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.
These words of Jesus, known as the Beatitudes and featured in our lectionary last Sunday, are some of the most well-known and beloved in scripture. I’ve always loved them for how they communicate Jesus’s topsy-turvy theology, his habit of turning treasured notions of how the world and God work upside down, forcing listeners to rethink where true “blessedness” lies. I have usually heard the Beatitudes through a social justice lens, interpreting them as a challenge to our cultural notions of what makes someone significant, successful, and strong. What brings you closer to God and what is most significant, the Beatitudes tell us, isn’t hard work or power or happiness, but mercy, peacemaking, and sacrifice.
Before yesterday morning, if someone had asked me who the Beatitudes are about, I would have said they are about those who are so often victimized and voiceless—the poor, the sick, the very young, the very old. Before yesterday morning, I would not have said that the Beatitudes were about me. I would have said that I have so many worldly blessings—relative wealth, relative health, thriving intimate relationships, the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic identity most linked with power and prestige in our culture—that I bear little resemblance to the poor-in-spirit, mourning, thirsting-after-righteousness peacemakers who the Beatitudes tell us are truly blessed and close to God.
But I heard this scripture from a different perspective yesterday.
I came to church after a week in which circumstances chipped away at many sources of reassurance and confidence in my life. Some rash words directed at friends left them feeling unfairly criticized and me feeling like a jerk. While my immediate apology was graciously accepted, I was still embarrassed by what I said and how I said it. A radio interview I did on Saturday morning went as badly as I knew it might (because I was representing a position at odds with that of the network’s core audience and the host/moderator), despite my efforts to clarify expectations and boundaries ahead of time. I did as well as I could under the circumstances, but in an interview environment that so heavily favored the opposing position, my arguments inevitably fell flat and there were no opportunities to challenge some of the other participants’ assumptions. I berated myself for failing to heed my concerns about whether doing this interview would be worthwhile.
Because of these and a few other circumstances, I came to church Sunday morning feeling demoralized, stripped of confidence that, despite many faults, I also have many gifts, including being a good friend and an effective communicator.
I was feeling, in other words, poor in spirit. Chastened, humbled, meek. I was mourning my faults and the hurt I can cause other people. I was even feeling a little bit persecuted and reviled, because of how heavily the decks were stacked against my being able to fully articulate my position or challenge the alternative in the radio interview.
That morning, the promises of the Beatitudes felt personal in a way they never had before. It was not some other “they” who would be comforted and embraced by God, but me. In these beautiful words, I heard a reminder that God can and will fill the empty places in my soul, comfort the sore spots, and embrace the prickly, unpleasant parts of me that aren’t so easy to embrace. These reminders are comforting, certainly, but they go beyond comfort. The Beatitudes aren’t only reminders that God is present to us no matter what, including in difficult times. They go a step further to say that God is especially present (or perhaps it’s just that we become especially open to God’s presence), that we are not just loved but blessed when we experience emptiness, discomfort, failure, mourning, hunger, thirst, and alienation.
This notion that God is especially present in hard times isn’t a sign that we worship some sadistic God who wants us to suffer and only shows up when we do. It’s simply a recognition of reality, of how human minds and spirits function. When I’m feeling confident in my abilities—to be a supportive friend or an effective communicator, for example—I forget what it feels like to be needy. I convince myself that I’ve got everything under control, thank you very much. Humility and gratitude take a back seat to self-reliance. And then when I fail, as I did several times in several ways last week, in come those voices telling me how messed up and inadequate and ridiculous I am.
But if, instead of indulging in self-bashing, I turn to the Beatitudes, I am reminded that in my most messy, inadequate, awkward moments, I am blessed. God is here, with me, ready to help me pick myself up, dust myself off, and go back to being the imperfect friend and mother and wife and writer and speaker and person I am, with as much grace, gratitude, and perseverance as I can muster.
The Beatitudes are, no doubt, a call to embrace Jesus’s topsy-turvy theology, which turns our cultural notions of what makes someone strong, significant, and powerful on their heads. The Beatitudes are also a call to embrace our own topsy-turvy nature, as people capable of great love and good works as well as great callousness and ineptitude. The Beatitudes invite us to understand that though we will fail miserably, in God’s eyes we are never merely miserable, but always beloved and blessed.