Last week, people across the country were shocked to hear the news about the death of Kobe Bryant. It was one of those moments where people from all different stripes were united in shock and grief. He was extremely widely known—even I knew who Kobe was, and I don’t keep up with sports. There was an outpouring of mourning, people naming how he’d captured imaginations, people lifting up prayers for his family.
And then there was another reaction that came about. I started seeing it on Facebook that many people were taking the opportunity to name people who weren’t recognized by the news who had experienced tragedy. Names of people who weren’t famous but were no less tragic of losses. Now, we should never shame people for who they grieve. But the very widespread and unified grief around Kobe has shown up in other famous people as well—David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Prince, and others. Society has a way of showing who is considered important.
So when we hear the words of Jesus this morning, as he’s beginning the Sermon on the Mount, we get to hear who he says is important, who is honored, who is blessed. It’s a laundry list of people who would definitely not warrant getting their name remembered by strangers—people beaten down by the unforgiving cruelty of society, people whose lives are filled with mourning, people who long for justice but are powerless to make it happen. Jesus lifts up these people in the Beatitudes and centers their experience in a world that pushes them all the way to the margins.
Now, we’ve been reading the Beatitudes for about 2,000 years now. Honestly, saying something for that long it only makes sense that some of the sharpness, the shock of what Jesus said would be blunted. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the peacemakers” makes for a really good Hallmark card or needlepoint. But it’s not just the time that’s softened the hard edges of these words; we’re already geared to want to ignore the very people Jesus names as “blessed.” They’re really ripe for slanting away from their meaning.
A really funny way this has been shown is in the very funny and very blasphemous Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the scene where they’re at the Sermon on the Mount, the main character stands with a group of others at the very, very back of the crowd, and naturally, they can’t understand what Jesus is saying. There’s a lot of back-and-forth about “I can’t hear” “Be quiet so I can hear” and all of that, but one line sticks out when Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers.”
Well, the ones in the back mishear it as “blessed are the cheesemakers,” which lifts up some confusion until a rich-looking guy says “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” Which is both hilarious and, maybe unexpectedly for the Monty Python team, really on-point for how the Beatitudes have been misunderstood. Not taking the words literally has always been an easy way to soften the impact of just how shocking Jesus’ words are.
So to get out of that non-literal way of reading them, think about the people who would have gathered to hear his words. Just before our reading today, Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout the region, healing the sick, casting out demons, and bringing hope to the hopeless. The people—the crowd—that had gathered was made up of people who had just experienced his miracle-working. So when he says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus isn’t just saying a nice theological phrase into the void.
He’s looking directly at the person who has been so completely ground down by poverty, whose whole worth has been dismissed by everyone they’ve met, who has accepted that they are not even worth other’s time, and he says “blessed are you; yours is the kingdom of God.” He’s looking at the person who has just experienced a terrible loss, one that absolutely shattered their world and now they’re not sure they’ll ever be okay, and he says “blessed are you; you will be comforted.” And he’s looking at the person who has felt the weight of the Empire on them, living in fear of the authorities even though they’ve done nothing wrong, longing for a more just world, and he says “blessed are you, you will be filled with justice.”
And even more, Jesus isn’t speaking these very real words to very real people in a vacuum. The mountain he climbed up wasn’t some lonely peak isolated in the desert. Instead, it’s a hill within spitting distance of Capernaum, an important city on the Sea of Galilee. It’s not that far from where fishermen and villagers mixed and traded. There was a lot of foot traffic very close to where Jesus was preaching. And Jesus was stating that the world was being turned upside down in full view of the very people who had the most to lose from that changing of the guard.
The Beatitudes—and in fact, the whole Sermon on the Mount—was very provocative because of who it said was important. It said that the people we avoid on the street because it would be too uncomfortable to interact with them are beloved by God. It said that the people who we are so happy we are not them because of the tragedy that’s happened in their lives are the very people God holds closest. It said that the people whose work for peace is so tragically sincere that we pity them for being so blind are the ones who will see God. It said that all the people we’ve deemed unworthy or untouchable or pitiful are the people who have God’s own favor.
And the challenge of the Beatitudes is what we do with that information. Jesus has stated in no uncertain terms that it’s those people that God loves first. Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount by outlining exactly who this kingdom prioritizes. And the question we are called to answer as Christians is: will we work to make the world reflect that kingdom? Will we reflect God’s favor for the poor, the broken, the meek, the peacemakers? Will we join Jesus in upending the way the world always favors the rich, powerful, boastful, and bullying?
The Beatitudes aren’t just nice phrases to comfort those on the margins. They are reminders to us that God has made the last first and the first last in the kingdom, and our reality needs to catch up with God’s. They are words of comfort, but they’re also words of action. If we know this is what God is making the world look like, then we ought to be part of making it happen. We’re called to reflect a world where the poor are honored, the mourners are comforted, those hungry for justice are filled, and the peacemakers are hailed. And if we’re persecuted for seeking to make the world reflect the kingdom, then I suppose we too can count ourselves among the blessed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.