The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
Today we find Jesus meeting with his disciples on the mountain. Here he is a teaching them how to recognize blessedness. Our Savior tells us that the poor in spirit are blessed by God, as are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Here’s the thing. I read this list, and I’m not certain I want to count myself among them. Who among us wants to mourn--and, truly, if given a choice, wouldn’t we prefer to see ourselves as spiritual giants instead of those regarded as “poor in spirit”? Surely we value the strong rather than the meek. Who ever heard of a superhero whose strength was meekness?
If we find ourselves confused when it comes to the Beatitudes, I suspect the disciples, as well as those gathered to listen to Jesus were as well. In the world in which Jesus lived, the Greek understanding of what it meant to be blessed pretty-much corresponds to what contemporary Americans believe--namely that blessedness means to be healthy, wealthy and wise. Long life, plenty of possessions and children to carry on one’s name--these are the markings of one who is blessed by the Lord. It makes what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel counter-cultural in the extreme. If we were to construct a list of beatitudes based upon our culture’s notion of being blessed, perhaps it would sound something like this list, which was composed by Melissa Bane Sevier:
“Blessed are those who have everything they could possibly want, because they will have it easy; Blessed are those who are not sorry for anything they’ve ever done, because they never have to feel bad about themselves; Blessed are the noisy, for everyone hears them and their words take on importance; Blessed are those who have plenty to eat and drink, because they never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from; Blessed are the vindictive, because they can get even; Blessed are the violent, because violence takes care of their problems; Blessed are those who always have it easy, because they have no worries.”
Okay--we know these aren’t right--but, certainly they sound right, and there are more than a few people who have chosen to live by them. Really…who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted, the peacemaker?
Actually, I think we all do. The Beatitudes teach us that all of us have worth, not because of something we did or might do, but simply because of who we already are--people--imperfect people, damaged people--even. But all of us loved by God. And knowing our emptiness and our needs does not mean that we have nothing to offer. A good case can be made that it is precisely those who are in the deepest need who are better able to appreciate the gift of what it means to be able to bestow gifts upon others.
This holds true. According to Philanthropy News Magazine (2009), those who give the greatest percentage of their income to charity are the poorest and those who give the smallest percentage of their income to the needy are the wealthiest.
Biblical scholar Chelsey Harmon puts it this way: “The poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven, and as such, have all they need to be merciful towards others. Those who mourn and look to future comfort, by looking to God for comfort, are able to strive towards a pure heart turned towards God. The meek, to whom the earth belongs, preserve that earth by being true peacemakers, showing that they are the children of God who follow in Jesus’s very own footsteps. And those who hunger and thirst for what is right, they will be filled even though they are persecuted for it, because they, like the poor in spirit, already have the kingdom of heaven.
And that’s the secret, isn’t it--knowing what already belongs to you even as you look at the circumstances of a life that seems to communicate an entirely different truth. Think of the beatitudes as naming what is true.
The Beatitudes are an invitation for us to re-think what constitutes “the good life” or “success”. In our world, when we think of someone who is blessed we most often think of someone who is wealthy or powerful or famous or successful or beautiful or in some other way enviable. But here Jesus is teaching us something different. Jesus is teaching us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, others who are distressed by their circumstances, those who are passionate about righting wrongs in this world, or persecuted for doing the right thing.
In today’s gospel Jesus is speaking to his disciples before the events of Holy Week. At this particular moment they have no idea of the sorrows and challenges that lay ahead of them. They do not yet know of their Savior’s crucifixion and death, of the fear that awaits as they cower behind locked doors after the death of the Messiah. Jesus today, is preparing them (as well as ourselves) for a larger hope, beyond which the circumstances of the world offers.
In the Beatitudes Jesus is urging the disciples--and ourselves, to see those around us in a different light than that illuminated by the truth of this age. David Lose writes: “Rather than measuring persons by their possessions and achievements, we are urged instead to see their character. Rather than merely to take pity on their losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge their failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s Children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.”
Blessings are like grace--they cannot be earned or pursued, only received as the gifts they are. Today, we are urged to look at our lives--even the challenging and difficult parts of our lives, through a lens of grace--understanding that what God is doing by blessing us in our need involves taking what is negative and planting in us something steadfast--joy, trust and hope in the promises of God. Creating in us strong hearts to show forth the love of God in this troubled world. Be blessed, my friends and companions--be blessed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.