Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Lk 6:17-26)
I’ve never been terribly happy about the ways in which the Beatitudes are interpreted.
There are some who treat them as entrance requirements. You can get into the Kingdom of God if you are poor. You can get in if you are hungry. You can get in if you are hated. The people who do are quick to note that we can’t earn God’s love. But the fact that they treat the Beatitudes as entrance requirements would seem to suggest that they are not really sure about that. They usually end up saying, “Well, life in the Kingdom of God is about faith and works.”
There are others who treat the Beatitudes as a political manifesto. Here is what the world will look like if it’s run the way that Jesus wants it run. The poor and the hungry will get preference. The rich, well fed, and happy will get their comeuppance. And they almost never talk about being hated for witnessing to the Son of Man because you’ve never seen a political platform that includes witnesses for Jesus. The problem is, they ignore the fact that Jesus explicitly argues that “his Kingdom is not of this world” and the fact that Jesus did not attempt to seize control of the Temple, Jerusalem, or Rome.
Then there are those who treat the Beatitudes as God’s preference for a certain category of person, especially the poor. They talk about God’s “bias” or “preference” for the poor. But the same people also talk about how important it is for the church to “end poverty”, so it is never quite clear what God’s attitude toward the poor might be if we succeeded. And anyone who has ever been poor knows that is neither easy, nor does poverty nurture sanctity or generosity. They also never talk about a divine preference for those who grieve or who are hated for their witness. So, it’s a strangely selective reading of the Beatitudes.
As I sat with these interpretations this last week, I realized why I don’t think these readings of the Beatitudes work:
One, the Beatitudes are not entrance requirements or anything like them. Jesus doesn’t frame them in that way. The Beatitudes are not conditional statements. He offers them up as descriptions of a new order that is recognizable only if one realizes that God reigns. So, to suggest that they are just doesn’t ring true.
Two, the Beatitudes aren’t about politics. Jesus was not a nation-builder or a community organizer and – if he was – he was pretty poor at it. But, more to the point, alarm bells ought to go off in our heads whenever the teaching of Jesus suddenly begins to sound just like the position of any political party in twenty-first century America. Jesus did not set out a picture of the reign of God in the first century, just to wait 2000 years to have Democrats or Republicans finally discover what it was all about – in a country that hadn’t been created, on a continent that hadn’t been discovered, under circumstances no one could imagine.
But the third and deeper problem with all three interpretations is that they try to quantify descriptions of the Kingdom that are not meant to be quantified and, for that reason, they just don’t sound like Jesus. “Do this to get in.” “Follow this political formula.” “Be poor, hungry, or hated to signal that you side with Jesus.” None of these remotely represent what Jesus taught.
Instead, if you look at what Jesus has to say about the reign of God, he regularly announces that the coming of the Kingdom signals the end of human notions of adequacy. You can’t earn, build, laugh, eat or buy your way into the reign of God. He tells the Pharisees it won’t work to just keep the Law. He tells the Saducees that it won’t work to gatekeep at the Temple. He tells the Zealots that the solution is not nation-building.
Instead, Jesus insists that with the coming of the Kingdom everyone finds themselves confronted with four truths:
- No one is lost to God’s love and mercy.
- No one can earn God’s love and mercy.
- No one can live without God’s love and mercy.
- No one can fully understand life in the Kingdom without opening themselves to God’s love and mercy.
Jesus doesn’t put it this baldly, of course. He isn’t given to propositions and summaries. The genius of his teaching is that it takes us into God’s presence and demands that we evaluate and reevaluate our lives in God’s presence. I can’t do that for you. You cannot do that for me.
But let me try to help you understand what Jesus is saying. Here is my paraphrase:
In the Kingdom God’s attention and care extends to the poor and God will lift them up, but grief is coming, if you think that wealth can save you, because you have all that you are going to get.
In the Kingdom God’s attention and care extends to the hungry and God will feed them, but grief is coming, if you think that satisfying your hunger now can save you, because you will discover you are hungry, but not the way you think.
In the Kingdom God’s attention and care extends to those who grieve and he will help them to laugh one day, but grief is coming, if you think that tending to your own happiness is enough. One day, your laughter will turn to tears.
In the Kingdom God’s attention and care extends to those who are hated for their witness to his Son’s coming and they will celebrate with joy, but you will have no more than what you have, if you think that winning the approval of your neighbors will do, you will find yourself numbered among the liars.
Drawn out in this fashion a number of things become clear:
One, the Beatitudes are a description of the Kingdom of God. It is almost always safe to assume that the Kingdom of God is what Jesus is talking about in one form or another. But that is certainly true here.
Jesus brings the Kingdom. And because Jesus brings the Kingdom, Jesus is its agent, its messenger, and its provocateur. The signs and wonders he works reveal truths about the kingdom. His teaching explores the nature of the kingdom. His parables offer insight into the Kingdom.
And what is the Kingdom? It is the place where God reigns. Where God’s will is what ultimately matters. So, in one sense, the Kingdom of God is the whole of creation. There is nothing material or immaterial that is exempt from God’s reign. But because we live in a fallen world, in another sense the Kingdom of God is present where people choose to invite the reign of God into their lives.
In the Beatitudes and elsewhere, Jesus is effectively saying, where God reigns, where people realize that God is present and in charge, where people figure out that all the passing distractions of life are just that – distractions – then they will discover what really matters. They will discover that God is in charge. They will discover what life is all about. They will discover what they thought was important is not important at all. And, if they don’t, then they will discover that they have run headlong into reality. And in that moment, grief is coming.
This is why, when you think about it, the Beatitudes are a challenge to endless vulnerability before God and why they don’t describe a fixed group of people – and, preferably other people.
Who thinks their possessions can save them? Who is satisfied with the next meal? Who is satisfied with caring about their own happiness to the exclusion of the needs of others? Who gets ahead by winning the approval of the people around them, but never thinks about what God may want from them?
I don’t know and I can’t say. It is not my business to answer those questions for you and you can’t answer those questions for me. They can’t be answered by joining a political party. They can’t be answered by voting that the government do this or that. They can’t be answered by getting on “the right side of history” – because there isn’t a right side to history. There is God’s side and not God’s side.
All I can do is ask God to help me to be open to those questions about my life. All you can do is ask God to help you be open to those questions about your life. And, together, all we can do is ask God to help us be open to those questions about the life of our church – because it is in the body of Christ that life lived out in that fashion is meant to be manifested.
And here is one more important point to keep in mind: Those questions can’t be answered once and for all. They can’t be answered in the abstract. They are answered moment by moment, day by day.
That realization should lead us to pray:
Gracious Savior, lead us into the beatitudes of the Father’s kingdom.
Save us from the anxious preoccupation that attends the life of the self-made man and woman, that tempts us to believe that we can save ourselves, that blinds us to the needs of the poor and lives at a distance from those who live on the threadbare margins of life.
Save us from the hungry consumption that makes appetite our God, that prompts us to ignore the emptiness of our souls and inures us to the hunger of our neighbors.
Save us from the voices that insist our happiness is the measure of a life well-lived, that confuses its siren song with the joy that attends a life lived in conformity with your purposes for us, that is deaf to the tears of those who mourn.
Save us from a life scripted to win the world’s approval, that stifles our witness to your love, because one day the truth will be evident, your reign will be visible everywhere, and we will long for the one thing that matters: Your blessing. Amen.