Welcome to our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount. You are invited to join us on a weathered hillside in Galilee to experience the core of Jesus’ teaching about how the world is meant to be. If you’re joining the story for the first time, I invite you to read last week’s Prologue for the context and the backstory that leads us here today.
I was walking along the beach, gathering driftwood for a cooking fire the next time I saw him. It was a bit of a distance, but I recognized the men with him as two pairs of brothers—Andrew and Simon, and Zebedee’s sons James and John. My family bought fish from them from time to time.
“Follow me,” I heard him say. Was he talking to me? They were still fairly far away, but a small group was beginning to gather and walk behind them, heading north along the shoreline. I looked back toward where they had come from and saw Zebedee sitting in his boat, mending nets. Was he smiling?
I looked at the pieces of driftwood in my arms, trying to decide what to do. We really did need it for the fire—there was bread to be made this morning—but I just had to see what was going on.
I scrambled up the beach to a cluster of palm trees and laid down my load, covered it with leaves, and stuck a branch in the ground so I could find it again when I came back.
By the time I caught up with the crowd they were starting to move away from the shoreline and up the mountain. The morning sun was beginning to warm the ground enough for the dewfall to dry up.
I overheard someone just ahead of me say that her cousin, who had been sick all year, was suddenly healed as they were listening to him teach in the synagogue at Capernaum. Someone else chimed in that they saw two people throw away crutches they’d used their whole lives and walk away as if they’d never had any problems. Another person claimed he watched a leper’s skin become clear before his very eyes.
By the time we crested the first rise there were probably 40 or 50 of us gathered. A couple dozen more were coming up the hill behind us. Ahead of the little group I’d been walking with I saw James and Andrew asking people to spread out and sit down. The Teacher, I heard them call him, had something he wanted to say.
The Teacher. That made sense.
He didn’t act like the other Rabbis. But guys like Andrew, Simon, James, and John didn’t just walk away from the family fishing business for nothing. You didn’t become a fisherman by being a good student. People who followed the Rabbis were the ones who could memorize and recite Torah better than everyone else. The rest became carpenters or fishermen or bakers like me (okay, maybe bakers who wanted to be poets…but my mother always said that was a silly dream).
So that’s why Zebedee was smiling. What an honor for his boys to be called to follow a Teacher! But what kind of Teacher was this? Why would he recruit these fishermen’s sons?
The small group I’d been tagging along with started to sit on a couple of trees that had fallen in a flat area during last year’s storms, using the logs like benches. Others were sitting on the ground or leaning on boulders embedded in the hillside.
The Teacher was sitting on the slope above us, eating a piece of bread someone had handed him, talking with a smaller group of people I didn’t recognize. The last of those coming up from the beach were beginning to sit. He waved toward the brothers and a few others and had them sit closest to him.
For a long moment, he stared out over the sea, seeming to soak in both the view and the climbing sun. Everyone was quiet. You could feel a sort of unspoken anticipation beginning to grow among us.
All eyes were on the Teacher. It began to feel like we were all breathing as one. Like we had a single shared heartbeat as we focused on his face, waiting for him to speak.
He inhaled deeply, as if he was taking in all of our collected breaths all at once. His eyes turned to the sky, and then to us. It felt as if he was looking straight at me.
And then we heard that voice. That gentle yet firm, soft yet powerful voice.
“Is your spirit broken? You are fortunate. The community of heaven is yours.
“Do you mourn? Take heart. You will be comforted as you comfort others.
“Honored and blessed you are if you are meek and not proud. The whole earth is for you.”
Wait, what? Fortunate to be broken? Comfort from mourning? Honored to be meek?
Those words—broken, mourning, meek—certainly described many of us gathered on that hillside…in fact, they were true of most of the people who lived in Galilee.
But we certainly were not blessed. We had no power. No influence. We were just pawns of the Empire and our religious rulers. We existed to catch fish and bake bread for them to eat in their fine dining halls. What reason did we have to feel fortunate?
“Do you long for righteousness? REAL righteousness? Are you so desperate for it as to hunger and thirst after it? How happy you are! You will be filled!
“Are you merciful in the face of the merciless? Do you strive to keep your heart clean in the midst of the troubles around you? Then you are honored. You shall experience mercy. Your heart will see Yahweh.
“You who make peace when conflict swirls around you, you are most fortunate. You are daughters and sons of Yahweh.
“You who seek to do what is right, who are persecuted and cast out for standing up for what is good, supreme happiness is yours. The blessed community of heaven belongs to you. Yahweh is on your side!”
No one spoke a word. We were mesmerized.
Happy, he called us. Blessed. Honored. Fortunate.
No one had ever called any of us those things. We certainly never thought of ourselves that way.
Could he be…?
It was as if we all had the same thought at the same time.
Was it him?
No, it couldn’t be. This teaching about care and concern for others, about making peace…these were not the words we’d expect of the One.
But there was something about…the words, yes…but more. It was as if what he was saying came from somewhere beyond himself.
“Honored are all of you who will be scolded and laughed at and lied about in your towns and villages because of what I say to you. You are most fortunate of all. Because your reward is the promise of Yahweh…the realm of the heavens belongs to you, just as it belonged to the prophets who went before you. Persecution has always come to those who speak truth to power.”
What was he saying? Was he trying to stir up sedition? Did he not realize that we lived in the very shadow of Antipas’ palace in Tiberias? Did he not understand how very, very dangerous it was to say these things?
It was too much. None of it made any sense.
But somehow, we all knew it was true.
The Teacher continued speaking. Now he was focused on those sitting nearest to him, but the rest of us could still hear every word plainly.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
There was that word again. Light.
What good is salt that loses its flavor? What good is light if you cover and hide it?
It took me a second to realize he was speaking in metaphor. It wasn’t just us Galileans he was speaking about. It was Israel. The promise to Abba Abraham was that his family would be a blessing to the world.
But over and over again, our people wanted to hoard the blessings to ourselves. To wield Yahweh as a weapon against our enemies, rather than show them hesed, the loving-kindness of our God.
And where did it get us? Conquered. Exiled. Conscripted. Taxed. Ruled by a pagan Emperor who worshipped whatever gods suited his whims.
Was there a better way?
Was the way our people had always done things somehow missing the mark?
Was he saying that if we are indeed blessed, we have a responsibility to do something with that blessing?
That it was not for privilege, but for purpose?
This man, this teacher, was becoming more and more mysterious.
But he wasn’t done speaking yet.