1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Beatitudes are some of the most familiar verses in the bible. But they are also frequently misunderstood. Jesus is pointing the way to the kingdom of God. He wants his disciples then and now to live lives that matter, that provide fulfillment and which bring us closer to God. His directions, however, are often counter-intuitive and idealistic. The kingdom of God Jesus describes sounds highly unlikely and runs in the face of ‘real’ life. How can the words happy and mourning go together? How can it help to be poor in spirit or blessed when you are reviled and persecuted? These were some of the questions that came up in our Faith in Real Life groups.
A careful examination of the Beatitudes would require a series on the topic but I think we can take a few examples to illustrate Jesus’ new way. I asked the Faith in Real Life groups to pick just one of the Beatitudes and tell a story. It could be the one that made no sense to them or one that had proved true in their lives.
The first response was a woman who found it difficult to find anything blessed about being reviled and persecuted. There was nothing good or happy that emerged from Hitler’s death camps and she could not imagine forgiving such a man. If that was the expectation, she couldn’t do it. She then said that though it was largely Christians who dropped the gas canisters, it was also Christans in the camps who helped Jews celebrate the Sabbath. As she put it, when she saw the good in the bad, she felt closer to God.
Another person described the death of her husband. She went through a time when she could neither read the bible or pray. But prayers of her friends sustained her. Her mourning had left her empty, lost and paradoxically more open to God.
A woman described her rigidly religious father’s piety. He prayed aloud everyday—except the day his wife died. Though the daughter had been quite rebellious, (she married outside of the faith), she confronted her father with the question “Why didn’t you pray when mother died?” When the father replied with his despair and sense of abandonment, it was the daughter who admonished him to keep praying. Intuitively she knew her father needed to share his despair and perhaps she knew she needed to see that holding on when your world is falling apart was possible—even if she couldn’t do it herself.
Finally a man described his alienation from the church following his divorce. He had been a leader in the church and sincerely tried to do the right thing—but his reward was a divorce. He was angry. He wandered, lost for four years, before he risked being in community again. As he put it, he discovered that God had not left him, he had left God. God was waiting for him the whole time. Each of these people found God in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. You would think it would be the other way around. Who wouldn’t want to be filled with the spirit? But in this context, the poor in spirit are those who are unsure and uncertain—those who are not so full of themselves. It is in those moments we are open to possibilities that we could not have imagined. It is in those moments that there is room for God.
Jesus repeatedly inverts earthly values. Earthly kingdoms typically confuse what we like with the good and conversely, what we don’t like, with the bad. Mourning is painful and there are many people who measure their strength by their ability to ‘white knuckle’ their pain. That kind of strength is brittle—and is usually not sustainable. Jesus teaches the opposite. He knows that pain shared allows a care that the self sufficient would block. He knows that we need relationships to have life.
Jesus would have us learn that just because something is hard or painful does not mean it is bad. We can not get through life without pain but we can get through life without judging ourselves as bad or weak because we have pain. Those judgments add to our pain and create suffering. Our pain need not be a sign of our weakness or of God’s impotence, it is simply part of the hardness of living. We may not like the hardness but the hardness of life is unavoidable. Jesus joined us to show us that God is with us in even the most extreme circumstances—betrayal, torture and death.
Likewise, what we call good is usually because we like the benefits to us. If our economy is thriving, it must be good. Rarely do we factor in the cost to other people, other nations, or the long term effects on our planet. What is good for me in the short run may well kill me in the long run. As much as the next person, I want my portfolio to grow. I do not want to ask the questions that might cost me. In the earthly kingdoms, such concerns are kicked down the road. Someone else can deal with them. A Christian does not have that luxury. We belong to something greater than ourselves. We may never find the answers but we cannot escape the struggle.
The beatitudes lead us directly from our relationship with God to our relationships in the world. Our faith depends upon our relationships—with God and each other. The Beatitudes start with humility with God and the promise of God’s presence in the hardest of times—and they end with a place to stand when confronted by powers of this world. The Beatitudes “the meek shall inherit the earth or Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you…” make no sense when you feel threatened but they are the promise that God’s way will prevail.
Proactively seeking to be gentle is often viewed as naive and in real life, you will likely be exposed to danger. But we know for sure that the ways of power and control to ensure safety fail. Underdogs will finally rebel. Top dogs will go down. It may take a few centuries but I know of no ‘peace’ that can be sustained with power. Jesus never used coercion to protect himself. We know what doesn’t work but it is another leap entirely to live by the Beatitudes. Again, we do not have an answer but we do have a direction and a struggle.
Choosing to follow Jesus and engaging in the struggle of discernment makes us different. Jesus encourages us to enhance the flavors of our world. He encourages us to shine a light in the darkness of this world. We do not have to be trapped in the treadmill existence of proving and protecting ourselves. We can live and share a life of regard. Jesus promises that such a life is the highest good and the life that leads to God.
Hold fast to that which is good. Render unto no man evil for evil. Let it be so.