Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12
This is a strong text for All Saints Day, especially if we use the word “saints” as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 1:2: “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
We may think of the saints chiefly as martyrs, or as those who have died in faith. They are included, but not alone. With them are the saints of today, those of us who live in faith. The Beatitudes are more for living saints than for those who have died. The pronouncements of blessing Jesus offers here are in the present and future tenses, not in the past tense. “Blessed are … for they will….”
Makarios is the Greek word Jesus uses. It means blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged. But, it seems wrong in the context of these statements. Each is a declaration of irony. Clearly the poor in body and spirit, the mournful, and the meek are not fortunate to be in their present circumstances. They are not happy in any usual sense.
In the early church, the makarios, the happy ones, sometimes referred to the martyrs. It is hard to picture a smile on the face of Polycarp or Justin as they were being burned or beheaded. Yet, “blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus declares.
How can blessedness be associated with such unpleasant things? On the one hand, it is not. The present state of affairs for believers may include poverty, broken spirit, humility, and mourning. Blessed are they, Jesus says. But, clearly not because of their circumstances.
Their blessing lies in being a part of the kingdom of God that exists both in the present and in the future. The verbs “are” and “will” indicate that God is at work in the present world, bringing the kingdom to completion. Those within the present kingdom of God who “are” in difficult circumstances “will be” blessed when God brings about the new creation.
The hope they have, however, is not merely an eschatological one. It occurs in the present in the sense that such people are found living according to kingdom values. This is true for the faithful who are humble and poor, and is even more evident among those who show mercy, strive for peace, are pure in heart, and who endure persecution for Jesus’ sake. The kingdom of heaven is not only for the poor in spirit, but for all who are sanctified.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” both John (3:2) and Jesus (4:17) declare. The signs of the kingdom are the people who live according to its values. Further, they assist in bringing the kingdom about when they demonstrate mercy and work for peace. Such work is never for the saint to accomplish alone, but is aided and enabled by the King of the kingdom who makes all things new. “Sanctified in Christ Jesus” means that we are saints, but that it is Christ who brings about all possibility of goodness.
What can all of this mean for the saints to whom we preach on All Saint’s Day? It means that we align ourselves today with the historic chorus of people who have been sanctified by Christ, people who in happiness or difficulty, found their hope in Jesus and made their way as part of the kingdom of God. We join their work in the present as people who live according to the kingdom values outlined by Jesus in this Sermon on the Mount. Our blessings reside both in the present and the future.
First, we “are” living within the reign of God, sanctified by Christ, part of an enterprise beyond our grasp or understanding, yet, fully in God’s hands. We are blessed to belong to the kingdom that is moving ever toward a new creation and blessed to live and act in ways that bring the kingdom about. Second, we are blessed because as members of this kingdom, we “will” receive the fortune and privilege that awaits all those who remain faithful to the kingdom’s work.
To make this concrete in the sermon, and to bring it home to the people in local congregations, the preacher can be on the lookout for stories that show the kingdom of heaven alive in our midst. The stories may be of local saints who have died in faith, but can also be of those (used with permission) who demonstrate the living irony of those who endure seasons of challenge while giving life to others.
One thinks of a widow or widower who moves forward through grief to discover a new ministry and reason to live; or, the meek person who demonstrates life-giving power in difficult circumstances. In most ministry settings, such examples abound and are available to the perceptive preacher.