If you’re like me, you grew up hearing in Sunday School about the “poor in Spirit” in Matthew. These were the humble, the meek, the spiritually thirsty. And if you and I would just be humble and meek (and we can all do that, whether poor or rich, white or black, educated or uneducated), we would receive the blessings of God! “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!” And then a few lines down: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” So, if we are poor in spirit, if we submit ourselves to God and to God’s will, and if we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” (hunger and thirst in the spiritual sense, of course), then God will reward our disposition and our virtuous priorities. God will reward our desires to do what is right and to strive to be sanctified. So, if we don’t raise our voices or interrupt our superiors, if we aren’t prideful or complacent, if we have our quiet times and so on, then we’ll be just fine when the “Man” comes around.
Now, none of those things are bad things, and I’m being a little snarky there, I admit. But what if that’s not really the point at all? What if that misses the heart of some of Jesus’ sayings?
I’m working on a commentary on Matthew’s gospel with my illustrious friend (and former colleague) Jeannine Brown. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about Matthew from her, not the least of which is a re-think of the meaning of the Beatitudes. She pointed me to Mark Alan Powell’s essay, “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom,” in which he eloquently argues that Matthew 5:3-6 indicates “reversals for the unfortunate,” whereas 5:7-10 is indeed about “rewards for the virtuous.” The key point here is that to be “poor in spirit,” to “mourn,” and to be “meek,” are not categories of virtue. Rather, these are distressing and tragic circumstances that befall people–though they are consequences not of their own making. However, the powerful point here is that Jesus is telling his audience that the coming Kingdom of God reverses these misfortunes. Those who are distressed, oppressed, mistreated, and powerless are actually blessed because they are the real inheritors of the Kingdom. They are in the front of the line, even though it seems like they’re at the back (or not in the line at all).
The most striking realization for me about the prophetic power of these Beatitudes comes in verse 6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Powell translates dikaiosune (usually rendered “righteousness”) here (as Jeannine also does) as “justice.” The translation of “righteousness” tends to obscure the concrete meaning of the word here; it gets sucked up into the Protestant and evangelical soteriological ether. Instead, Jesus is saying that those who are on the outside or underside of history–those who desire justice in the world and in their lives like a hungry person desires food and a thirsty person desires water–will be filled when the Kingdom comes. As Powell points out, a hungry person desiring food isn’t a picture of virtue. It’s a picture of desperate need. It’s a picture of crying out to God to make things right again.
And yet, the next verses shift from “reversals for the unfortunate” to “rewards for the virtuous.” Jesus’ disciples are to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and should expect that they will be persecuting for pursuing justice (“persecuted because of–or on account of–justice-making” v. 10).
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the complex of racialization, structural evil and personal responsibility. A satisfying theological and Christian response to it all feels so elusive, and yet absolutely necessary . I feel rather paralyzed and hopeless, to be honest. But as Michael Brown’s friends and family–and so much of the onlooking world–grieves his death and struggles to make sense of so much injustice in a context where we sense that such should no longer be, I simply offer up this reflection on Jesus’ original sermon. Who knows what these blessings of the kingdom entail. Who knows when they will come. But hoping against hope, I choose to take my stand on the words of Jesus, on behalf of the marginalized, outsider, and powerless, and to join in solidarity with those who are starved for justice.