Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12a

Job Description For A Saint

What qualities make a person a “saint?”

Have you ever met someone you considered a “saint?” There are many people who strife to live ethical lives, and many Christians who are active in their church communities. Far from perfection, these people are broken to a certain extent. Those who puff up their reputations as good or holy people usually have something to hide. Those who try and allow their frailty to be shown are the real saints.

Jesus sat with his followers and defined the “saint.” He implied the “saint” was the person who was happy despite the conditions of the world. The saint was happy, even blessed, because he or she could see the Kingdom would soon arrive.

Popular Translation

1 When Jesus saw all the people, he went up a hill and sat down. His followers drew near. 2 And Jesus taught them:

3 God blesses those with humble hearts. He rules over them now and forever!

4 God blesses the sad people. He will make them feel better!

5 God blesses those without power. He will give them a place in his land!

6 God blesses those who are eager to do what he wants. He will satisfy them!

7 God blesses those who forgive others. He will forgive them!

8 God blesses those who love him most of all. They will see him!

9 God blesses those who make peace. He will call them his children!

10 God blesses those who suffer because they follow him and try to do what is right. He rules over them now and forever!

11 God blesses you when people insult you, punish you, and spread lies about you, just because you follow me. 12 After all, God’s prophets suffered in the same way long before you were born. So, grin with a big smile! God will give you a huge gift in heaven!

In his record of the Beatitudes, Matthew stressed the spiritual life had the cost of slander and persecution. Yet, God would reward the faithful with his reign.

Literal Translation

1 Seeing the crowds, HE went up onto the mountain. When HE sat down, his disciples came to HIM (for instruction). 2 Opening HIS mouth, HE taught them, saying:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

4 Blessed are the mourners, for they will receive comfort.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

6 Blessed are (those) hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (from God).

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called ‘sons of God.’

10 Blessed are the persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 Blessed are you when they revile you, persecute you, and, [falsely], say all (kinds of) evil against you on my account. 12a Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

5:1-2 Matthew portrayed a teaching moment. In ancient schooling, a teacher would sit on a chair while his students sat on the ground. The raised level of the teacher was a sign of status and respect. Teachers in the synagogues sat on the “chair of Moses,” indicating the teacher spoke in the tradition of the Law-giver.

The image Matthew used recalled a revelation from God. Jesus, like God at Mt. Sinai and other scenes, spoke from the mountain top. The people gathered below to hear God’s word. Jesus sat and his disciples gathered around him, with the intention of receiving instruction.

5:3 “poor in spirit...” The term “poor” could be equated with “the common people.” In the time of Jesus ninety percent of the population were poor. With poverty so prevalent, the poor could not stand out as a special, closed group. After the Babylonian exile, the “poor” even referred to those in the Diaspora. Hence, the term “poor” had a general meaning.

Matthew differentiated this beatitude from Luke’s with the addition of “in spirit.” Scholars dispute whether the addition changed the meaning of the “poor.” In context, Matthew seemed to say everyone (“the poor”) belonged to the Kingdom, even the rich who acted justly with the common people (“in spirit”). Did everyone want to enter the Kingdom? That was the question of faith.

5:3, 5 These beatitudes echo Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn. (RSV)

The parallels between theses two beatitudes is obvious. The poor are victims that God will care for in his reign. All mourners will be comforted. What is in heaven (5:3), should be on earth (5:5). Many scholars believe verse 5 should follow verse 3 to make the parallel clear.

5:6 “righteousness” is the equivalent to God’s will and human cooperation with his will. It can be loosely translated “to do God’s will.”

5:8 The word “clean” means “kosher.” Psalm 24:3-4 emphasized the importance of clean (“kosher”) hands and heart to worship the Lord in the Temple:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. (RSV)

In the light of the Psalm, this beatitude referred to the attitude and result of sincere worship.

5:9 With the Jewish-Christian undertones of Matthew, peace was the equivalent to “Shalom,” the sense that all was right between God and humanity, all was right within the human community. But, there was a problem. Only God could give true peace, just as only God could call humans his “children.” Matthew seemed to imply the “peacemakers” are those who participate in God’s Shalom.

5:11 “revile” meant slander as well as direct verbal abuse. Later Jewish rabbis considered these insults (both direct and indirect) more evil than idolatry, sexual infidelity, and bloodshed combined! Such comments robbed one of reputation and even of livelihood.

All nine of Matthew’s beatitudes stressed the coming of God’s kingdom. Matthew wrote eight of his beatitudes in the third person (“they” as opposed to “you” or “us”). He directed the results of the beatitude to the future:

The Kingdom (5:3,10)

A time of comforting (5:4)

Inheriting the (Promised) land (5:5)

A time to receive righteousness and mercy (5:6,7)

A vision of God (5:8)

A relationship to God as his child (5:9)

The final beatitude bridged the activities of the previous eight (awareness of spiritual need, meekness, striving for justice, etc.) with their results in the Kingdom. [5:11-12] Here, Matthew wrote directly to the disciples: “Blessed are you (second person, plural) when you are persecuted; your reward will be in heaven.” So, with a spiritual disposition or activity that leads to a promised reward, Matthew urged his readers to delay self-fulfillment, contentment, need fulfillment, or public recognition for something greater. According to Matthew, the followers of Jesus should be willing to suffer in order to see the Kingdom and the joy it brings.

Matthew presented these beatitudes as the height of Jesus’ teaching. Just like God took Moses up Mt. Sinai and gave him the Law, Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain and taught them. [5:1-2] The mountain represented a place of intimacy with God; the Teacher represented God’s word and wisdom. In Matthew’s gospel, the setting was an opportunity for intense reflection and insight.

Who are the “blessed?” When we compare Luke’s beatitudes with Matthew’s four groups stand out:

Beatitude

Matthew

Luke

Group

1st

5:3

6:20

Poor

2nd

5:4

6:20-21

Mourners

3rd

5:6

6:21a

Striving for Righteousness

4th

5:11-12

6:22-23

Persecuting Christians

In Luke, the poor and the mourners were the results the economic conditions Jesus and his followers lived in; those striving for righteousness (“right living”) followed personal and social activities; those living openly as Christians, a new sect, invited criticism and prejudice from an uninformed populace. For Luke, the beatitudes were directed at the victims of social conditions found in the Roman Empire. The “blessed” were those who could live out the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the spirit to accept the things I cannot change, the power to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The reward for living out the prayer was the Kingdom.

Matthew refocused these four beatitudes away from social condition and placed it upon spiritual disposition. The poor became the “poor in spirit,” those who know they depend on God for all things [5:3]. The mourners who suffered from economic or social strife became those who mourn from spiritual poverty in culture [5:4]. Striving for righteousness became more of a personal struggle than activities for social change. [5:6] Only the last beatitude remained the same; those who lived as Christians would be persecuted. [5:11-12]

The other beatitudes reflected Matthew’s insights on blessedness as a spiritual pursuit. The meek, not the proud or arrogant, would receive the earth (i.e., the Promised Land); in this case, the earth was the arena of the Kingdom [5:5]. In the end, the merciful would receive in like measure [5:7]. Those whose sole focus was upon God (the “pure of heart”) would see the Master [5:8]. Those who worked for harmony in the community and in the world would be recognized as God’s children [5:9]. Those who lived a life based upon commitment instead of convenience, those who were willing to stand up to criticism for a principle, would be saved [5:10]; this passage is reinforced the ninth beatitude on persecution.

Matthew wrote for a Jewish-Christian audience. The followers in Matthew’s community lived by edicts, rules, and guidelines of the Jewish Law. Matthew highlighted the beatitudes of Jesus as the way to live a highly structured life. The beatitudes pointed to awareness of spiritual need, humility, peaceful living, moral living, and compassion as the keys to happiness. But most of all, Matthew’s beatitudes saw Christian witness as the center piece to a happy life. In our busy, high-stressed lifestyles, Matthew’s beatitudes can be our means to a happy, blessed life.

Do you know a Christian that is truly happy? Why are he or she happy?

Saints are those who live out the Beatitudes. They are happy when living the Christian lifestyle is not convenient. Saints are ordinary people who do extraordinary things even in the face of criticism and persecution. They belong to Christ. The power of the Spirit flows through them, even in subtle ways. They are the poor in spirit, the peacemaker, the pure in heart, the ones who thirst for the right way to God. They are the faithful.

Have I painted too ambitious a picture? Let me describe the term “saint” in another way. A local San Diego priest passed away a few years ago. He was universally held up as a paragon of virtue and holiness. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he reflected on his upcoming death. He had only one request. On his tombstone, he wanted the following epitaph: At Least I Tried.

When we try, when we strive to live out the Beatitudes, we are saints. Sainthood is a life long process, not some sort of vague reward in heaven. It is a life of accepting God’s gifts and acting on them, even in imperfect ways. Sainthood is trying to live out the Beatitudes, not a question of succeeding.

What can you do today to live out the Beatitudes this day?