Jesus packs two surprises into the opening of his sermon. The first surprise is the kind of people Jesus describes as “blessed.” To the world, a successful person is happy, powerful, in control, and able to make other people do things his or her way. Jesus says the opposite. He begins with those who are “poor in spirit”—whatever that means, it does not sound at all positive. “Those who mourn,” Jesus says, are blessed, as are the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart. Jesus does not say that people who have what they want are blessed; instead he calls blessed those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Jesus does not say that the people who win fights are blessed; instead he favors the peacemakers. Finally, those people who seem to have the biggest problem, those who are persecuted, are also identified by Jesus as blessed.
People that the world would label losers are described by Jesus as blessed. Clearly, Jesus does not see people with the world’s vision. In his years on earth, Jesus modeled a successful life according to his own vision: a life of obedience to God and of service to others. Jesus seemed like a failure to the world, but the truth is that Jesus was a resounding success.
Now, Jesus wants us to be like him. He wants us to forget ourselves, to take up a cross, and to follow him. Other religions proclaim the same virtues: self-denial, dedication to what is holy, and love for others. Worldly success is acknowledged by leaders in various religions to be shallow and unsatisfying. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and people of other religions unanimously acknowledge that the selfish, materialistic goals of the world are worse than useless. Those goals are harmful to the people who pursue them and to anyone who gets in their way.
God wants to bless people who are meek and merciful; he wants to bless even those who are persecuted for the truth. Is this what Jesus is saying? Not exactly. The second surprise in his sermon introduction is contained in the word “blessed.” The word describes, not those who deserve a reward, but those who have received a gift. Jesus does not say, “If you are merciful, you will receive mercy.” He says, “You have a gift when you are merciful, because you already have received mercy.”
Jesus announces the delivery of seven gifts—seven being a Biblical number for completeness. The seven gifts are: the kingdom of heaven, comfort, an inheritance (the earth), satisfaction of the need for righteousness, mercy, seeing God, and being called children of God. These seven blessings are gifts; they are not prizes earned by our efforts to be like Jesus. They are given to us by God’s grace, delivered through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are never good enough to earn a place in the kingdom of heaven; we cannot be that good. Jesus lived a perfect life and credited his rewards to our accounts. We will never deserve God’s mercy, but God has mercy on us and forgives us our sins through the death of Jesus on the cross. We do not deserve to be called children of God, or even to see God, but the gift of Jesus makes these things possible for us.
These gifts change our lives today. Because we have received mercy, we become merciful. Because we will see God, we purify our hearts today. Another result of these gifts is persecution. The world hates Jesus; therefore, it hates anyone who is being transformed into the image of Jesus. The world hates everyone that Jesus loves. Persecution is a blessing to Christians, though, because persecution also makes us more like Jesus. When we are persecuted for trusting his promises, our suffering reminds us of his cross and of the gifts he gives us through the cross. The world’s persecution reminds us whose side we are on: we are on the side of Jesus, the ultimate winner. Being named a member of his team is nothing more or less than a gift—a blessing. J.