We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, August 11, 2017

Matthew 5:3-10 (The Beatitudes)

Our author had a target audience, namely new and potential followers of Jesus.  The great majority of that audience lived in urban centers of the Roman Empire, and they were poor.  They lived hand to mouth existences.  Life was short, hard, and they saw death up close and personal.  The great majority of them were urban dwellers, and there really wasn't a "middle class" to which they could aspire.  Churches were small and some had wealthier patrons; but the bulk of those who became followers or might become followers were poor.

So, why would they even consider joining a new religious movement that was suppressed (and sometimes violently oppressed) by the authorities?  Matthew's answer is simple: it is a blessing to follow Jesus.  Rather than living in a world dominated by death (physical as well as spiritual), Jesus' followers are blessed with the promise of living in the kingdom of life.  Instead of living in a world of pain and mourning, they will receive comfort; their hearts will be at ease.  Rather than being powerless and afraid, all that is good about life on earth will be theirs.  Instead of living in a constant state of physical and spiritual want, they will be filled—never hungry, never wanting again!  When they live upright lives by being merciful to others, have unselfish motives, and try to spread peace in a violent world—when they do these things, they will gain mercy, purity of heart, and  the peaceable state of being God's children along with Jesus who they thought of as God's son.  Finally, even if the government comes down on them, they will still gain a place in a far better Kingdom.

The Jesus Movement offered the urban poor the prospect of turning their lousy lives upside down.  It was as straightforward as that.  Now, poor people aren't stupid (well not any more so that rich people).  If all of this was just empty churchy rhetoric aimed at hoodwinking them, they would have caught on soon enough.  The Jesus Movement might have gained some foolhardy types—enough to become a looney tunes fringe cult maybe.  But, it would not have sustained the kind of growth that eventually allowed it to become the dominate religious faith of the late Roman Empire.

There is simply no other way to account for the historical fact of the success of the Jesus Movement other than to conclude that people who followed Jesus did experience blessings, real ones in their real world.  They were happier (people of religious faith, as a rule, are).  They were healthier (people of religious faith form habits that are beneficial to them), and so death drifted a little further away.  They experienced the benefits of living more moral lives, which can include improved finances.  Even a little more income would have made a real difference.  And, they experienced all of this in a community that encouraged and supported such living, so that they had the blessing of good friends in a more loving social environment.  They were blessed.  They were happier.  This Jesus thing worked for them.  Now, obviously, it didn't work for everyone.  People joined and then unjoined.  They came with good intentions than fell back into old habits.  They got into fights with each other and not every church was a model Christian community.  And...yet...the "Jesus thing" worked often enough that people did experience the blessings and the happiness of following Jesus and living by his teachings (best they could) just like Jesus according to Matthew said they would!