I have always been interested in science. Of course I wasn’t interested enough to major in physics or anything. I’m way too lazy to do that. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. That much math would have made my brain implode. Still, I found it interesting enough to read many books and essays on the subject. And you can’t be interested in astronomy without at least a passing knowledge of physics if you want to understand anything. So when my son brought home a science magazine back when he was in high school many years ago and I saw there was an article about current theories in physics, I naturally picked it up and began to read. Holy crap! Everything has changed since I was in college!
I basically learned that everything I thought I knew was wrong. Molecules and atoms, for example, are not at all the structures I had learned they were in school. I had learned that molecules were the particles that made up all matter. Molecules were made of atoms (still are, for that matter), and atoms consisted of a nucleus which contained protons and neutrons, while wild little particles on caffeine called electrons went orbiting around at a dizzying pace. And this is still true….sort of.
What my teachers did not know back when I was in school was that these atoms are only the OBSERVABLE part of matter and only exist for a nano-second in time. They are gone as soon as they are here. All matter is constantly in the process of evolving from one thing into something else. This would mean that the atoms that make up the chair upon which you sit is not the chair that was there a second ago. In fact, the ass that sits in that chair is not the ass that it was a second ago. And no one need remind me of that. My ass hasn’t been the same ass it was for years now. The point is that all matter is in a constant state of change. I could not help but notice that Taoism has been saying that for 2,500 years. So my view of the universe was turned completely on its head.
That was the effect Jesus had on the people who heard him speak. Last week I told you that Jesus came and told people to repent, that is, to change their way of thinking. The world was so different during the first century that it is easy for us to forget how revolutionary the message of Jesus was. During the first century people respected power and money. Well, maybe it isn’t so different than the world today. Anyway, it was believed that if you were rich and powerful, it was because God was blessing you. If you were poor, or lowly, it was because you had sinned somehow against God and S/He was pissed.
The children of Abraham that lived in Judea had a long list of rules, regulations, and rituals that governed their lives. The people followed those rules strictly in the hopes that God would bless them and lift them out of their sufferings. Although, many people still suffered. And the entire country suffered under the tyranny of Imperial Rome. That was because of the sins of their ancestors. They eagerly awaited the promised messiah to release them from their sufferings.
And then came Jesus. He had been teaching in the synagogues around Galilee and, thanks to his ability to perform miracle healings was being followed by huge crowds of people hoping to see if he were the promised deliverer. So, according to Matthew, he went up on a mountain and started to teach the people. And what he said that day has come to be called “The Sermon on the Mount”. It comes from the fifth chapter of Matthew. In the sixth chapter of Luke, there is what is called “The Sermon on the Plain”. Many scholars believe them to be the same event, since they occur at the same point in his ministry. Other scholars believe that both sermons were added as a literary device to put the teachings of Jesus in one concise reading.
Whether or not the sermon actually happened as described in the gospel or not is important. As I say time and again, the bible is a book of truth, not a book of facts. Since the event is described in two gospels, it may well have happened. The event is not described in Mark or John. If the teachings come from the earlier, lost “Q” document from which Mark, Matthew, and Luke each borrowed, then one might wonder why Mark chose to leave it out. Regardless, the words ascribed to him were revolutionary in their time.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
This sermon, which you can read for yourself, contains all the famous teachings of Jesus, including these eight “blesseds” called the beatitudes. Luke has four and Matthew has eight. They have been quoted time and again by everyone from poets to preachers. Even Sting quotes one of them. The word translated as “blessed” in Greek means to be content, as in a deep contentment. We tend to think of blessings as gifts from the divine, and I suppose you could consider contentment to be such a gift, but most of us don’t think of blessed and content as synonyms.
The first is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The word translated as poor means “a pauper” or “a beggar”. The word translated as spirit means breath or wind and can also mean spirit as in a divine being. It comes from the same root from which we get the word Pneumonia. Literally translated, the phrase is, “Content those beggars in spirit, they are the royalty of heaven.” Luke has this as the actual poor, those who have no money. Matthew has those blessed as those who beg for the spirit of the divine. The word kingdom, basileia, means royal power or royalty. So what Matthew is saying is that while the poor, the beggars, are the lowest in the social environment in Judea, they are the royalty of heaven. In other words, God loves them too. They are not being punished. Quite the opposite. They are considered blessed.
The next is ,”Blessed are they who mourn. They shall be comforted.” Literally translated, “Content those who lament. They shall be encouraged.” And what I cannot help but see here is the ever-changing nature of our universe, as the Taoists say. All things change. Mourning comes and goes. Rejoicing comes and goes. But moreover, there is the idea that the connection with the divine spirit helps us through those times of sorrow. One can take comfort in knowing that life is ever changing, knowing that your grief will pass in time. All things pass away. It is the nature of things. Jesus was saying that sorrow was not the punishment of God. It is the way of life.
Content are the gentle; they shall inherit the earth. Powers come and go. The people remain. In the end, those who seek power, who desire to set themselves above others, always fall. The word meek brings to mind someone who is timid and mousy, but the word also translates as gentile, soft, or mild. While one can argue that this only encourages people to be submissive, I think it’s clear that kind people are ultimately happier than mean people. And that is what the beatitude says. Content are the gentle ones. Nobody much likes the mean people. Mean people suck. But back in the first century, mean people ruled everything. To suggest that the gentile were blessed was to turn the known world upside down.
The next says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They shall be satisfied.” This is literally translated, “Contented, those hungry and thirsty for justice. They shall have satisfaction.” We hear the word “righteousness” and we think of those rules and regulations. But the word translated as “righteousness”, dikaiosine, means justification or equity, in other words, justice. In the ancient world, justice and strength were synonymous. There was no idea of what was fair or just or equitable. If you were downtrodden, it was because that was the will of God (or the gods). Yet, Jesus says you are blessed if you desire justice.
Likewise, the next, “Contented, those compassionate, they shall be shown compassion.” The whole idea of mercy and compassion in the ancient world was strange. Strength was admired. Mercy was seen as a weakness. We tend to see the Romans as some kind of sick fucks when they staged their gladiatorial games for entertainment, but those were the very definition of their culture. Strength is good. Weak is bad. Mercy is weakness. People believed that God, or the gods, favored the strong. To suggest that it is those who show mercy who are blessed was totally unheard of.
“Contented, those with clean hearts (thoughts, feelings—the Greek work Kardios) God appears to them.” These are the people who see God in everything they see. This doesn’t mean they only think pure thoughts.. It means they are genuine. They have no agendas. You obtain a pure heart by seeing the divine in everything. It is seeing God that gives you a pure heart. See the divine all around you.
The next seems so important right now, “Contented, the peace makers. They are invited to be sons of God.” The word “called” in the English translation means “summoned”, or “invited”, not named. Those who bring peace out of conflict are invited to be the children of God. They are the fortunate ones. In a time when war meant glory and fame, Jesus taught that it is peace that brings you closer to God.
Jesus then teaches that it is those who are persecuted for the sake of justice who are the fortunate ones. Those who are reviled and hated because they try to do what is equitable are blessed by God. This he says in a time when those who were persecuted were seen as receiving a just punishment from God for their sins. Here it is clear. God doesn’t punish us. Our actions may carry consequences, but those are not punishments from God. God does not condemn us. Bad things will happen to you even if you do what is right. That's just the way it is. Jesus came and told us all to change our way of thinking.
When Jesus spoke on that hill (for there are no mountains in that part of Judea), he told his followers that everything they knew was wrong. God doesn’t want us to spend our days following a set of rules and regulations, following a bunch of empty rituals. God does not reward us with riches and power. To be one with the Godhead, you must reach out to others, show compassion, make peace. You must see the divine in everything and everyone. We are not puppets controlled by some magic guy up in the sky. We are the children of the divine, each one of us divine in ourselves. To understand this, we have to put the old selves behind us. We have to change our way of seeing the world.
Just like those atoms and molecules, we are constantly in a state of change, of evolution (cover your ears there, Pat Robertson). We are evolving beings. And like the atoms, we are here only for a short time, and then we are gone, evolved into some other form of energy. What matters is what we do while we are here. In order to see this, we need to see that everything we thought was important was wrong. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what kind of car you drive. It doesn’t matter what toys you might own. When there is some catastrophe this all becomes abundantly clear. What matters then are the people you love. After a Katrina, you don’t care about whether or not your house is okay until you find out if your family is safe. Love is what really matters. That is what Jesus came to say. He told us to love one another. This is the message of God.
The Message of The Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes is really just as revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago. It is at once a promise for the future, the understanding of the changing nature of the universe, and a truth for the here and now. You can fill your soul with the joy of love, or you can close your eyes to the world around you and go after power and wealth. You can see and reach out to the divine all around you. You can change your way of thinking and become a new creation. That is the power of love.