Blessed Be

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A

Screenshot 2020-01-31 09.04.09

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-12

“How are you?”… “I’m blessed!”
“Have a blessed day!”
“Bless you!”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In common usage, “Blessed” has become a kind of Christianese substitute for saying good luck or fortune. “I’m blessed” usually means “I appreciate all the ways life is pretty good for me right now” while “Have a blessed day” as a parting greeting is a spiritualized way to say “have a nice day”, or that you wish the person well. And of course, the custom of saying “Bless you” after someone sneezes is meant to say “I hope you don’t get sick!”

But it is obvious with even a cursory reading of the Beatitudes that Jesus wasn’t using the word in this way. Jesus describes people undergoing some very unpleasant things, things we would not want to experience, and calls them blessed, or favored by God. If we are honest, we will admit that these are not the kind of blessings we would wish for ourselves, or on others. We don’t usually equate being poor, powerless, or persecuted with blessing. Nor do we think of those consumed by grief or angst as being blessed.  The picture of blessings Jesus paints is the exact opposite of the ones painted by prosperity theologies which teach that if you are right with God, you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Many people have the mistaken idea that if one is right with God, all will go well for them. Therefore, if all is not going well with someone, that person must not be right with God. They must have committed some secret sin, or they don’t have enough faith.  This particular bit of harmful and mistaken theology usually comes from individualizing and/or taking out of context selected Bible verses that support its premise. But the Bible is replete with stories of bad things happening to good people. Job is the most obvious example, but most of the prophets led pretty uncomfortable lives and many of Jesus’s earliest followers were martyred for their faith. I think it’s fair to say that most of the Biblical characters did not live comfortable, easy lives.

There are those who attempt to water down Jesus’s words by allegorizing them into something less radical.  For example, “poor in spirit” refers to those who know they need God in their lives, while “mourn” refers to those who are sorry for their sins. But that reasoning doesn’t hold up very well when reading Luke’s version of Jesus’s sermon, which is similar in content but has some differences in details.Where Matthew has Jesus saying “poor in spirit”, Luke just has the word  “poor”. Luke also has Jesus following up on the blessings with corresponding woes for those who are rich, carefree, and popular.

What if Jesus meant literally what he said? What if he wasn’t giving advice on how to behave in order to receive God’s blessing, but affirming a blessing that was already there for the kinds of people he described? What if Jesus was saying that God’s value system is quite different from society’s? What if he wanted to assure those despised or forgotten by society that God loved them and had not forgotten them?

Society favors the rich and powerful. But Jesus says that God favors the the most marginalized members of society, people without money or power or influence. Only those who are not satisfied by the kingdoms of this world are open to living in the kingdom of God.

Society favors those who have it all together, who don’t allow their own pain to spill out lest it infect others. But Jesus says that God favors those who are overwhelmed by the grief of personal loss or distressed over the state of the world. God will embrace them and hold them close.

Society favors the self-assured and self-sufficient. But Jesus says that God favors those who understand their place as one small part of a vast, complex, and interconnected universe. The earth will be well managed under their stewardship.

Society favors the ones who claw their way into the top 1%. But Jesus says that God favors social justice warriors who tirelessly work to make our world a better place for all its inhabitants. They will make the difference they seek.

Society likes to say “they made their bed; now they can lie in it”. But Jesus says that God favors the helpers, people who reach out to those who are struggling, rather than blame them for their predicament. They will find help in their own time of need.

Society looks for the quid pro quo, even when it comes to religion. Jesus says that God favors those whose motives in seeking God are not contaminated by self-interest, self-advancement, or self-promotion. They will find connection with God.

Society is tribalistic and wants to divide humanity into us-against-them groups. But Jesus says that God favors those who work for harmony and understanding among different groups and factions. They show the world what God is like.

Society will use force to compel dissidents into silence. Jesus says that God favors those who suffer because they dare speak truth to power, who are more concerned about what is right than what is expedient. They are in good company, for so many of God’s spokespeople through the ages have also been rejected.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is sending a message of reassurance- of blessing- to those who need it most. God loves all people, but unfortunately not everyone hears that message because of the way society has distorted it.  Some think that because society has rejected and excluded them, God has too. But God doesn’t work that way. The blessings in the Beatitudes remind us that God’s concept of “winners” and “losers” differs significantly from that of society’s, or as Jesus also said, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”.

The Beatitudes are a reminder that what really matters is not society’s acceptance or expectations, but God’s. Especially when things seem to fall apart and hope for a brighter future is an impossible dream, God is there. God knows what is going on and God understands the distress caused by living in a messed-up world. And God never ceases to work in unexpected ways through unappreciated people to accomplish God’s good intentions for the world.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?