Monday, May 19, 2014
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:1-4)
The Jews had been struggling for independence for over three hundred years, since being conquered by Alexander the Great. Under Herod they had reached a peak when he had several of the remaining descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean priests, including his wife Marianne killed, and had the Roman Eagle installed in the Temple to remind the Jews who was in charge. Things didn’t get much better when the kingdom was divided and split among his three sons.
Finally, in 25 AD, about the time Jesus began his ministry, Pilate was appointed to rule Jerusalem itself in an effort to quell the strife. Pilate was unaware of Jewish customs and introduced the various Roman gods, creating a surge of opposition. Realizing he’d made a serious blunder, Pilate removed those idols, but the resentment continued with many Jews feeling God had forsaken them. The Jews were desperately looking for someone to end Roman domination. The message of the Kingdom of God being at hand had a powerful appeal.
It was in this setting that Jesus began his ministry. People were glad to travel long distances to hear messages that promised and end to their problems, and especially when he healed many of their diseases. The message that those who were feeling put down would inherit the Kingdom and those who were grieving would have their sorrows comforted was exciting, even though it went against the current philosophy. After all, those who experienced these things would see God’s blessing, and they all thought of themselves as having those problems.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. ” (Matthew 5:5-9)
Jesus then focused on the attitude which they had. The meek, those who didn’t insist on having their way would be blessed by God, one day having the control of the earth. Those who craved a close relationship with God would experience such a relationship. Those who were willing to forgive would be forgiven, and those who had a pure heart would see God’s power in their lives. Those who tried to make and maintain peace would be known as God’s children.
Their religious and political leaders had been encouraging open rebellion and the use of force to defeat Roman aggression. Many felt he was recommending a peaceful form of resistance, which forms the basis for Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King’s movements almost two thousand years later. Almost two hundred years of following the leader’s ideas had produced little results, so they were willing to consider another approach. Perhaps shaming the Romans was the way to go.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
Jesus then made it clear he was not talking about peaceful resistance. The ones who were blessed would be those who actively did what was right in spite of active abuse and mistreatment for doing so. They were more concerned about pleasing God than what people thought or said or did. They would be rewarded by God just as the prophets of the past had been, even though many of them had been executed or imprisoned for their refusal to go along with their own religious and political leaders in fighting some perceived injustice.
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” (Matthew 5:13)
Salt is a very important item for human life. Because excess sodium can cause high blood pressure, there has been a lot of stress on reducing the amount of salt in the diet. Unfortunately most of the excess sodium comes from other additives to our food, with the result that many people have excess sodium but are deficient in salt, which is vital for proper beating of the heart, as well as proper digestion of food. In addition salt serves as a potent antibacterial agent and preservative.
Since most of the salt in Israel was produced as a result of evaporation from the dead Sea or of water from the Mediterranean, salt was scarce and expensive. As a result people frequently used a cheap artificial salt for flavoring their food. Lacking the beneficial properties of real salt, if the artificial salt lost its flavor, it was no longer of value and was disposed of.
In changing their focus on gaining their freedom, the Jews had lost the thing that made them pleasing to God. They were just like the artificial salt that had lost its flavor. There was no reason for God to care for them. To reinforce his point, he gave another illustration.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Light makes everything visible and a city on top of hill has nothing to block the light from revealing it. Placing a light under a large bucket prevents the light from revealing what is there. Instead men set it up high so it illuminates everything possible. God had placed the Jews to show the benefits of obeying God. Their failure to openly serve him was much like putting a bucket over their light. By openly obeying God, other people would benefit, and would see the benefits to them and desire what they had, turning to God themselves.
Instead of being embarrassed by how they had treated the Jews, the Romans and others would want to emulate them and experience God’s blessings. Instead of passive resistance, Jesus was advocating positive obedience.