The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are among the most famous words of Jesus, and the most difficult to understand.
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:Matthew 5:1-12
‘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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'”
What does that mean? Am I supposed to be poor in spirit? Does Jesus want me to be in mourning?
The Key to Understanding the Beatitudes
It’s always important to pay attention to context, and I heard Tim Mackie say something about this passage’s context that has completely changed my understanding of the Beatitudes. He made the point that the crowds Matthew mentions in v.1 are described in the previous verses at the end of chapter 4:
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”Matthew 4:23-25
The crowd to which Jesus is speaking the Beatitudes is made up of the sick, the broken, the down-trodden, the unimportant, etc. And it is to those people that Jesus says, “you are blessed.” Why? Because Jesus has brought the Kingdom to them!
That insight has made all the difference to me. All of those people–the poor in spirit, the mourning, the ones who hunger for righteousness–all of those people find the answer in Jesus, who is ushering in the Kingdom.
And you know what? It’s still the same today.