The Beatitudes: Alternative Blessings

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5)

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6)

There’s been quite a bit of talk this week about “alternative facts,” an unfortunate choice of words coined by Kellyanne Conway to describe President Trump’s understanding of the size of the crowd attending his inauguration. As I understand it, “alternative facts” are based on a perception of reality that differs from observable evidence to the contrary. “Alternative facts” are not objectively true, but reflect the point of view and/or political purpose of the person promoting them. The whole brouhaha reminded me of Pilate’s question to Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?”  Is there such a thing as objective truth, or is truth malleable, and like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

The whole Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, seem to run counter not only to observable realities of life, but to theological understandings which equate God’s blessings with material well-being and comfort. Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Plain is even stronger than Matthew’s version.  It describes not only blessings for things people wouldn’t normally think of as blessings, but woes for those things that people normally do think of as blessings. And of course the Beatitudes are only the beginning: Jesus goes on to say that “the last shall be first and the first last”, “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but he that loses his life will find it.” Clearly the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus does not follow the same rules as the kingdoms of the world as understood by Pilate. The Beatitudes are a window into an alternate universe with different rules and different expectations.

In much of the Old Testament, material prosperity was seen as God’s blessing for the righteous. If someone was poor or sick, it was because they had done something to deserve their misfortune. There are plenty of Bible verses that support this view, with the book of Job being a notable exception. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day certainly seemed to understand the world in this way, for when the man born blind was brought to Jesus, they asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither one” and proceeded to heal the man. What the Pharisees saw as a result of God’s curse, Jesus saw as an opportunity to offer God’s blessing. Whose perspective is the correct one?

“What is truth?” asked Pilate. As John later writes in his gospel, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth isn’t malleable, but is personified by Jesus. So I’m inclined to believe Jesus’s description of what it means to be blessed, not that of the proponents of the prosperity gospel. If Jesus is the truth, we can safely assume that his perspective is the correct one, and we’d better pay attention to what he says. Following Jesus is the doorway into the alternate universe we call the Kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom  that is the opposite of the survival-of-the-fittest world in which we live. There the weak are made strong, the poor are made rich, the wounded are made whole, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Jesus opened the doorway to the Kingdom of God, which is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-when-we-die. It is here now, among us, like an alternate universe visible to those with eyes to see reality from Jesus’s perspective. It’s up to us to follow him in, and to hold the door open for others, until at last the wall of separation dissolves, and earth and heaven are one. Who’s with me?

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Luke: The Spirit of the Lord is On Me

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke shares with the other synoptic gospels an emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God. However, Luke’s perspective on the central message of Jesus has a bit more of a social justice edge to it. It’s good news for some, but bad news for others.

The first chapter of Luke includes Mary’s song of praise to God, which includes such choice lines as “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” His version of the birth of Jesus differs from Matthew’s in that it includes details about Jesus’s manger birth “because there was no room in the inn” and angels appearing to shepherds  “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night’. When Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus at the Temple, the sacrifice they offer is what was stipulated for a poor family. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming reign of God, and when the imprisoned John the Baptist wonders if it’s really true, he responds by saying “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. The Lukan version of the Beatitudes contains not only the blessings mentioned in Matthew, but also parallel woes. Then there’s the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as the rich fool and many other examples. Luke’s version of the good news has a definite “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” slant to it.

It’s interesting to me to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s memories of the same teachings and events side by side, and see how they are alike and how they are different. I can imagine Matthew as a seminary teacher, Mark as a street preacher, and Luke off leading a protest march somewhere. Their basic message is the same, but the details and what is included or excluded vary according to the unique perspective of each writer. That makes sense to me, because I see the same kind of selectivity going on in today’s Christ-followers. We all see through our own lenses, and have difficulty seeing through the lenses of others. Different people have different understandings about what the Bible means and different ideas about what to prioritize. Too often this can lead to a false pride in one’s own interpretations, and disdain for those of others. Insisting that the Bible can only be understood in one “correct” way is deadly to its ability to be a living book, one which can speak to human beings at their point of deepest need, in all places and at all times.

Here’s what I see as the basic message of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Jesus travels the countryside, preaching that the Kingdom of God has arrived. He doesn’t just talk; he does good wherever he goes,  and he teaches his followers to do the same. Very quickly he comes into conflict with the religious authorities, who view him as heretical and dangerous, and are appalled by his growing popularity. Religious leaders conspire with political leaders, each for their own purposes, and kill him in order to put an end to his message and movement. On the third day following his crucifixion, Jesus’s tomb is empty and he appears to many of his followers, convincing them that he has been raised from the dead. He commissions his followers to continue his work, and assures them that he will be with them always.

The Kingdom of God has begun, and God invites us to join with him in working to make it a reality for everyone. Jesus has shown us the way.  God is with us always. Death is not the end of life. And that’s good news!