When I was teaching Sociology, on one of the first days of class I would ask, “How many of you are math majors, or are seeking a degree or profession where math is extremely important?” A similar question was, “How many of you are good at math and absolutely love math?” I would then, tongue in cheek, explain that if you loved math, you may have a hard time in Sociology. Why? Because Sociology is not nice and neat. In Sociology, you never quite know anything for certain. Math is easy. Either two plus two equals four, or it doesn’t. The solution to a math problem is either right or wrong. There is no in between. You don’t get credit for being “almost right.” Math is “black and white,” and does not change. Sociology is “gray” and is always changing. In math there is only one correct answer. In Sociology, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Can two opposite answers both be true? For a mathematician the answer is “NO!” For a sociologist the answer is, “ABSOLUTELY!” Someone who loves math struggles with contradictions, or what sociologists call, paradoxes. The teachings of Jesus are filled with paradoxes. Below are a few examples, from Matthew’s gospel alone:
- “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32).
- “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
- “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
Transition to Text
The beatitudes are a series of nine paradoxes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…” (Matthew 5:3-12). When we experience those kinds of things, we rarely think of them as blessings. More often than not, experiencing things like Jesus mentioned makes us conclude that life just isn’t fair.
Through these nine paradoxical statements, Jesus is trying to teach us that even when life isn’t fair, His followers still experience favor. When we choose to follow Jesus through the unfairness of life we are blessed. We are approved by God as faithful.
The large crowds following Jesus were people who had been beaten up by the unfairness and injustices of life. They were the marginalized and forgotten about. They were the sick and the suffering and the oppressed (see Matthew 4:23-25). They were His disciples, and Jesus was reminding them how blessed they really were. The Apostle Paul, who knew what it was like to suffer and be mistreated, testifies that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He then concluded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). In the words of Mother Teresa, “You will never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you’ve got.” That’s what it means to be “blessed.”
The beatitudes, in fact, the entire Sermon on the Mount, must be interpreted through Jesus’ words upon His return to His hometown synagogue. In His first sermon as a Rabi, Jesus, quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The people in the crowd, hearing Jesus speak, were the poor, the formerly incarcerated, the sick, and the oppressed. They were people needing hope in this life, as well as the life to come. They were people who had suffered injustices. Before we individualize and spiritualize Jesus words, let’s not overlook His audience and the reality of what they were experiencing. There are both practical and spiritual applications to Jesus’ teachings. Let’s not forsake one for the other.
The beatitudes, as well as the entirety of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, were about life in God’s kingdom and what it means to be a citizen of His kingdom. His teachings were about an alternative way of living. Jesus’ teachings where not how to be happy and successful in this life, but rather how to live and act, in this life, as citizens of God’s kingdom.
You become a citizen of God’s kingdom through repentance and faith (Mark 1:15). A key aspect of life (and ethics) in God’s kingdom is justice because justices is the outgrowth of God’s holiness. Justice is what God’s holiness looks like in public. So, for sake of simplicity, the nine beatitudes can be categorized into three sets of three; each dealing with justice and injustice. Here is a working outline, and where we are headed over the next three Sundays:
- Blessed are those who have experienced injustice (Matthew 5:3-5), the first three beatitudes.
- Blessed are those who fight for justice (Matthew 5:6-8), beatitudes four, five, and six.
- Blessed are those who do not become bitter and vengeful living in an unjust society (Matthew 5:9-12), the final three beatitudes.
Life ain’t fair. Often things do not go as planned. Everyone is speeding, but you are the one pulled over for a ticket. You work hard, but someone else, based on things you can’t control like race, gender, economics, or the “good ole boy” system, gets the promotion. After all, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” You live a healthy life, and try to always do right, but you get cancer, or are involved in an accident, or lose a loved one to soon. It’s just not fair! We all know, “Only the good die young.” What you need to hear this morning is Jesus say, “Don’t lose faith. There is hope. God’s kingdom is different. You are blessed.”
Consider Nigerian pastor, Rev. Lawan Andimi. On January 3rd of this year, Rev. Andimi was kidnapped and held for ransom by an Islamic extremist group in Nigeria. In a video released by his captors, Rev. Andimi calls on fellow Christian leaders, and the government, to secure his release. Despite the situation, in the video, Rev. Andimi said he was not discouraged because “all conditions that one finds himself is in the hand of God.” He continued, “By the grace of God, I will be together with my wife and children and all my colleagues…If the opportunity has not been granted, maybe it is the will of God.” On Monday, January 20th, Rev. Lawan Andimi was beheaded by his captors.
How is that fair? How is that anything but unjust? What would Jesus say about the senseless killing of Rev. Andimi? What would Jesus say to his widow and his children? What are they to do in the middle of this tragedy?
What Jesus says to the believers in Nigeria, and to us in Franklin, TN who have experienced injustice is, “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” (Matthew 5:3-5). Through these first three “blessed” statements, Jesus is saying if you experience injustice, but through that experience you continue to place your hope and trust in God, you are approved by God and highly favored. You are truly blessed!
Let’s take a closer look at these three statements.
First, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 5). We took a close look at this statement last week, so I will be brief. Among other things, the word translated “poor” implies being economically poor due to oppression by the rich. It refers to people who are poor and who are kept poor because the deck is stacked against them. When facing such injustice, if we learn dependence, simplicity, humility, and community (see last week’s sermon) we are “poor in spirit,” and will receive the “kingdom of heaven.” We will receive the promise of a better life to come that gives us hope in the present.
Jesus continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (v. 5). It is important to point out that these statements do not stand independent from the other statements. In actuality, the statements build on each other. So, who is it that are mourning and what is it that is causing them to mourn?
It is those in the crowd, His followers, His disciples that are mourning. It is the injustice of poverty that causes the blessed to grieve and be remorseful. God told His people in Deuteronomy 15:4, “…there should be no poor among you…” Yet, there are poor people all around us and all over the world. Clearly, something is not right!
Sometimes it is our personal sins that cause and contribute to the injustice of poverty. At other times it is social sins, and at even more times it is the broken systems we have created that keep people down. Be it personal, social, or systemic, our sins and the resulting injustices should break our hearts! Hearing stories like that of Rev. Andimi should cause us to weep. But so should the plight of immigrants at our border and drug addicts in our streets. Our own sins, sins of commission (what we do), sins of omission (what we don’t do) and sins of complicity (not caring one way or another), should trouble us and move us to repentance followed by action. In fact, it was not weeping for poverty, and not repenting over sins, and not being moved to action, that caused God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Speaking of the destruction of that wicked city, the prophet Ezekiel said, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters (Gomorrah and the surrounding cities) were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
Later in his Gospel, Matthew tells us, “Jesus went through all the town and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35). Sound a whole lot like what He said introducing the Sermon on the Mount, doesn’t it? Then Matthew says, “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
What do you see when you see people trapped in poverty, be it economic or spiritual or systemic or as a result of sinful lifestyles and poor decisions? If you want to be blessed you will mourn and be grieved and filled with sorrow, both for them and for yourself. Then, and only then, will you be “comforted.”
Third, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5). We usually understand and interpret the word “meek” to mean humble, quiet, and gentle. I’ve often heard it said that meekness is not weakness, but power under control. All those words and definitions may be true, but there is another aspect of meekness that fits the meaning and context of what Jesus has already said and is saying. Another aspect of meekness is to be powerless, to have no social standing, or, the inability to do anything about the situation in which you find yourself.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were completely vulnerable and powerless? Have you ever been in a situation where you were completely helpless and hopeless? Where your only option was to let go and completely trust in the sovereign will of God? This is exactly what Rev. Andimi meant when he said, “all conditions that one finds himself is in the hand of God.” Have you ever hoped, and prayed, things would be different?
Sometimes life ain’t fair and there are injustices all around us. Jesus says that through it all, if you keep following Him and keep trusting in Him, you are “blessed” and approved by God and one day you “will inherit the earth.” One day things will be set right. One day things will change and get better. Right now, you may seem powerless, but one day, you will conquer and all the earth will be yours. This promise harkens us back to God’s promise to Abraham. God said to Abraham, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3). A reminder that the kingdom of God, the promises to Abraham, came into reality (and continues to come into reality) through Jesus Christ.
As I was reflecting on this passage this week, I googled some memes about life being unfair. Here are a few that I found:
- “Dear life, I understand clearly that you are not fair so you can stop teaching me that lesson.”
- “Life is not fair. Sometimes you get a splinter even sliding down a rainbow.”
- “Life is not fair. Get used to it.” (Bill Gates)
- “Life may not be fair. But God is always faithful” (Toby Mac).
- After reading those, and dozens more, and after reflecting on Jesus’ words, I was inspired to create my own meme. It says, “I will take God’s favor or life’s fairness, any day of the week.”
Through the pages of Scripture, we are part of the crowd on the mountainside listening to the teachings of Jesus. We’ve all come from different places and we all have different needs and expectations and ideas of what Jesus is saying and doing. What injustices have you had to endure in your life? Have your hopes been dashed and your dreams shattered? Are you tired of the unfairness and inequality you see around you? Are you just worn out and beat up from another difficult week?
But through it all, the good and the bad and the ups and the downs, you are still following Jesus, still hoping and trusting in Him. Yes, some days your faith is strong and other days it is weak. But it is always there. And God is always faithful.
If you feel this way, or have ever felt this way, guess what? In reality you are blessed. Here are the words of Jesus for you today, “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” (Matthew 5:3-5).
Life ain’t fair, but God is faithful.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.