The opening to the Sermon on the Mount is often read like a red letter appendix to the Ten Commandments:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
But as commands, they should strike us as odd. Certainly it makes sense that Jesus could command us to be merciful, or to hunger for righteousness. But what about being mournful, poor, and persecuted? Are we disobeying Jesus then when we are happy, content, and accepted? Is Jesus point that I should do my best to be merciful or else I won’t be shown mercy? Maybe Jesus getting at something else. What if the beatitudes are not commands, but something else entirely?
To understand what Jesus is doing when he gives the Beatitudes, we have to understand the context of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Book of Matthew, there are five extended passages where Jesus teaches which reflect the five books of Moses in the Old Testament; this is the first teaching passage. By doing this, Matthew is showing that Jesus is the new Moses, the new leader of God’s people leading them to a new promised land. But this promised land is not geographical, but spiritual. Jesus is leading his followers to a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, and in this Kingdom, everything changes.
As the opening to the first of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven, the Beatitudes are not stating new commands, but making revolutionary statements about the nature of the kingdom Jesus is bringing to earth. Let’s look at each one:
In our world, the rich and powerful run everything, and all government and industry cater to the needs, but the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor.
In our world, those who mourn are ensured no comfort, but in the Kingdom of Heaven, they are assured comfort in God.
In our world, only the boldest and strongest get power, but in the Kingdom of Heaven, the meek inherit the earth.
And the list continues. In our world the victims are denied justice, the merciful people are taken advantage of as weak, people with evil intentions arise to religious prominence, violent people claim God’s blessing, and persecuted people have no country to call their own. But in the Kingdom of Heaven, every demand for justice will be filled, the merciful are shown mercy, the pure in heart see God, peacemakers are blessed, and the persecuted find a home where they are accepted.
Each of the Beatitudes combats a present condition of our world and replaces it with a new promise of a different kingdom order. Jesus flips the tables on the status quo that had dominated politics, religion, and economics up to his time. Wherever humanity is, we see the old system prevailing, but wherever the Kingdom is, we see the new breaking through. Jesus’ upside down reign changes everything.
Consequently, the beatitudes are not just another list of commands to burden us, but a list of revolutionary kingdom realities meant to embolden us in this life and set us free. Jesus is promising that the Kingdom he brings turns everything wrong with our world on its head, and lifts up the most beaten down and overlooked people of the present. These are realities to declare over situations, truths to encourage us and challenge us when we are tempted to think in agreement with the current order of things. Most of all, they are a promise that wherever Heaven’s reign comes, everything is transformed and turned upside down.
The Beatitudes show us what it will be like when Heaven comes to earth.
And when Heaven comes, righteousness wins.