Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing the Beatitudes Anew

Recently I have been reading Matthew's Gospel and I was really struck by the Beatitudes, both for their forcefulness and their role in framing the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, arguably the rest of the Gospel.  I have probably heard these read from the pulpit a hundred times, but here they are again, from Chapter 5:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you  because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For me, and likely many others, familiarity has largely emptied these statements of their meaning.  So permit me the liberty of re-writing these as a kind of manifesto for what it means to be a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ (which, after all, takes its lead from Jesus, the Head):
We care deeply about the holiness of the world and deeply lament the tragedy of sin (5:4, 6). 
We choose the values of the Kingdom over those of the world:
Humility over arrogance (5:5)
Poverty over wealth (5:3)
Purity over lust (5:8)
Mercy over vengeance (5:7)
Peace over war (5:9) 
In all these things, we expect and welcome the persecutions which will come our way, for so were the prophets and Christ Himself persecuted (5:10-12).
Before you go and start quibbling, let me offer several caveats for this rough paraphrase.  Jesus says that such people are blessed; He does not, per se, tell us that we need to choose such things, only that we are blessed if they come our way.  Still, I'm hard pressed to see why a Christian would not want to seek a life of blessing.  Admittedly, some of the terminology has been shifted a bit, for example, Matthew uses the phrase "poor in spirit," whereas I have employed simply "poverty."  However, in Luke's parallel, he simply writes, "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and, in any case, I think it is difficult to be poor in spirit without at least contemplating the possibility of literally being poor.  I have tied mourning and thirsting for righteous to the idea of caring about the salvation of the world.  You might argue that there is more to these two beatitudes than this particular reading, and you're probably right, but I think this kind of deep interior mourning over the eternal death of sin is a key part of what Jesus is talking about.  Finally, one might note that Jesus here praises poverty and peacemaking without explicitly condemning their opposites, though such condemnations are certainly to be found elsewhere (e.g. Luke 6:24, "Woe to you who are rich!").

I can only conclude that this is a profoundly radical, even otherworldly, call which is made to us.  You might call it counter-cultural, and so it is, though I think counter-worldly might be a better term.  Notice the nature of the blessings; they are blessings in the Kingdom of Heaven, not here below.  One can easily imagine someone deriding the Beatitudes: The poor receive the Kingdom of Heaven, but you can't put that on the table.  Will the meek really inherit the land?  More likely they'll be exploited.  "Children of God" may be the only compliment the peacemakers are paid; others will probably call them idealists or naïve dreamers.  Right here, at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus identifies the Gospel with the "Kingdom," a strong, glorious, and strikingly political term.  He then promptly turns this kingdom on its head, marking it as a kingdom of humility.

And far from turning away from the Beatitudes, Matthew's Gospel continually comments on them.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount elaborates upon them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.  
  • "You cannot serve God and money" (6:24).  
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal" (6:19).  
  • "Give us today our daily bread" (6:11).  
  • "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" (6:25).  
  • "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (7:11).   
Blessed are they who mourn.
  • "You are the salt of the earth" (5:13).  Preserve it from wickedness.   
Blessed are the meek.
  • "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others" (6:2).
  • "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (6:5).
  • "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites" (6:16).
  • "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).   
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • "You are the light of the world" (5:14).  Bring justice and truth to it.   
Blessed are the merciful.
  • "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (7:1).
  • "Go first and be reconciled with your brother" (5:24).
  • "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (6:12).
  • "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you" (7:12).   
Blessed are the clean of heart.
  • "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No'" (5:37).
  • "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery" (5:28).
  • "If your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be" (6:23).   
Blessed are the peacemakers. 
  • "When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (5:39).
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44).   
Blessed are they who are persecuted.
  • "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock" (7:25). 
As soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain, having preached all these things, He administers three back-to-back healings (8:1-15).  That's the fruit of this new life of humble dependence upon God: it heals our hearts, our relationships, and our society.  But we are reminded that the costs are high.  In connection with the healings, Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4, "He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Mt 8:17).  Yes, Jesus brings us healing, but at the price of His own suffering on the cross.  It is a life of suffering to which He calls us as well.  Lest we should doubt that this new life should cost us everything, Jesus reminds one would-be disciple that we must let go of our material goods ("Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head," 8:20) and asks another man to relinquish even the desires of his heart ("Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," 8:22).  Do not doubt, however, that He to whom you entrust your life is capable of fulfilling all His promises, restoring you to wholeness and bringing you true happiness.  For as the disciples discover a few verses later, "Even the winds and the sea obey him" (8:27).  This is the King of Kings, the Lord of the Universe.  His word is good.

In the final story of Chapter 8, Jesus enters a village.  Having proclaimed the Kingdom of God, a radical kingdom of humility but also of healing, having revealed its costs but also His power to save, Jesus now drives out the village's demons and destroys their unholy herds of swine (8:28-32).  The King has entered and offered to extend His blessings to them.  "The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged Him to leave" (8:34).  They want no part in the Kingdom.  May we have the grace to accept His call.
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