Matthew 5:1-12 – When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. (2) He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, (3) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (4) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (5) “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. (6) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (7) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (8) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (9) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (10) “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (11) “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. (12) “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In January 2003, Rob stuck his head in my office and said, “That’s my verse.” I was confused and had to ask Rob what he was talking about. “Blessed are the peacemakers! That’s my verse,” he replied. Rob pointed the verse out in a document I had in my office and explained that this was the verse that he used to guide him and inspire him as a Christian who was also a soldier. And it was especially important to him as he prepared to deploy to the Persian Gulf for what turned out to be the invasion of Iraq.
Some of my Christian friends think we’re crazy to try to bring peace at the point of a sword at all. After all, Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Don’t resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Pray for those who persecute you.” He rode a donkey, not a war-horse. He didn’t raise an army against either Rome or the corrupt leadership of his own society. Instead, he gave his life and died on a cross. That’s what Jesus meant, they say, when he proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They think – and this is oversimplifying and exaggerating it, I’m sure – that hugs and flowers and conferences of people talking around a table will make things better. They point to people like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who in-fact brought great changes to society with non-violent actions.
Do you know what I have to say to that?
More power to them!
If hugs and flowers and conferences will bring a little peace and justice to the world, then it’s sure better than killing and dying. But, if it’s true that there are limits to what we can do with the force of arms, it’s also true that there are limits to what we can accomplish with what Dr. King called “soul force”. Deeds of good will, mercy and love are central to the Christian life, but they will not bring in the Kingdom of God any more than tanks and guns. The best we can do, if we’re fortunate, is to make the world a little bit more peaceful and a little bit more just. King and Gandhi accomplished great things for their societies, but the world still suffers from the tangled knot of injustice.
Several years ago, my family visited the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. Among the many exhibits, one particularly caught my eye. In September 1957, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. Arkansas to restore order and face down the Arkansas National Guard, which the governor had called out to stop the federally ordered integration of the Little Rock school system. There’s a picture in the library of the 101st troopers standing with fixed bayonets, keeping a mob at bay so that children could enter a school in peace. That same mission, with different equipment, goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Below the picture is displayed a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Eisenhower. Dr. King begins:
I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock Arkansas. In the long run, justice finally must spring from a new moral climate. Yet spiritual forces cannot emerge in a situation of mob violence.
Both physical force and spiritual force have a roll to play in bringing a measure of peace to this world. And still, even working together, spiritual force and physical force, the best of human effort with the best of human intentions, will not bring in the kingdom of God.
The Promise of God
Which brings me back to Jesus. If you read the Beatitudes simply as a prescription for proper, ethical human behavior, you are misreading them. This passage is not so much about what we ought to do as about what God is going to do. It’s first and foremost a promise.
The people who listened to Jesus lived under the thumb of Roman occupation and collaborationist native leaders. Violence abounded: from the paranoid, maniacal Herods, to the ruthlessly efficient Roman legions, to the fanatical insurgents and common criminals who roamed the countryside. The crosses of those who opposed Rome lined the highways and by-ways of Judea and Galilee. Crushing poverty was their daily bread. Absentee landlords extracted exorbitant rents. Corrupt tax collectors picked their pockets. Perhaps worst of all, the worship of God was in danger. The forces of Rome (and Syria and Greece before them) had installed pagan worship practices in the land. The practices of pagan society threatened to overwhelm Jewish customs and traditions. Rome tolerated Jewish religious practices only so far, and had insured a high priesthood friendly to its own interests.
The faithful looked at God’s promises in the prophets and wondered, “Where is the peace, the justice, and the prosperity promised by God?” Some hoped for a military and political victory over their foes. Some hoped for a miracle from heaven that would crush evil and usher in a time of peace. Add to that, the sense of personal tragedy that transcends time and historical circumstances. In those days, death, disease and debilitating injury were daily experiences. Hunger and hardship were the common lot. And yet, the ancient people of Judea were life-loving, life-affirming people, even in the midst of tragedy and loss. Anyone who honestly looked at the world around them would have thought, “The world is so good, and yet something is terribly wrong.”
In their prayers, the faithful would have cried out to God for justice, for vindication, for comfort, for peace. Into the midst of this, Jesus comes and proclaims a message of hope to the downtrodden. “Blessed,” he called them – blessed by the coming actions of God.
Notice the voice of the verbs in the Beatitudes. For the most part they are passive: will be comforted, will be satisfied, will be called. Even the active voice verbs express the idea of receiving: will inherit, will receive. Jesus is telling the members of crowd about the gift they will receive from God. God will answer the cries of their hearts for a better world. God will give. God will comfort. God will satisfy. God will act. God will reveal. All of the blessings of the Beatitudes are dependent upon what God will do. Peacemakers will be called the “children of God” because God is THE peacemaker par excellence. In the words of a worn-out cliché, God is the “mother of all peacemakers”.
So, you might ask, where is this peace Jesus promised? It’s been 2000 years. Where is this peace? Is it coming to the earth? Is it in heaven when we die? Is it in our hearts and minds? The answer is: yes – all of the above. We’re still waiting for that peace to come in all its fullness to earth, but Jesus still promises that it is coming. I believe that. Our work is not in vain. And wherever I see a little bit of peace and justice take root, I take it as a gift from God, a foretaste of the world to come.
Living Under the Promise
God promises peace to those who long for it, and no one longs for peace more than the soldier who has seen war. God’s promises in the Beatitudes challenge us to see the world as God sees it, to live today by values that God promises are eternal and to trust in his promises enough to live by them. The Beatitudes challenge us to hunger and thirst for God’s will to be done. They challenge us to take the brokenness of the world seriously, and thus not close our eyes and ears to those who are hurting around us. They challenge us to love as Jesus loved. They challenge us to purify our own lives and deepen our commitment to God, so that we reflect the character of Jesus. God promises peace.
We believe that God’s peace is of eternal, lasting value, so we seek what we can of that peace in this world. Unfortunately, in this world, even an imperfect shadow of peace sometimes requires people with right intentions and loaded weapons to step forward. But peace always requires deeds of love and mercy, grace and forgiveness, hope and reconciliation. These are always central to what it means to live under God’s vision and promise of peace.
When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “To Dwight D. Eisenhower 25 September 1957,” The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Volume 4: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957- December 1958, Martin Luther King Papers Project, 2002.