One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. (Matthew 5:1-12, NLT)
This part of Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel in Luke’s, but the two are quite different in many ways and have different theological purposes.
We know this part as ‘The Beatitudes’, and the sayings are so familiar to our ears that we often let them flow over us, without really considering how, if we take them seriously, they revolutionise our lives, and have the potential to revolutionise the world. The New Living Translation version above, is a couple of steps away from the tradition of the Authorised Version (sometimes known as the King James Version), in which the familiar English makes us feel comfortable, because we know what is coming next. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, pushes us further outside our comfort zone:
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
What do you think of that?
Jesus gave the Beatitudes to a people who were crushed, uncertain of their place in the world, and for whom their faith was often burdensome. Jesus was showing them their value in the Father’s eyes - and that no matter what priority the world put on them and their lives, to the Father they were of supreme value and importance. So, for the people to whom Jesus spoke (and for whom Matthew wrote), they were reassurances and challenges to see the world the way God sees the world. Turned on its head.
But for us, what are they? It depends. Yes, they’re reassurances, but they’re also deep challenges for us to reorder our lives, our worlds and our scale of importances and priorities. Like Jesus’ disciples, we’re his apprentices. Apprentices classically learned by being with their teacher, learning the trade, learning how to be whatever it was they were training to be. Not just do, but be.
Being Jesus’ apprentice is not like doing a course - no matter how intensive the course is, and no matter who much you learn. Being Jesus’ apprentice - and we all are, all of our lives - is about being in a real, living and dynamic relationship with Jesus, looking at him, deeply at him, and allowing who Jesus is to saturate us, change us and reform us. And when that happens to us, and we walk lightly, gently and lovingly in the world, the world must change to.
The beatitudes are deep challenges for us to be simple, and to ‘get’ what it is Jesus means about priority. We turn them into metaphors at our risk, because Jesus never meant them to be just about metaphors. These are real and life-altering imperatives. If we’re not ordering our lives so as to be apprentices of Jesus - which means living in the spirit of the Beatitudes - then we’re not ever going to get it.
You can see from Peterson’s list, if you listen to it or read it with an open heart, that being Jesus’ apprentice is about being willing to be broken open and reformed. We often need to come to understand that we’re completely devoid of any capacity to do anything meaningful or useful for our own healing before we really put our faith in Jesus’ way. I know this from personal experience. I may have told myself that I believe it all, that I do it all, but it is not till I’m broken open - again! - that I put myself back into the stream of living water that is Jesus’ way.
Being an apprentice of Jesus means being willing to be small, overlooked, poor, and utterly dependent on God. Being an apprentice of Jesus means being in a vital relationship with him, which takes work and intention. Are you willing to do the work? What do you intend by making this journey? The start of each new year is a good time to consider this, and turn again, making the choice to be small, poor, and yet rich beyond all earthly measure.