Jesus led the disciples out of the crowd up on a hill and from there spoke what we now call “The Sermon on the Mount.” Of course there are many different ways that this sermon has been interpreted in the history of the church. I’m trying to read this sermon according to the narrative laid out by Matthew. This Gospel is known for its emphasis on discipleship. It is broken up into five sections of Jesus’ in action followed by five sections of Jesus teaching. This great sermon, maybe the best ever, is part of the first teaching section.
Because the primary audience is the disciples, and this Gospel as a whole emphasizes discipleship, we must take seriously that the sermon and it’s opening words, historically called the “beatitudes” are directly related to discipleship. The beatitudes in other words do not describe a universal ethic of what it means to have a good life. These are not rules to follow that replace the Ten Commandments that Moses got up on Mount Sinia. This is not a how to get the blessed life list. That’s not how the Be-attitudes work. If they worked in that way, the grammar would be a lot different. Instead of “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” it would read something like “You are blessed when you do things that reflect poverty of Spirit.”
The point is this: when people actually follow Jesus as his disciples, they will actually experience these things. Being a disciple of Jesus makes us distinctive, and these Be-attitudes point to those distinctives. This is not a list around which we set goals in order to become better disciples. As we follow Jesus, these characteristics will become more and more part of our lives.
Honestly, I never saw the beatitudes this way until recently. In fact, I never knew what to do with the beatitudes, even though I had memorized them, studied them and had heard numerous sermons on them. Even though I had read Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this passage in his Cost of Discipleship many times, I never saw how the beatitudes is a poetic description of what kind of life results from being a disciple. This is what happens to us as we walk with Jesus.
I guess I miss this point because I had a different view of discipleship. I always saw it as a way for me to grow in my ability to produce something for Jesus. In many circles today this is a very popular approach. Discipleship is about developing the ability to create movement, to reproduce ourselves, and to penetrate non-Christian circles. Don’t get me wrong. I think those things are great, to a certain extent. My concern is that we have pragmatized discipleship. We have made spiritual formation into something that we do in order to get multiplication or expansion of the faith. So we study, we pray, we do spiritual disciplines to get Christian results.
The beatitudes challenge this production mindset. We are called to be disciples of Jesus, and that means we take on his character and his ways. What will that produce? Time will tell. In the Bible, the character and ways of Jesus usually produced something vastly different than the kinds of results we look for today in the church. Jesus and his closest followers all suffered for the kind of life they lived. Maybe that’s the reason I missed the point of the Be-attitudes.
Whatever discipleship produces in our lives today, I know this: when I am invited up the mountain to be with Jesus, it means that I’m no longer in the position of control. Even if my intentions are something like impacting the world for Jesus, I’m not the one who is trying to make that happen. Being a disciple of Jesus means that I’m giving Jesus room to shape in me the character of the Kingdom. I’ve never found this to be a fast process that I can make happen.
What does this mean for us practically? Well, that’s the wrong question. I cannot control what Jesus is saying in the beatitudes. There’s too much mystery in them. This kind of life is too deep for me to try and produce. This is not about discipleship methods or study materials. This is about allowing God to form me.
But what does that mean? Our pragmatic Christianity drives us to this. We want to apply some practical truth to our lives. We have to go deeper than that though. We have to listen deeper.
For Part 2 in this series, click here.