass the blessing of God to others, just as Jesus passed it along to us already.
Grace and happiness are not the end result of having achieved, Jesus is saying. They are fuel for the journey with which God gifts us at the beginning, just as the heavenly Father did Jesus at his baptism, at the beginning.
This series of lessons will help us follow Jesus wherever he leads us from here by first going back and learning from his example. Blessed are those who do so.