Jesus’ teachings are subversive because they represent a total inversion of what is commonly praised in our culture. He reveals two kingdoms in sharp contrast. It’s a ” first shall be last and the last shall be first” paradigm that confounds the wise and eludes the proud. Those who pride themselves in being well off according to the societal construct may find that the opposite is actually true. And this has nothing to do with being rich or poor. It has to do with the attitude of the heart.
23 Guard your heart above all else,
for it determines the course of your life. (Prov.4:23 NLT *)
And this has been true since the beginning of time. It’s just that few were really paying attention before Jesus. What made Jesus so iconoclastic was that He bypassed appearances and the morals of the well-behaved, delving deep under the surface, even dividing the spirit from the soul, where the motivations of the heart reside (Heb.4:12).
In part four, I said Jesus is answering two of the most important questions of life: “What is the good life?” and “Who is a good person?” The Beatitudes (Matt.5:2-10) deals with the first question. Like today, with slick marketing promising you the good life, people in Jesus’ day spent a lot of time searching for the good life. Ancient philosophers obsessed over it and wrote reams of papyrus about it.
By using the word “blessed” (Greek: μακάριος – makarios), Jesus is directly contrasting His subversive Kingdom philosophy with that of the Greco-Roman world He lived in.
First, we must ask ourselves, what can we learn from the people Jesus says are blessed?
2 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
5 Blessed are the meek,
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
7 Blessed are the merciful,
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
I will answer this with another question: are these the traits that the world considers blessed? Absolutely not! These people were considered the cursed and marginalized in Jesus’ day. The losers, if you will. The world still praises heroes and conquerors…it believes that power, fame, wealth, and influence are what makes a life blessed. This was true in Jesus’ day; it’s true in our day, too.
But we also need to be careful not to think these people are blessed because they are poor, meek, persecuted, insulted….No, this is about who has access to the kingdom of the heavens. As Dallas Willard has said, they’re not blessed because of a condition, but because of the kingdom. Here’s how biblical scholar, Alfred Edersheim, put it:
“In the Sermon one the Mount…the promises attaching, for example, to the so-called “Beatitudes” must not be regarded as a reward of the spiritual states with which they are respectfully connected. It’s not because a man is poor in spirit that his is the Kingdom of Heaven, in the sense that one state will grow into the other, or be its result; still less is one the reward of the other. The connecting link is in each case Christ Himself: because He…”has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to everyone” (Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus Christ *)
To be clear, you’re not blessed because you’re poor; you’re blessed because you’re not excluded from a place at Jesus’ table for being poor. Even if this world thinks of you as a failure, you have equal access in Christ’s kingdom! There is no class, race, or gender distinction in Christ (Gal.3:23). That truth is even upsetting to the religious community!
Conversely, Jesus isn’t saying the rich are cursed because they are rich, well-fed, and popular (see Luke 6:24-26). Their woe comes from trusting in these things more than God and not living according to His other-centered, self-giving love. They’re living in violation of loving your neighbor as yourself.
Think about how radical this teaching is. Society, in both Jesus’ day and ours, defines the “good life” by success, wealth, power, and influence, yet Jesus says this is a façade, an illusion, and no indication whatsoever of a blessed life.
Indeed, we can all think of people in high social standing who actually live broken lives full of despair, in spite of their supposed prosperous condition.
The good life defined by Jesus is a life lived in full participation in the Kingdom of the Heavens. It’s a life filled with the fullness of God—full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Eph.3:19; Gal.5:22-23). Now, that’s subversive!