This Sunday, the Sunday when we observe All Saints’ Day, is like the previous Sunday with its unique texts. And the gospel text for this Sunday is a very special one from the Gospel according to Matthew [5:1-12].
This gospel text contains some well-known verses. When Jesus says that a certain group of people is blessed, the Latin word for that is ‘beatus’. The ‘Beatitudes’ are known as some of the first words from Jesus’ mouth in his first of five special sermons or discourses in this account (this first one is usually called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’).
Now in a few short weeks, the gospel texts will, for MANY Sundays, be from the Gospel according to Matthew. So, it might be a good thing to look a little at the account’s overall structure.
All the gospel accounts look at the life of Jesus in a basic, chronological way. At the beginning of the account, Jesus is young; then he gets older, and then he dies.
There are significant differences among the four accounts. And what makes this gospel account very distinctive is its five sermons or discourses that are placed within the account. Here is a extremely basic layout of the Gospel according to Matthew:
Chapter: 1 10 20 28
Divisions: 4:17 16:21
5-7 Sermon on the Mount
10 Mission Discourse
24-25 Last Days…
Although this is very basic, hopefully it is helpful in seeing the ‘big picture’. The ‘Chapter’ divisions are laid out in a simple way, but the ‘Divisions’ are much more specific. At these two verses (4:17 & 16:21), Jesus starts something new—and the details of that are given below. And the numbers and descriptions below those two references are the basic chapters where you find the five unique discourses within this gospel account (and these discourses have been given various names).
People have debated which divisions are more important—Is it the life of Jesus or is it his teachings? Of course, it is important that Jesus went to the cross in that key city of Jerusalem. But Matthew lays out Jesus’ steps to Jerusalem very much as a teacher. The way in which these two verses are laid out makes them both teaching tools. When Jesus started to preach repentance, that is teaching. When Jesus started to ‘show’ his disciples what was going to come, that is also teaching. Here are those two verses:
4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
16:21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (compare to Mark 8:31).
The similarities between the first few words of both verses make for a strong connection. And, as mentioned above, the words ‘preach’ and ‘show’ are ultimately both teaching words. Jesus, within this account, is a very unique and special teacher; he is good at what he does.
This emphasis on teaching connects to the discourses. But the question has often been asked, ‘Why FIVE discourses?’
When this is compared to the Gospel according to Mark, the answer may be something like, ‘Jesus loved to teach’. He obviously taught a lot. But I think there is some merit to seeing some connections between the five discourses and the first five books of the bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Those are some very special and important books. (The Jews called these five books the ‘Torah’, and that word means instruction or teaching.)
Obviously, such a connection would take too much time to be a brief ‘Sabbath Day’s journey with the text’. But perhaps it would be good just to look at one word: Blessed.
In the creation account of Genesis, we often look at the things that God created. We often acknowledge them as good—as does the text. But we tend to overlook when things are blessed. God did not just slow down creation into six days just to teach us to work and rest, he slowed things down so that he could bless. Both blessing and creating took time—and words.
The first time the word ‘blessed’ occurs is when he blesses the creatures in the sea and in the air (Genesis 1:22). And God takes the time to bless them both. But on the last day of creation, God ends up blessing only the man and woman. To think of all the animals that he created on that day, but no blessing of them is mentioned. The importance of both man and woman on that day should be obvious.
It is a great thing to have Jesus’ first words in these discourses be ‘Blessed….’ The text slows down significantly when it first describes Jesus as seeing the crowds, and then after that, he walks to a particular place, then he sits down and opens up his mouth. Jesus takes the time to bless. He then blesses various groups of people. And he especially blesses groups of people that you would not expect.
Jesus did not start out the discourses by giving commands, even in the third-person, ‘Let there be….’ Certainly, he will end up giving some commands. But they are to be understood, literally, within a GOSPEL context.
That perspective helps to understand some of Jesus’ last words in this gospel account, the so-called ‘Great Commission’. Jesus’ followers are to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:20a).’ I like the comment in The Lutheran Study Bible that deals with the word ‘observe’ in the text (that, in some translations, is ‘obey’): ‘Christians are called to do more than ‘obey’; they are called to treasure God’s Word in their hearts (Concordia Publishing House, 2009, page 1650).’ The focus is much more comforting when it is on God—and, especially, Jesus.