To be filled, we need to be empty: Clay gives shape to a bowl, but it’s the emptiness within that makes it useful. To speak, we first need to be silent: “He who does not understand your silence,” Elbert Hubbard said, “will probably not understand your words.” To gain wisdom, we need to live with our questions. Before we can teach, we must learn.
What did Jesus learn from the crowds that gave him something new to teach his disciples (see Matt. 5:1-12)? He had been teaching since he began his ministry, and great crowds followed him. But now he saw them, perhaps really saw them for the first time, and he went up the mountain, and his disciples followed, and he taught them. Did he have some new insight that led him to see the crowds differently or to see more in them than he had seen before?
The crowds who followed him were not the ones who would make a great synagogue or a great church or a great nation. They had no special privilege, no deep pockets, no political influence. They were the ones who seemed without any blessing – who were at the end of their rope; who felt they had lost most of what was dear to them; who settled for just what they were, no more, no less; who were consumed by their spiritual poverty; who were less concerned with protecting what they had than with caring for others whose need was greater than their own. They were the ones who had been left out – the least, the last, and the lost, they’ve been called – hardly worth a second glance.
But when Jesus saw them, he stepped back and went up the mountain with something new to teach his disciples, those who committed themselves to him to learn about life. “Aha!” he said. “You want to see this kingdom of God I’ve been talking about, the one that’s near? It’s not where you’ve been thinking it is,” he said. “It’s not among those who seem blessed, not among the wealthy, the well dressed and well fed, the beautiful people, the ones who move in the right social circles, the ones who have it made.
“If you want to find the blessings of the heaven I’m talking about,” he said, “go sit with those who’ve lost everything and have nowhere to go. Spend the night under a bridge with the homeless; wait for hours in the ER with a young mother whose baby has the flu and who’s there because she has nowhere else to go; spend the afternoon with some of the lost children at Journey’s End Refugee Services. Go where I told you you’ll find me,” Jesus said: “among the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the shivering, the sick, the prisoner (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). Engage deeply in their lives, and you’ll see the blessings of heaven. You’ll find they are not a burden; they are a blessing to you. How will you receive them?
Now if we will find the blessings of heaven among the people I’ve described, will we not also find them among ourselves? For God makes the sun rise “on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). No one is outside the pale of God’s blessings.
And will we not find heaven’s blessings in every moment of our lives? “Life is so generous a giver,” Fra Giovanni wrote to a friend. “But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts” (Fra Giovanni Giocondo, “Letter to a Friend,” Christmas Eve 1513).
“There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see,” Fra Giovanni wrote. “And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!” Jesus said, “The kingdom of [heaven] is spread upon the earth, and people do not see it” (Gospel of Thomas 113). Our gospel as Christians, our good news, is that the heaven we’ve been waiting for is at hand. It’s not a matter of waiting for what we hope will come but of receiving in gratitude what God has already given us, of seeing what’s already ours. Like Jesus when he saw those crowds, we don’t need to look harder; we need to look differently.
Questions for reflection
- a) What might have prompted him to retreat with his disciples at this time? Might he have seen something in the crowd that he had not seen before? If so, what? b) What kinds of people came to Jesus? Why were these the ones who came? c) “Blessed are . . . .” In what way did Jesus consider these people blessed?
- What might Jesus have seen in his disciples that invited his teaching of them now? What might Jesus’ teaching in vv. 3-12 suggest about how the disciples were themselves being tested?
- How might the tests the disciples were facing be similar to tests Christians today face – to tests you are facing? How might they be different? Cite specific examples.
- Jesus’ decision to withdraw now to teach his disciples might indicate that he had some new personal insight about his own faith or about God. (It wasn’t the only time his faith would be challenged and expanded.) What might Jesus be learning? What can you infer about his growth from what he teaches his disciples?