January 16, 2011
I know that 3-D movies are the latest rage, but I am hoping somehow that rage passes soon. I think I might be too old for this new-fangled sort of thing. My problem seems to be that watching anything in 3-D makes me feel sick—as in, motion sick. Not enjoyable at all. I keep thinking that’s ridiculous…everybody loves 3-D movies, but every time I watch a 3-D movie I start to feel like I do when I read a book in the backseat on a long, bumpy car ride. But I don’t want to miss going to the movies with my kids, so I’ve tried whatever I can to make it work. For example, I’ve tried to watch WITHOUT the 3-D glasses to see if that helped with my queasiness. Any of you who have tried this will know what happens when you do that, though. You can’t see a clear picture—it’s all distorted and fuzzy, none of the edges are sharp, and the colors are all wrong. Sigh. In the end, it’s much better to put the glasses on and feel slightly sick, don’t you think?
Well, I don’t know if today’s Gospel passage will make your stomach upset, but I do know it’s one of those that is fuzzy and impossible to see clearly without the “glasses” of context that are so very critical whenever you take on the challenge of reading scripture. Particularly in the case of a passage like the Beatitudes, that is, one that has its own separate name and is so common even people who don’t own Bibles would probably find it vaguely familiar, one has to work extra hard at seeing and understanding the meaning of the text. Layers and layers of tradition can stand in the way of our hearing these words of Jesus clearly. And because of those handicaps we might fall into the usual traps of sentimentalizing scripture or even misinterpreting these words of Jesus. Come to think of it, the possibility of that happening should make us a bit queasy, shouldn’t it?
So as we take a close look this morning at the very first part of the Sermon on the Mount, the beginning of Matthew chapter 5, it’s worth our time to put on the glasses of context so that we can hear and see perhaps a little more clearly the original intention and message behind these familiar words of Jesus.
So, we begin. The Beatitudes are the part of the Sermon on the Mount that all begin with the phrase, “Blessed are those…”. Eugene Peterson’s translation you heard last week changed that regular cadence a little bit, but most of our Bibles begin each phrase with those words. Before we look closely at those, though, let’s not forget the very beginning of the chapter, the first words and perhaps some of the information toward the end of chapter four, because it’s those brief sentences that are critical to our clear understanding of the Beatitudes.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus has just been through the rigors of the temptation in the desert. He returns to Galilee to get going on what he now understands is his mission and purpose in life. So, to start, he heads to the Sea of Galilee and recruits twelve disciples, most from the ranks of the fishing profession, to join him as he travels around the countryside preaching his message about this kingdom that was on its way.
And his words were oddly compelling, it seems. In addition to the disciples who laid down their nets and gave up everything to follow him, people from all over seemed to be drawn in by what he was saying. And not only what he was saying…it was what he was doing, too. He included people no one else would ever think to include. He talked to people who were ignored, on the margins, for as long as they could remember. He kept telling them that God was for them, that God thought of them as important parts of his kingdom—a message they had certainly never heard from organized religious corners before and had never even dared to dream might be reality for them.
And he met their physical needs, too. He touched them. He fed them. He healed them. Things they had never dreamed were seeming suddenly real in this person Jesus of Nazareth, and they were drawn in in ways they hadn’t been ever before. So they followed. And they called their friends and neighbors to join them. And word spread. And soon there was a huge crowd pressing in, anxious to hear and experience what this man was saying. Matthew records it this way at the end of chapter four: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
That’s the context. Those are the glasses. So we put them on, and we proceed into chapter five, where Matthew tells us that Jesus saw all the people crowded around—huge crowds of needy, desperate, sick, depressed people—and he went up on a mountain, high above the crowds, and he sat down to teach them.
In Jewish tradition of the time a teacher would sit to teach, so as the crowds looked up and saw Jesus take his place, seated, they must have known he was getting ready to start saying something important. You can imagine the crowd quieting down, ready to hear whatever he was about to say, and he began.
“Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek…”. On and on he went, naming many of the desperate situations in which those people found themselves. The people in the crowd that day were not people in comfortable situations with nothing to worry about; they were down on their luck, suffering beyond belief, nowhere to turn. And Jesus started his foundational teaching by boldly naming their desperation and saying the most radical thing: Blessed.
Our word probably doesn’t communicate the full import of what Jesus was saying in Aramaic. When he said “blessed” he meant something like “honored.” In other words, Jesus was not saying, “Suck it up, be happy even when your life is falling apart.” No, he was saying instead: “In the painful, desperate, hopeless parts of human life, you are honored people—as honored as all the important people who disregard you and write you off. You are honored in God’s kingdom. And you are honorable people to me.”
Can you imagine how the crowds gathered around heard Jesus that day? Me? Honored? I’ve spent every waking moment I can remember worried, desperate, fearful, alone, and this man says that God is with me in my pain? That I am honored and honorable, and, even better, fit for God’s kingdom? I’ve always thought it was the other people…the beautiful people…the holy people…who were fit for God’s kingdom. Not people like me.
And, as you might imagine, their desperate hearts lifted with hope, because every one of that motley crowd could find themselves in Jesus’ words…and what he was suggesting was positively life-transformingly radical. They had never heard anything like this before.
When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the words he used were the same words one would use to describe a man who looked an awful lot like the beggar Lazarus Jesus referenced later in a parable. Remember Lazarus? He was the cringing beggar who sat at the gate of the rich man, picking at his sores and waiting for any scrap of bread that would be discarded onto the street. It was all he had—he was desperate. Lazarus and his ilk, anybody in the crowd that day who felt at the utter end of their rope—these were the poor in spirit to whom Jesus was talking. Ever felt you had nowhere to turn, no place to go? Have you ever felt desperate like that? Jesus was talking to you, too.
And when Jesus said that those who mourned were blessed, he wasn’t really talking to those who felt kind of blue that day. No, when he said the word “mourn” it called to mind the utter absence of God. Desolation. Total emptiness. Those times we’ve all had when the only thing coming from our hearts and our mouths are gut-wrenching sobs. Those who mourn are those who have utterly exhausted every possible way to turn—there is nothing left. God-absent. Do you think Jesus looked out over the crowd and caught the eye of the woman with the issue of blood. Remember that woman? For years and years and years she had suffered. She’d tried everything. Because of her ailment she was excluded from every meaningful relationship and community. Doctor after doctor had failed to cure her. She felt strongly that God had certainly abandoned her. She was a woman to whom Jesus was talking directly…somebody who felt the desolate absence of God, a woman who mourned. In the seeming absence of God, in the loss of every hope, Jesus says…we are blessed.
Next, Jesus called out to the meek. In the crowd that day were slaves who had managed to somehow edge their way to the gathering, pressing in close enough to hear Jesus’ words. They were the ones about whom Jesus was talking when he used the word for “meek,” which wasn’t exactly how you and I think of the word—self-effacing, modest, you know…no, it was more like impotent, powerless. There was nothing virtuous about this quality Jesus named. It was maddening, to have your hands tied, to live your life totally at the mercy of others. Desperate…meek. When’s the last time your hands were tied and you felt utterly powerless?
And I imagine that John the Baptist was there that day—the crazy cousin of Jesus who wandered the desert wearing animal skins and seemed rather wild-eyed and strange. He was one of those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, who cared so deeply for a cause whose life and death import nobody else quite seemed to get. A wild-eyed dreamer, frustrated at the indifference of the world he was, and Jesus surely looked over his way when he named those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Did you ever believe something so deeply and ardently that everybody thought you were crazy, that you almost gave up, over and over again, because all the voices around you said you weren’t making sense?
And maybe Tabitha was in the crowd that day, a woman who we would meet later in the book of Acts. She devoted her entire life to empowering widows and helping them find livelihoods to support their families. Every waking moment of her life was spent sewing and teaching to sew and selling garments and helping women find a way in a world that had no use for them. Tabitha was who Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the merciful”—people who devote their entire lives to acts of mercy, when they could very well be out making a name for themselves, padding a bank account. The world thinks those people are crazy, and maybe they are…but here Jesus says they are blessed, honored. Who among us lives us life of mercy? Jesus calls that one honored.
And on the edges of the crowd, wearing a luxurious robe, stood Joseph of Arimathea. Maybe he didn’t know this about himself yet, but Jesus already knew that he was someone who was pure in heart. The words Jesus used to say it that day were something like: blessed are those whose lives reflect a seamless bond between their thoughts and actions. People who hold deep beliefs and live lives that impeccably and relentlessly reflect those beliefs. Later in Jesus’ story Joseph would use his position and wealth to purchase the tomb where Jesus would be buried. He was a man who was pure in heart, even to the dismay of his peers. You are blessed—honored—when your life reflects what you say you believe, even when everybody around you thinks you’re crazy.
And peacemakers? He could see them when he looked over at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Siblings from Bethany, they were consistently calling others to enter into community with them, to do the hard work of human relationships, to live the task of peacemaking in the day to day. They embodied peacemaking—the hard and tedious parts of it. They were the peacemakers about whom Jesus spoke that day. It sounds crazy to stick it out, to invest in a community that lets you down and demands so much of you and is filled with people who fail. But those who have the courage and persistence to live in community are the peacemakers who Jesus called out that day. Do you have the courage to be one? When you do, you are blessed.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…I think maybe Jesus caught the eye of a self-righteous young Pharisee who lingered on the edge of the crowd, watching carefully so he could run back and report Jesus’ radical and dangerous behavior. Maybe Jesus saw Saul there and knew that one day he would be on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute Christians, when his life would change. And even though Saul couldn’t possibly have known it that day, Jesus knew…Jesus knew Saul—Paul—would live a life that embodied being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Paul would have the courage to live like that, and for that he was honored and blessed in the best way Jesus could possibly say it. I wonder, do you believe enough to suffer?
All of these people, these are the ones to whom Jesus was speaking that day, people who found themselves in different socioeconomic places, different situations altogether, yet every one still so desperately needing hope that the places in which they found themselves had purpose and meaning for the long term. Because human life was hard for them. And human life is hard for us, too.
Interpreters warn us modern readers of the risk of over-sentimentalizing these words of Jesus, of making the mistake of assigning spiritual worth based on personal desperation. We could read the Beatitudes and piously talk about Jesus loving the poor and how we should try to be more meek and grieve a little bit for the injustice in the world so that we might be included in the group Jesus is calling “blessed”.
But that’s not what Jesus meant.
Instead Jesus, God who became human to live and walk among us, knew that these qualities he listed in the Beatitudes are very real experiences in every human life. And…in all our moments of weakness and fear and desperation and failure and pain…it is right then that God’s transforming power overtakes us, that we can see—finally—our true dependence on God, and that we experientially know that we don’t have to be perfect to be valuable to God. In fact, God meets us right in the lowest point of our human experiences, and God loves and treasures us even there. Especially there.
Instead, when we grieve…when we feel desperate and without hope…well, God shows up to meet us right there. In God’s kingdom, we can be honest about what it really is like to be human because God himself was sitting on that hillside, as human as each of us, to remind us that we are loved and valued and blessed in the most vulnerable parts of our humanity.
Hear these words of Jesus today and know in the deepest part of who you are that God loves you.
God thinks that you are a treasure.
Even in the broken and hurting, pain-filled and bewildered parts of who you are—especially in those parts—you are imminently fit for God’s kingdom. So, find your most vulnerable, broken self in these words of Jesus this day. Put down any airs of spiritual piety or personal perfection you donned to come to church this morning. Offer the most broken, pain-filled, grieving, desperate part of who you are because Jesus says: you are blessed.
Can you believe it?
Thanks be to God. Amen.