Matthew 5:1-12 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
We get three weeks of the Sermon on the Mount before Transfiguration Sunday, and we have an opportunity share what this moment is in scripture. We reference the “Sermon on the Mount” regularly, but we never get to read it from start to finish. This is an opportunity to give some insight. So, if you are interested in preaching more thematically or would like to talk a bit about the Sermon on the Mount, check out my separate article on the Sermon on the Mount.
The first thing many preachers and lay leaders may hear is the differences between these beatitudes and the ones we heard this past All Saints Day from Luke (the poor vs. the poor in spirit). And because of this, we may be tempted to talk about which version we prefer (we may find it easier to preach on blessed are the poor and woe to the rich). We may be tempted to pontificate on who wrote them first and who changed them. As R. Alan Culpepper writes, “Did Matthew tilt the beatitude in a spiritual direction, or did Luke tilt it in a socioeconomic direction?” While we can remind people that Matthew and Luke both use this section, we shouldn’t use preference in our preaching here. Both Matthew and Luke use these with a purpose and in aligning our preaching with their purpose, we can open a world of preaching opportunity. But if we preach on our preference and overly compare these two different Gospels, then we give permission to accept one and throw the other out, when in reality they are used for two entirely different purposes.
This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. To this point not a whole lot has taken place. Jesus has been baptized, been in the wilderness with the devil, moved to Capernaum, called the first disciples, and preached and healed across Galilee. This “crowd” that is beginning to follow him are the most dedicated followers he will probably ever have. They have been with him from the start, and some will stay with him all the way until the end.
These followers are like the original devotees that discover a new band while they are still playing late night sets at a local club until 2am. To expand the metaphor further, there are no enemies here. No competing bands, no critics, no reporters, no talent agencies. These are all fans who are here to listen to the music that they’ve come to love (see footnote for Luke’s scene). So, when you have your fans in front of you, you start with your love song for them, the one that will immediately get them singing along with you.
Jesus starts with blessings as God does throughout much of scripture. Blessed was Abraham and his ancestors (Gen 12:1-3). Blessed were the people of Israel (Num 6:23). “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD” (Psalm 118:26). Jesus starts with this immediate blessing. A blessing that will be a comfort to these followers who are leaving everything behind (see the calling of the first disciples); a blessing for those who are wishing for the world to be turned upside down; a blessing for their pursuit of righteousness in a world that will scorn them for living that way. In this blessing, Jesus, who knows what is to come in Jerusalem and after, is giving a blessing for now and for what will come. Jesus is telling them, with love and tenderness, before any hardship will begin, “I see you.”
This is an important distinction that has been argued again and again. To be a disciple does not mean that you must be poor in spirit or that you must mourn first. To be blessed by God, you do not need to be persecuted first. These are experiences of discipleship when living counter to the world. The disciples will experience “little faith” and be poor in spirit in times of trial. The disciples will mourn for their teacher who is killed. The disciples will be persecuted for following the commission at the end of this Gospel, “Go into all the world…”
But here at the very beginning, before any of that has happened, Jesus offers them a blessing. A benediction for their work together.
There is a lot of teaching throughout the Sermon on the Mount but I’m not sure that the Beatitudes are one of those moments (at least not for Matthew). I see this as a Benediction. Jesus really is blessing those who are starting this journey with him. Matthew is blessing his congregation that are joining him. And so, I think that we too could look at it as the blessing that it is: a blessing for the hard work to which we are committing.
Benediction Before the Sending
Throughout all four Gospels, but especially in Matthew, Jesus will call us to live and do ministry in the world but also to actively live counter to systems that harm and exclude others. We will need to leave some things behind. We will need to speak out publicly against oppression, corruption, and injustice. We will need to give of ourselves, our time, and our possessions in order to support, uplift, and empower others and the work of the kingdom. We will be called to enter into places unknown to share the Good News.
But before any of that begins, Jesus gives his disciples a blessing. A benediction.
If you are preaching to community that is underprivileged, has endured hardships, faced oppression, or experienced marginalization, these words are so loving and tender from Jesus. Some of his followers have known oppression from Roman occupation. Some of his followers have faced exclusion from religious tradition. Here Jesus offers these tender words to say that God is with you, your efforts are not in vain, and your life and work for the kingdom are holy and righteous, even if others say that it’s not.
If you are preaching to a community with more privilege, this benediction is loving but it also isn’t without strategy – it might be interpreted as a solid communications move on Jesus’s part. Recently I’ve been rewatching the West Wing with my spouse and we were reminded of the brilliance of CJ Cregg, the fictional White House Press Secretary on the show. She will often talk about leaking some information early to “soften the ground” for harder news to break later on. Perhaps Jesus is softening the ground for those who will be more resistant to the hardships that will come in the ministry ahead. We have an opportunity to soften the ground for our hearers who will struggle with some of the judgment and prophetic language of Matthew as we move forward. We can soften the ground to hear more clearly where the movement of God is taking us.
For neither group (the privileged or the underprivileged) do these words offer protection or insurance against hardship. However, Jesus still offers benediction, for now and for the future. That God is with us. That the work is not in vain.
Getting a little preachy (Where I’m going)
When we think of someone being blessed, it is usually in relation to them being wealthy or prosperous, healthy, employed, strong and powerful. But that’s not where this litany from Jesus goes.
Blessed are you who are poor in spirit…
Blessed are you who mourn…
Blessed are you who are meek…
Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
It’s not the wealthy, powerful, healthy, or the ones whose lives seem to be going according to plan who are getting the focus. It’s these people standing before Jesus, who are desperately seeking hope, seeking change, seeking comfort, seeking healing. It the people seeking an alternative from the things that are consuming them. It’s the people that want to be a part of a movement that will bring about something different.
And here Jesus is not speaking in confounding parables. He’s not speaking to just a small group of disciples while others overhear. Jesus is speaking directly to the people standing in front of him, who are eager for a word of hope. Jesus is speaking directly to anyone who can hear these words. Even us.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 88.
 This contrasts with Luke’s scene where the crowd is intermixed with disciples, newcomers, and maybe religious leaders because he had just interacted with them. Luke offers blessings and also woes to this mixed gathering. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is far more conflict driven because of the audience there to hear it.