The Beatitudes: A Message For Now

I am indebted to the scholarship of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Sarah Dylan Breuer, and The Girardian Lectionary.

The photo is by Judy Hand-Truitt, from “White Birminghamians For Black Lives,” a weekly witness in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

As you watch the news, remember the words of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What did I just read?

It’s a serious question, and I don’t mean it objectively. I want every one of us to think about how we hear the Beatitudes. Are these verses poetry? Advice? Feel-good fluff, the kind of stuff you put on coffee mugs and really bad Bible-store art?

I ask this because most Americans suffer from an affliction called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD for short.

MTD has five basic tenets of belief:

1 — A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2 — God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3 — The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4 — God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5 — Good people go to heaven when they die

When we view the Beatitudes through the lenses of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, we tend to see these verses as advice: What the Reverend Rober Schuller called “Be-Happy-Attitudes.” All we really need to do in order to be happy — blessed — is to have the proper mindset. Be appropriately meek and pure in heart, and presto-changeo, we get to go to heaven!

Only it is hard — even impossible — to just jinn up the correct emotions on command.  “Hey you, quit being satisfied with your life! Don’t you know you’re supposed to be poor in spirit?” “Or you, what are you smiling about, that’s no way for a mourner to look!”

And we who claim that Christ has done away with the Law — is it not creating a new law to use the Beatitudes as behavior-modification tips? Maybe part of the problem is that we are always looking for an answer to some form of the question that the Rich Young Ruler asked Jesus: “What must I do to be saved?”  So, Jesus proclaims a promise – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” – and we hear a command – “Be a Peacemaker!” And sure, being a peacemaker, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness, are good things and making efforts toward peace and righteousness never hurt anybody.

Only the Beatitudes are not a checklist. The Beatitudes are not good advice — the Beatitudes are Good News!

Jesus doesn’t take his disciples apart from the crowd to give them a pep talk. “The meek inherit the earth,” “those who mourn are comforted,” and so on aren’t commands to be meek or mournful. These are promises! Promises that in the coming kingdom those who are already meek and mournful, those who work for peace or hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who pure in heart and merciful – these will come into their own and find their faith and constancy rewarded and honored in a world that has come more and more in line with God’s will and God’s way.

…wait a minute. How does this change anything? If I’m honest with myself, I’m not meek, I don’t seek peace all that much, I’m too full of myself most of the time to be poor in spirit, so what do I do to bring myself more in line? It’s still a to-do list!

Unless it isn’t. What if the whole point of the Beatitudes is found in the one “blessed” that Jesus expands on? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?

At this point in Matthew’s account, he has called four disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John. He’s been preaching and healing and gathering massive crowds. It isn’t hard to imagine that, to the disciples, it looked like Jesus was spectacularly successful, to think that they’d hitched their wagons to a real winner!

But Jesus, and you and I, know that these adoring crowds will, all too soon, be screaming for Jesus’ death. Jesus knows that, all too soon, instead of sitting on a mountain, Jesus will hang naked from a cross. This “success” is temporary, and it isn’t the point, anyway.

Jesus came to set us free. And the path to that freedom would be long and tiresome and painful and bloody and would seem to dead-end with a cross and a tomb. And even though the tomb was not the final word, these disciples Jesus is talking to, and millions more, would, in sharing the Good News of the risen Christ, encounter rejection, poverty, pain, loss, mockery, torture and death.

This doesn’t sound like a blessing, does it?

After all, the very act of being a follower of Christ was rife with opportunities for someone to lose their livelihood, their families, their worth their position, even their life.

Followers of Christ were “meek.” Far from our usual idea of “meekness” as someone who is “overly submissive or compliant, spiritless, or tame,” the kind of meekness Jesus refers to is “turning the other cheek,” being specifically nonviolent, even in protests, like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr.

Followers of Christ were “merciful” and “peacemakers,” seeking reconciliation with, rather than revenge on, someone who wronged them. Followers of Christ were “pure in heart,” and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things – like eating with any who would break bread with you – which were bound to render them impure in others’ eyes.

Being a Christian meant that one was most likely going to end up being cast out from their family, they were going to lose relationships and associations. And while you or I might survive this kind of thing in today’s society, in first-century Judean culture, it was suicide.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections — your family members, your patrons, and your clients — were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were very important. If your family was less important, you were less important. And if you weren’t connected at all, that didn’t make you “your own person”; it made you nobody. That’s serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

The one pushed out could be destitute. The Greek is ptochos, traditionally translated “poor in spirit.” The hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about — literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it — would certainly follow, as would mourning.

You get the idea. Jesus was preparing his disciples — those standing and listening as he sat and taught, as well as those who read and heard his words in persecuted churches in the first centuries of the Church, and those enduring real persecution in countries around the world today.

And one of the important messages Jesus is giving them is that they are not alone. Not rejected. Not destitute. By giving them the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus gives them a family. They are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

Cool, huh? So this is the point in the sermon where I tie it all up, saying that we need to treat the poor with honor in exactly the ways I’ve already mentioned: providing for their needs, recognizing them as humans deserving dignity as opposed to ridicule, disgust, and rejection. It’s a nice, safe, comfortable way to end a sermon, pass the plate, sing, ‘don’t forget to dance.’

But as much as The Beatitudes are not poetic pick-me-ups, they, like all of Scripture, hold much more depth than a single definition does justice to. If these words were only relevant to the men and women who were poor in the first century, if they only impacted those persecuted for Christ in the centuries leading up to Constantine, then why preach them? No, the Beatitudes speak to us today.

Over against the disease of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which says that God exists but doesn’t really care, exists but only to cater to our desires, exists but only as doorkeeper of the Sweet Bye-and-Bye, the Beatitudes promise us that God is present and active and cares about all who hurt, all who hunger and thirst, all who seek righteousness and hope. The Kingdom of Heaven is promised to them — the ability to experience God is promised to them.

Eventually? When they die?

No. Now.

Notice the part where Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth? That’ll be a little difficult if, as we read in the Book of the Revelation, earth is done away with, won’t it?

Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary, earthly reality and interlocking with it. When we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we are praying about the rule of heaven coming to earth. In Jesus Christ, God is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, not just someday, but on earth, here and now, as well.

But if I am not already peace-seeking, not already meek, not already any of those things Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes, how do I get there? I have to ask, like the Rich Young Ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus came to save us. All of us. The poor in spirit, and people like me, too. The merciful, and people like me, too. The meek, and people like me, too.

Our relationship with the risen Christ, our adoption by our loving Creator, is a journey. We aren’t where we’re going, but we aren’t where we’ve been.

We pray. We study. We learn from those who are meek, who are poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we grow.

Yes, the Beatitudes speak to us today.  They speak words of challenge, instruction, hope, and comfort to our spirit, in a very real way.

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the poor in spirit, who have failed, those whose self-dependence is exhausted, and whose only recourse is grace, Those who know that, without the love of Christ they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt: without hope, without purpose, without a real future. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign experienced and lived on earth, belongs – lock, stock, and barrel – to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who mourn, both for the things which should be better in the world, and for the things which should be better in themselves; for the relationships and triumphs they’ve lost, and those they will never have. They will be comforted, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the meek, who speak the truth to power, refusing to encourage or engage in violence, yet standing for truth, and for fair treatment for all inhabitants of the earth. These are the ones whose inheritance is the planet itself.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, both within themselves, and for justice in the world around them. Those who speak truth to power, even when their voice shakes. Those who see events in the world around them, and stand in the gap against the forces of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and bigotry. Their hunger and thirst will certainly be satisfied!”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the ones who practice mercy when it matters most, and when it is least convenient. God’s grace will shower them with mercy.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the pure in heart, who don’t wonder “what’s in it for me,” who love without reservation, who insist on seeing the good in others. They will see God, both in the faces of those they love… and in that now-and-coming Kingdom.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the peacemakers, the finders of common ground, those who beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, who don’t fear conflict, but who face it and defuse it. These folks are called ‘children of God.’”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those in Laos, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Algeria, who are persecuted for being Christians, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are you who live in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Columbia, Cuba, and so many other countries, where you are imprisoned, reviled, persecuted and killed for believing in Jesus Christ. You’re in the company of all of God’s prophets, and your reward in heaven is immense.”

Allelia. Amen.


Author: theparttimepreacher

Curmudgeon, Socialist, cartoonist, activist, agitator, preacher. @jhcartoons, @GuitarGirlComic. #BlackLivesMatter. Trans women belong in feminism.

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