The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page.
Matthew 4:12-13, 25, 5:1-2a
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. 1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them…
There were Greeks, Jews, rich, and poor all sitting to listen to Jesus’s words. When he begins to speak, he starts the sermon a list. This might sound strange to us because we usually start talks with stories, however a list like this was pretty common in the ancient world. It was a method to grab the attention of your listeners, and there are several different ways these lists might play out.
In the first way, a teacher would give a list of good virtues and a list of bad traits, and you would be left to wonder which list you were in.
Were you in or were you out?
Another thing they might do is tell you to do something as part of faith. If I was making a list like this you would probably expect me to say something like read your Bible, say your prayers, or join a small group. That sounds like pastor type stuff.
Finally, what these lists might be are proclamations of blessings. Another way to say it is to say happy people, or people who are doing life the right way, look like this and then they give a description.
In ancient literature we find all sorts of lists like this. One of them is found in an ancient book called Sirach. This book might not be in your Bible. You may never have heard of it, but it’s actually influenced Christians for centuries. In the middle of this book we find a list like this that is a little strange.
7 I can think of nine whom I would call blessed, and a tenth my tongue proclaims:
a man who can rejoice in his children; a man who lives to see the downfall of his foes.
8 Happy the man who lives with a sensible wife, and the one who does not plow with ox and ass together.
Happy is the one who does not sin with the tongue,
and the one who has not served an inferior.
9 Happy is the one who finds a friend, and the one who speaks to attentive listeners.
If we made a list like this in our modern world, our list would probably sound a little different but when you think of blessed or happy it brings certain things to mind. You might say blessed is the person with a lot of friends, with a good job, or nice car.
The funny thing is people actually do this today. I mean we all know, and you might be, that person who Instagrams a picture of their Starbucks with #BLESSED.
This is what the people sitting on that mountain expected Jesus to do. The people who sat down expected Jesus to start with a list of maybe some good virtues, things they should do, or blessings they expect.
But Jesus does something strange here because his list is completely unexpected. The list is upside down, backwards, and would have been unlike anything these people had ever heard. Instead of a list of what they would have anticipated, Jesus gives them a list that would have made them uncomfortable, squirm in their seats, and start to wonder why they were even listening to this guy.
But on the margins, to the people who many didn’t want to sit next to or didn’t think they belong, the way Jesus begins this sermon doesn’t just invite them in, it announces they are at the head of the table because Jesus begins with these words:
Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What I want us to do is to read this and stop at the word poor. It doesn’t match up with what we normally think of as blessed people, but that is exactly the point Jesus is making.
Normally we think of the poor as not having things we have. What Jesus is saying is that the reality is that the poor HAVE SOMETHING WE DON’T HAVE.
How can people who have nothing have something?
Later on in Jesus’s life a man comes before him with a question, and in that question and in Jesus’s answer we find out what it means when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Let’s look at this conversation that happens between this man and Jesus so we can begin to see what Jesus is trying to teach us.
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Here is a man who has everything but is trying to get something else. He wants to get eternal life. This isn’t just a statement about where the guy will go when he dies. The word eternal was used to describe the life everyone was looking for. He wanted to know how to attain the best life.
We all say things like this when we describe something as being like heaven. We’ve all said it about vacations. “This is like heaven and I hope it doesn’t end.” That’s what this guy is getting at. How do I experience that kind of life?
All kinds of people have answers to this question. There is even a famous preacher who wrote a book called “Your Best Life Now”. Just a heads up, this doesn’t really match up with Jesus’s answer.
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Now the guy is trying to get Jesus to give him a list. We can assume he missed the sermon on the mount and the list Jesus gave there so Jesus rolls with it and gives him a list.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
And there is the question.
What am I missing?
I have everything. What else do I need? What can I still get?
Jesus’s response shows us is that this man who has everything is missing the one thing that those who having nothing actually have.
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
What I want us to understand is that Jesus wasn’t saying that you need to try harder. He was simply saying it is harder for those with everything to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is why he says that whole ‘eye of the needle’ part. According to tradition, the eye of the needle was a gate into Jerusalem but it was so small that a camel loaded with bags had to have its baggage removed and bend down to fit through.
Jesus is telling us that for someone who has nothing, it is easy to follow. But for others, whether it is wealth, what we think we know, or our desire to control every aspect of our lives, Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God will not come easy to you.
For so many people, they spend their lives with clenched fists angrily holding onto things
For others, the ones that Jesus says will find their way easier, he says they have open hands. They let possessions and control simply fall to the floor.
The poor are blessed because their hands are already open and Jesus invites us to live our lives like that. He wants us to identify with that aspect of being poor and open our hands to everything God wants to give us. But as we learned, it’s going to take releasing our fist.
I invite you to open your hands and to place them out, palms up in front of you, and pray the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer teaches the way to be humble and to live in his kingdom because this prayer is an invitation for God’s Kingdom to be present in our lives. The words of this prayer are only possible if we are people with open hands instead of closed fists. So, let’s pray together.
Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.