And great crowds joined him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. And having seen the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them, saying:
‘Happy are the destitute in spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are the mourning, that they will receive consolation. Happy are the gentle, that they will inherit the Land. Happy are the hungering and the suffering of thirst after justice, that they will be sated. Happy are the merciful, that they will receive mercy. Happy are the [ritually] clean in heart, that they will see God. Happy are the lovers of and makers of peace, that they will be called heirs of God. Happy are the pursued on account of justice, that theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are you when they revile you and pursue and utter all evil against you on account of me. Rejoice! and rejoice exceedingly, that your wages are many in heaven, for in the same way they pursued the prophets before you.
Whether in the narrative world of ‘Matthew’ this is Jesus’ first extensive teaching, it is certainly so within the text. What that suggests is that what we see proclaimed here is in some strong sense foundational, or core, to Jesus’ teachings. This is further underlined by the very particular location ‘Matthew’ names for Jesus, a ‘mountain,’ evoking to the Jewish memory another great leader of Israel who issued teaching from a mountainside—Moses. (Thus we have more recapitulation of Israel’s history here.) Up to this point the extent of the platform we’ve heard from Jesus has been simply this: ‘Be changing your mind, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (4:17)—somewhat of an unoriginal, stock phrase at that (3:2). Atheist director Pier Paolo Pasolini envisions this with droll literality in his stark and earnest Il vangelo secondo Matteo: As Jesus is walking briskly through the countryside, he encounters a handful of farmhands passing the other way and, without breaking pace, speaks intently only this sentence to them, leaving them halted and perplexed as he strides away. What I like about Pasolini’s literal portrayal here is that it captures the mysterious paucity that ‘Matthew’ suggests when it comes to content about Jesus and that we’re not likely to notice if we come to the text informed with a pretty good picture of Jesus. Now, it may seem unlikely that Jesus would have recruited and retained at least four disciples now, in addition to an unnumbered crowd, without laying out more of what he’s about—and, to be sure, 4:23 describes him teaching in synagogues—but I do think that ‘Matthew’ has been written intentionally to build up anticipation into chapter 5. We might keep in mind too that healings and mystique alone might well be enough to draw a following in a setting of such intense political expectations as his and that ‘teaching in their synagogues, [and] making a public proclamation of the good news of the kingdom’ need not entail more than expounding on the Hebrew Scriptures according to the custom. That is, like a dark-horse candidate just beginning to feel out the race, there isn’t anything distinctive yet to set him apart from the party.
Let’s just imagine, then, that even if the disciples are settling into just another freestyle discourse from their leader as he ascends a hillside, there are present here followers who have heard him only reading in the synagogues or only by vague reputation, now straining to listen in, breath bated, to hear a position statement, a rabbinical judgment, something to indicate what he thinks this kingdom of heaven is. Thus the so-called Sermon the Mount begins, giving especial weight to each word delivered, which exposes Jesus’ vision of the kingdom to scrutiny, criticism and precious scarce hope.
Each of Jesus’ ‘Happy are . . .’ statements risk offending not only reason but also traditional views of righteousness/purity. I opt for the translation ‘happy’ over ‘blessed’ in order to distant these teachings from the ‘pie-in-the-sky by-and-by’ reading of them, which too easily founds their truth in far-distant heavenly rewards and removes any expectation for them to be true now. For argument’s sake someone can be ‘blessed’ because of what will be true; someone is ‘happy’ because of what is true as a present reality. Nothing of Jesus’ campaign suggests so far that he had his mind on otherworldly truths; on the contrary, 4:17 strongly suggests an imminence of his kingdom. And if ‘Be changing your mind, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ is Jesus’ thesis, what follows is his exposition. Be changing your mind to what? we should be asking. The imminent kingdom. Be changing your mind about what? Who the happy are; who is being blessed now; what the new structure of reality is.
In this reality, Jesus teaches, the imminent kingdom belongs to the spiritually destitute, not the righteous; they are the happy because of it. Those in a condition of mourning are not merely going to be consoled but are going to receive consolation; they are happy because of it. In this reality, the land belongs to the gentle and not to the powerful. Those who faint from want of righteousness and give mercy freely, more than the righteous in themselves, will receive it. Those who are ritually clean in their hearts, not in their hands and their bodies according to the Law and can come freely to the Temple, will be the ones to see what even Moses did not see. And the heirs of Yhwh will be not the victorious nationalists of Israel, or even the strict sect of Law-keepers, but those who keep and make peace. This is indeed an upside-down kingdom—to the consternation of pharisee and zealot alike.
But also to the world-weary underclass Israelite. After all, what more upsetting, alienating words to hear in the midst of suffering than, ‘Rejoice! Be glad! Cheer up!’ regardless of whether they’re based in truth. Jesus’ nine theses announcing the shape of the kingdom’s reality really bear a double edge. Their promise cuts against the prevailing forces of reality yet cuts right back into one’s own flesh with the cold fact of one’s own experience; their promise of a new government, if it contains any sweetness to the taster, only accentuates the bitterness of a world shaped absolutely unlike this.
Yet for Jesus’ disciples listening, insofar as they’re recruited into this mad vision, are recruited into a larger and older company than Jesus’ novel and impossible constitution might suggest. This platform, he suggests, is joined to the tradition of Israel’s prophets, implying a solidarity that the followers would share with them. (Perhaps more veiled, note, is the implication that follows: the followers will suffer on account of Jesus in the way the prophets suffered on account of Yhwh!) The prophets are, after all, the historically persecuted of Israel; they are, after all, destitute and mourning, nonviolent and justice-hungry, who ‘saw’ Yhwh yet still waited empty for an inheritance of Yhwh’s kingdom, whose work was just to that extent incomplete. In just this way does Jesus position his little following on their foundation and within a familiar, ancient framework—strange but intelligible—a project that had been laboring in spite of kings for the kingdom of Yhwh for over a millennium.
Bringing It Home
If chapter 5 leads into the first full sketch of what the kingdom of ‘Matthew’s Jesus looks like, the ‘Happy are . . .’s draw now the positive side of what the desert trial offered by negation. In his back-and-forth with the devil Jesus denied that the kingdom for which he’s vying would be built on things like materialism, spectacle or power; in other words, it would not take the shape and substance of other kingdoms. Now we see that its shape and substance will be that of gentleness and peace; its distributions will not be of bread but consolation and mercy; its citizens the broken down, pursued and reviled. Here, then, is where I admittedly struggle with the distinction between exegesis and application. Jesus presents this kingdom blueprint to his disciples—within the hearing of the wider multitudes—saying that it ‘has come near,’ that it is ‘at hand.’ ‘Matthew’ presents this blueprint to us—is it less at hand? Is it infinitely removed from us by the thickness of the page between us and first-century Levant? Rather it is the kingdom Jesus brought and is bringing; it is at hand for us. Again, this is the ‘good news’ of the kingdom: that there is a kingdom. Not just another kingdom, over-taxed lands changing hands from one power to the next, just another ladder of influence to climb and another heavy hand to rest upon the backs of people. Instead, it is a kingdom for those without a kingdom. A kingdom for the gentle, who lose the games of other kingdoms; for the peaceful, who get occupied and killed by other kingdoms; for the destitute, who beg for scraps in other kingdoms. Here is a kingdom where the least are on top and mercy flows from top to bottom like power used to.
Now, is this good news for you? Is this good news for me? I think that it is a question left for us to answer as we position ourselves between the meeting of two governments—the passing and the coming to power—who accept no neutral allegiances and know us by the citizenship we keep.