Our gospel reading today is the beatitudes; those well known, but still incredibly challenging sayings of Jesus found in Matthew 5:1-12, the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke 6:20-23, the Sermon on Plain. Sermons that turn our world on its head!
In case you have ever wondered, they are called ‘beatitudes’ because the first word of each line – in the Latin Vulgate Bible – begins with ‘beati sunt’, ‘happy are’ or ‘fortunate are’ or ‘blessed are’.
Preaching on well-known passages like this one is hard – passages that have been read and used (or misread and misused) in many ways. I have been reading a collection of essays by Debie Thomas this week and she starts by saying what the beatitudes are not – so I am going to follow her lead.
Firstly, the beatitudes are not, strictly speaking, ‘blessings’.
We tend to throw the word ‘blessing’ around a little too casually (#blessed on social media) and sometimes our casual use of it is a little too revealing! Remember the discussion following former Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying he and Jenny were ‘blessed’ not to have children with a disability. Our definition of ‘blessing’ is sometimes too close to the world’s definition of ‘winning’.
And ‘blessing’ (eulogetos) is not the word used here in the beatitudes. The word, in Greek, is makarios which according to the commentaries, “[announces] or introduces someone who is to be congratulated, someone whose place in life is an enviable one.” ‘Blessed’ is a poor translation. ‘Happy’ is better – though not in the psychological sense, but as a condition in life. ‘Fortunate’ is better again. This makes the use of makarios by Jesus in this context even more surprising. We might expect Jesus to bless the poor in spirit, the mourners, the persecuted, etc., but we should be “startled awake” Debie Thomas says to hear Jesus call these people the fortunate ones!
Secondly, the beatitudes are not a ‘to do’ list for Christians – not ‘be attitudes’ as many call them – although some are qualities Christians strive to develop.
Graeme Anderson, the pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Sydney, tells a story that when he first became a Christian, he set out to achieve all the qualities in the beatitudes. He figured, as he hadn’t been fortunate enough (makarios) to inherit the full list, perhaps he could work at it – to become poor in spirit (although, as he says, nobody is completely sure what that phrase, unique to Matthew, means), to be someone who mourned (as long as he could find something to be unhappy about), to be meek. He tied himself into knots, he says, trying to participate in this blessedness.
But Jesus is not handing his disciples a list of instructions here. They are not commands. They are simply descriptions. Instead, Jesus is describing what life in God’s kingdom, lived out in this world, from God’s perspective, is like.
Thirdly, the beatitudes do not maintain the status quo.
To use this teaching about the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the persecuted to keep oppressed people oppressed is a gross distortion of Jesus’ words. In the same way to claim the beatitudes are only referring to future rewards, heavenly rewards, pie in the sky when you die, is also a gross distortion. Commentator William Barclay writes, “the beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of come future bliss; they are congratulations on what is. The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now.”
It is no wonder then that we find this teaching – that the poor, the mourning, the meek and the persecuted are God’s favoured ones – and Christian people who believe it – at the heart of movements for social change throughout history.
So, if the beatitudes are not blessings or instructions or form of slave morality as Nietzsche claimed – what are they?
The beatitudes are a reversal. They are an unambiguous declaration that God’s way of thinking and working are a reversal of the world’s way of thinking and working. They take the way we look at the picture, the world, and turn it upside down so another picture, another world, is revealed. Where we call out and congratulate those who are wealthy, successful, ambitious, powerful, smart, safe and secure, God calls out – God congratulates – the poor in spirit, those who grieve, those who can restrain their power (i.e. who are meek), those who work and dream and long for righteousness and justice, who are merciful, who put God first in their hearts and lives, who make peace, who are persecuted as a result.
Why? Because our God is on the side of the poor and the poor in spirit. This is the song that Mary sang to her unborn child in the Magnificat. These are the words of the prophets that Jesus came to fulfil, Matthew 4:16 and Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” This was the teaching and experience of the early church. Paul writing, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…
Our God is with those who are powerless, who appear foolish, who are low and despised. “What Jesus bears witness to in the beatitudes,” Debie Thomas writes, “is God’s unwavering proximity to pain, suffering, sorrow and loss. [That] God is nearest to those who are lowly, oppressed, unwanted and broken.”
There are two things I take away from God’s turning the world upside down to show us – to make with us – another world.
Firstly, there is the pastoral promise here for those who are poor in spirit (in all the possible understandings of that phrase) that there is no situation – no place we can find ourselves – that is so dark, so terrible, so painful, so disgraceful that God cannot come alongside us in it. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says the psalmist, “you are with me.”
We cannot romanticise the lives of those who live their whole lives in such valleys. As I said earlier, the beatitudes certainly don’t, but there are insights into God that are found when we reach the end of our human resources. “For they will see God,” we’re told.
Last week I was in a zoom meeting where a colleague shared about the lowest period in her life. Her marriage had failed, she had stepped down from ministry and she and her husband were engaged in painful, difficult conservation that ultimately led to divorce. One day she was praying and in front of her was a picture of Jesus on the cross and, looking at it, she realised that she was being held in one of Jesus’ hands and her husband was held in the other. That, as Ephesians 2 says, Christ was their peace,that – although they could not be reconciled – in Christ they were one, “that in his flesh… he had broken down the dividing wall…” It was a profound insight into the divine construction of Christian community. One she was only able to share from that painful and difficult place in which she had seen God.
Secondly, God being on the side of the poor, God being at work with the poor, is a challenge to us – if we say we love God and want to more like God and work alongside God in this divine reconstruction, reorientation of the world. In the verses just preceding Matthew 5, this teaching about the beatitudes, Jesus shows us how it is done, “he goes throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news and healing. We serve and we worship, Debie Thomas says, a God who acts. Jesus doesn’t simply speak beatitudes, he lives the beatitudes. “Through his words, his hands, his feet, his life, he brings about the very [beatitudes] that he [proclaims].” And he is eventually crucified for it.
But that is not even the end of the story. Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… [For] God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” And by this foolishness and this weakness our world has and is and will be turned upside down.
We are part of that turning. As we go throughout Canberra speaking in our daily conversations (which could even be called teaching) the wonderful news of God’s favour for those who feel very far from God, as we go throughout Canberra and even further to speak and act for just and fair processes, for compassion, for openness, as we go throughout Canberra and throughout our state and throughout our world – to flood affected NSW, Bangladesh and Cambodia – to bring help and healing by sharing our resources. We too are living out the beatitudes. They are not just attitudes. They are a vocation.
Fortunate are the poor in spirit. Fortunate are the mourners. Fortunate are the meek, Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Fortunate are the merciful. Fortunate are the pure in heart. Fortunate are the peacemakers. Fortunate are those who are persecuted. Because of this great world altering reality that God is on their side. Amen, amen, it shall be so!