Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 1 (Blessed are the poor in spirit)

pacifismAt last I get to the central prooftext of many pacifistic arguments.

The Sermon on the Mount is notoriously difficult to interpret, for many reasons. One reason, of course, is Jesus’ pithiness. He uses so few words to make a point that we sometimes struggle to understand. Another problem is our unfamiliarity with the cultural background. We 21st Century Westerners struggle to hear the Sermon as Jesus’ original listeners would have heard it. And we so often want to read this sermon as legislation — as though Jesus came to issue new laws superseding the Law of Moses — which is exactly what he says he’s not doing (Mat 5:17).

And so, before we jump into the verses that come up in the pacifism debate, we need to take a few steps back so we can get a running start.

(Mat 5:3)  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The usual Sunday school class interpretation of this verse is: “God wants us to be poor in spirit. Class, what does that mean? How can we be poor in spirit?” That’s not Jesus’ point at all.

“Heaven” was a Jewish euphemism for God, as they feared to use his name because it’s a grave sin to take God’s name in vain. “Kingdom of heaven” means “kingdom of God.” And the kingdom of God was the reign of God promised by the prophets to come once the time of exile was finally over. Consider —

(Isa 66)  This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? 2 Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD.

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. 3 But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominations; 4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.”

5 Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame. 6 Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the LORD repaying his enemies all they deserve.

7 “Before she goes into labor, she gives birth; before the pains come upon her, she delivers a son. 8 Who has ever heard of such a thing? Who has ever seen such things? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children. 9 Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?” says the LORD.

“Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?” says your God. 10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. 11 For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.”

12 For this is what the LORD says: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. 13 As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

14 When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass; the hand of the LORD will be made known to his servants, but his fury will be shown to his foes. 15 See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the LORD.

17 “Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following the one in the midst of those who eat the flesh of pigs and rats and other abominable things–they will meet their end together,” declares the LORD.

18 “And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.

19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations–to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20 And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD–on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the LORD.

“They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. 21 And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD.

22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD.

24 “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

I know that’s an unusually long quote, but unless you read the prophets, you miss Jesus’ point altogether. (I know you skipped the quoted part. Go back and read it. Really.)

This passage speaks of the kingdom that was to come. It’s a kingdom that will proclaim God’s glory to the nations (19) and in which the nations will offer worship to God (20, 23). The nations will even become priests (21).

But the coming of the kingdom will also mean the death of those who rebel against God (14-16, 24).

We see in verse 13 something of what Jesus means by “Blessed are those who mourn.” The time of God’s comfort for his people is dawning!

Of course, the “new heavens and earth” (22) would not come for thousands of years, and yet much of this promise was only months away when Jesus spoke.

In short, Jesus’ announcement was that the time of fulfillment was dawning. This meant, of course, that God truly would bless the poor in spirit and those who mourn, but this was no mere set of ethical instructions. He was describing the coming of the kingdom, the outworking of God’s plan made in ages past — and it would be just as God had promised. The kingdom of heaven will soon be here!

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5 Responses

  1. In short, Jesus’ announcement was that the time of fulfillment was dawning.

    Very good perspective. Jesus went throughout the area preaching the “good news of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23). He called them to repent “for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matt 4:17). So in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount he was encouraging the poor, those who mourn, etc, saying that these blessings were very soon going to be theirs. Very soon.

  2. Have you seen Dallas Willard’s perspective on the Sermon on the Mount in his book, The Great Conspiracy? (At least I believe that is the title.)

    He thinks that the Beatitudes are not legislation, but are instead His offer of kingdom blessings to the various groups – the poor in spirit (poor in Luke’s account, as opposed to rich), the mourners, etc.

    It’s been a while since I read him, but his concepts are interesting – and, I think, helpful.

    Jerry

  3. Pithy is right. Many aspects are valid.

    For my high school Bible class, I ask which of the key words: poor, meek, etc. are values emphasized by MTV. We then discuss what Jesus considers important is often significantly different than we humans tend to conclude. The entire sermon on the mount is about such contrasts.

    This is the main text used by those who taught me pacifism in my earlier years. I modified my views when understanding the balance of Paul’s practical applications of Jesus’ words (such as Romans 13).

    It seems to me that those who want to relegate Paul’s practical details as only situational to the 1st century perhaps limit any conclusion other than pacifism.

  4. Jerry,

    I did finally get around to reading the book — and enjoyed the first part quite a lot. I agree that Jesus is offering kingdom blessings to the groups named in the Beatitudes.

    We just need to add that these are the blessings of the coming Kingdom described by the prophets as coming at the end of the exile. Therefore, when Jesus offers these blessings, he is also announcing that the new age — the Messiah, the end of exile — is dawning.

    And this means we have to flip back to the many prophecies of this age to understand what his listeners were hearing.

  5. Indeed, and we must also remember that since the Resurrection began to usher in the Messianic age, we’re called to live now as if the kingdom had already fully come. That’s at the heart of inaugurated eschatology.

    I’m glad I’ve finally caught up on this series. As some of you know, I do not hold to pacifism, despite how much I sound like a pacifist. The other day, I finally found a pithy way to express where I am:

    “I know I sound conservative sometimes, but I am ex-military and a recovering legalist. I converted to Jesus from Mormonism, via traditional churches of Christ. I’m trying to explore the world of grace without falling in love with any other -isms, even pacifism.”

    I’m personally dedicated to nonviolence — but that also means that I’m even more personally dedicated to preventing violence against others, even if that calls on me to be violent. I have no problem knocking down a drunk if necessary to keep him from getting behind the wheel of a car. If anyone read my blog on the topic, you saw the extent to which I’m striving to ensure that other responses are exhausted.

    More as the series progresses…

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