I am very far from being a good golfer, but I have spent a lot time on the course attempting to improve. When I first started trying to hit the ball, I received a lot of advice from those more skilled than myself: keep your head down, keep your eye on the ball, straighten this arm, rotate your hips, etc. Every time I would get up to the tee box to take a swing, all of these rules would go through my mind. It became a checklist of sorts to make sure that I was doing it "right."
There is an analogy here to reading the Gospels: when we approach the Gospels, there are a lot of things to keep in mind in order to understand the words and works of our Savior Jesus. This last week at church, I taught on the Beatitudes in Matt 5. They form the introduction to one of Jesus' most famous sermons and certainly his longest. How should we approach this sermon in order to understand it?
To start with we need to ask ourselves why these people were coming to hear Jesus in the first place. This was not a normal Sunday church event where the parishioners turned on autopilot and came to hear their pastor. This was a special speaker. Why do we go to hear special speakers? To hear someone famous; to get advice on a particular topic; to be encouraged/exhorted/fired up. In other words, when we go to hear a special speaker, we have expectations; we are going for a reason. So why did this crowd seek out Jesus to hear from him?
Of course trying to figure out what may have psychologically motivated various individuals would be impossible. But based on what we know about the social, economic, political, and religious milieu at the time we can envision some pretty clear corporate motivations. These motivations are helpful in understanding why Jesus started with pronouncements of blessing on the meek, the mourning, the pure in heart, etc. First of all, the majority of the audience was most likely very poor. They were probably farmers who did not own their own land, but rented it. Thus, they lived by the weather: rain equals crops and food, and no rain equals desperation and hunger. Despite any unfavorable weather, they were still required to pay the wealthy who owned the land. No government bailouts here. No subsidies. People were living season to season with little if any extra to sock away under the mattress. They had little hope of economic advancement, and in many cases little hope of justice if wronged.
Secondly, they were also politically captive to the Romans. Rome "conquered" Israel in 63 BC. Israel had only been independent for a brief period around 150 BC and they craved that freedom again. Of course, this was inseparably linked to the promises which God gave through the prophets before, during and after their exile. They had yet to be truly free, truly independent. They had hope, but they were desperate for God to act rightly, for God to act righteously according to His word.
This directly connects to a third situation: the people were intensely hopeful that God would act soon. God had promised them wonderful promises of a rebuilt Temple, a new heart by which to obey the Torah, a Davidic King, and to be an independent glorious nation which would host the nations and their worship of God. Unfortunately, these had failed to materialize to the degree expected in the prophets.
You can imagine that some in Jesus' audience may have thought that God's promises could be fulfilled through direct military action. Perhaps they should fight the Romans, and with God fighting their battles they would succeed and bring in the promises of God. Others probably thought that perhaps they should collude with the Romans. God was blessing the Romans and they should jump into that blessing by giving up their Jewish distinctives (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc). Others would probably believe that if they just followed the Law as a nation more diligently then God would see their national/corporate righteousness and fulfill his promises. This is not a hope for individual salvation (the Jews believed they were already God's people), but a hope for national "salvation" (i.e. experience of the OT promises).
In part 2 of this blog post, I plan on working through several of the beatitudes in order to see how these expectations of the audience help us to understand and, therefore, apply Jesus' statements.