I really appreciate it when a pastor thoughtfully walks through a passage of scripture with the primary goal of bringing people (me) along with him. He brings us along in order to help us understand and then apply the clear message of the biblical text. Well, at least it seems clear on the surface.
Our pastor is working through the Gospel of Matthew and is currently helping us wrap our arms around the wonderful, but oh so challenging, Sermon on the Mount. I’m of the opinion there is perhaps no greater passage of scripture than this teaching. It’s Jesus’ longest at-one-time discourse. Considering Matthew places it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and at the inauguration of his disciple’s commitment to follow him, there is a good deal to be unpacked.
In the most recent worship period, our pastor led us in thinking about “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8 NRSV). Much of the time was focused on the “pure in heart” and that’s certainly understandable. The “they will see God” was positioned against two backdrops: one total dependence on Christ to be “pure in heart” and the second our eternal reward when we see God. But that prompted me to ask some questions.
Each of Jesus’s blessings end with what could be labeled as a promise or a current expectation once the behavior is being practiced. In other words, the when is important. If the when is in eternity then should it be concluded that the behaviors/attitudes Jesus talks about are to be practiced continually with the future promise of comfort, inheritance, filling, receiving, seeing, etc. for those who persevere?
In other words, the expectation is, these traits are life-long disciplines. Which leads to an even bigger question.
Does Jesus present his disciples with an impossibility in order drive them to an understanding of their total dependence on faith in him in order to fulfill these expectations? In hindsight we could say yes. After all who could be perfect like God is perfect (5:48). However, in the context of the sermon, we don’t see that expectation stated.
As an outsider, I’m not sure what the freshly picked disciples would have thought about the message they were hearing. We get very little, if any, information about their prior moral or ethical behavior. It’s hard to say what kind of moral backdrop they might be bouncing these challenges up against. However, I do suspect, if my life is any indication, these words were hitting pretty hard regardless of how “good” one fancied themselves to be. There was indeed a new sheriff in town and the expectations being laid out were kingdom expectations. Kingdom people live differently. Then, of course, how is it possible for a kingdom person to live under these principles?
I’m sure his disciples, Jewish by birth, could hear the echo of failed attempts at such ethical behavior in the prior history of their ancestors. Jesus will even make that explicit when he lays out the practice of the religious leaders and says to his hearers, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” However, now, if the disciples are patient, they will see this ethical standard lived out before their very eyes. They will witness what it means to live as a citizen of the kingdom. Hence…it is possible for the now and not just for the then.
What is the expectation of such radical behavior as outlined in the beatitudes? In this particular one about a “pure heart” the issue is single-mindedness. A “pure heart” is totally devoted to living the kingdom life. There’s little benefit for the “double minded”. And the result of such living is not just in the hereafter. There will be blessing now and an expectation of greater blessing in the presence of God – within the world of both, we will indeed “see God”.