Friday, October 19, 2012

Switchin' It Up With The Beatitudes

"Blessed are ______, for they will ____________." Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount with 9 of these statements. (Also known as The Beatitudes.) Let's take a look at them.

Read the passage here: Matthew 5:1-12.

Jesus appears to be mimicking an Italian stereotype here. Image source.

All of Jesus' statements in this passage are one-liners about abstract concepts, some with unusual wording- and keep in mind this is a translation; the original was written in Greek.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

What does "poor in spirit" mean? Seriously, no one talks like this. Except Jesus, apparently. I looked up the original Greek words, and it said they mean poor/beggar and spirit/spiritual/wind. In other words, Jesus is talking about some kind of spiritual poverty.

Now to speculate about what "spiritual poverty" is, and why on earth might the "poor in spirit" be blessed.

Spiritual poverty must mean that one's spiritual needs are not being met. What are spiritual needs? Perhaps people have a need for hope, for a sense of purpose in life, and for a connection with God. But why does Jesus think you're blessed if you don't have those things?

Wait. Being poor doesn't necessarily mean your needs aren't being met- it means they aren't being met reliably and often enough. It means you're very aware of those needs, desperate, restricted, and dependent on others' help. So Jesus is saying that to be desperate for God, dependent on him to meet one's spiritual needs, is a good thing.

But what about those who are not poor in spirit? What would that mean? Rich in spirit? Their spiritual needs are totally satisfied, no worries. Satisfied in God, or something else? If it's in God, how can that be a bad thing? If it's in something else, well, Christians believe that nothing else CAN satisfy those needs, except God- so that doesn't make sense.

So I would argue that the poverty analogy breaks down at this point. Jesus is just saying that it's good to be dependent on God and very aware of one's spiritual needs. Don't think too hard about what the opposite of "poor in spirit" is.

And he says they are blessed "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." So, those who are most desperate for God would be most motivated to follow him and serve him, and therefore they have the largest role to play in God's kingdom.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Image source.
You mourn when something really bad happens- like, someone dies. How does being "comforted" make this a positive? Wouldn't it be better if the bad thing didn't happen at all, and then you don't mourn, and then you don't get comforted?

Let's just stop for a second and appreciate how COMPLETELY WEIRD Jesus' statement is here. He is saying that mourning is a good situation to be in. Because someday things will get better.

One thing to keep in mind: people in that culture often interpreted tragedy as a sign of God's judgment. If something bad happens to you, it must be because you're a sinner. Jesus completely reverses that- he says those who mourn are blessed, and God will comfort them. (At least, that's how I interpret the "for they will be comforted" part.)

Perhaps this should be understood not as a comparison between those who mourn and those who don't, but as encouragement to people who are facing tragedies in life. God is with you; God understands and feels your pain. And there is hope that things will get better.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

Image source.
Really, Jesus? Meek? As in, humble, timid, don't speak up for yourself, shy... How are they going to "inherit the earth"? Just look at all the political campaigning going on right now- all the candidates running around trying to convince everyone "I'm awesome, vote for me!" You can't win if you don't do that. You can't get anywhere in politics if you're meek.

And it's not just politics. To get hired for any job, you need to do your best to convince the hiring manager that you're TOTALLY AWESOME. You'll never get anywhere if you're meek.

And if you make the argument "Jesus doesn't care about political power and a successful career- his kingdom is based on different things"- okay, which things? Things like justice, perhaps? How are you going to fight for justice by being meek? Do you think lawyers who go after perpetrators of human trafficking are meek?

And the "inherit the earth" part- the word "inherit" makes me think of leaving something behind for someone else. So, someday everyone will be gone, except the meek people, and then finally they'll be in charge of the earth. Is that what Jesus is saying? Even if it's true, would that be a good thing? How are meek people going to be good leaders?

It seems to me that one should be meek and humble in certain situations, and brave, confident, even aggressive in other situations. Maybe Jesus isn't saying it's good to be meek all the time, but that when you know the right times to be meek instead of fighting for yourself, God sees it and God will reward you. As for the "inherit the earth" part, maybe Jesus is saying that those who understand when to be meek- those who don't have to win every fight- actually have the most power in the world.

But Jesus did not say "blessed are those who aren't so focused on standing up for themselves all the time"- no, he said "blessed are the meek". So either he's using hyperbole, or he said something that just totally makes no sense. Thoughts?

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Whose "righteousness"? Does this refer to people who hold themselves to a very high standard, or people who long to see more righteousness in the world in general? I think it's both.

These are people who see the way the world is, including their own faults, and know that it's not supposed to be this way. People are not supposed to mistreat each other. They hope for a better world, they promote justice, and they strive to be genuinely good people.

One might ask, what's the point? That's way too idealistic- you can never solve all the world's problems, you can never get rid of hate and injustice and corruption. Apparently Jesus thinks you can. "For they will be filled"- what a ridiculous promise!

Jesus is saying it's NOT "too idealistic" to long for a better world. That those who are dissatisfied with the way things are are actually blessed. And I can only assume "they will be filled" refers to heaven.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

Mercy is being nicer than you "should" to someone. It's responding politely and graciously when someone insults or accuses you. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

In my experience, the problem with mercy is the other person might get away with hurting me without realizing how much they've hurt me. Without getting what they deserve. Without justice. But Jesus was merciful, and calls his followers to be merciful too.

As for the "for they will be shown mercy" part- that could mean God gives them mercy, or it could even mean other people show them mercy. If you're the kind of person who is nice to people who don't deserve it, maybe they'll also be nice to you when you do something wrong.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

Image source.

What is "pure in heart"? I can only speculate, with no real confidence that I'm getting it right, because this is just not a term that anyone ever uses, and Jesus gives us no context.

Perhaps it means pure motives? Being driven by a genuine desire to do good, love God, love people- rather than being driven by pride and selfishness. Perhaps it means innocence, assuming the best of people. Perhaps it means honesty.

What does it mean to "see God", and why do the "pure in heart" get to? The best answer I have is that people who are genuinely kind and seeking to help others will more easily see God's work in the world and good in humanity.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."

Image source.
Being a peacemaker is hard. It means talking to two groups who disagree, and trying to get them to listen and understand each other. It can even be dangerous, discouraging, and lonely, as each side accuses you of being a traitor, and tries to force you to pick a side.

I'm thinking about controversies in the church, and wishing more of us could be peacemakers.

Why will they "be called sons of God"? Who is calling them that? Other people? God? Maybe this means that people will recognize the peacemakers really are doing God's work.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

These are people who do the right thing, and then everyone gives them a hard time about it. These are people who refuse to lie and cheat, and they lose their job because of it. These are people who stand up for someone who is being bullied.

What about when you're trying to do something good, but you don't understand the situation well enough, and you face opposition because your brilliant plan is actually not helpful at all? For example, you try to start some sort of program to "help the poor" but you don't actually understand their needs. I don't doubt that you're genuinely trying your best to do the right thing. But if you're unsuccessful, is it really "persecution because of righteousness"?

Anyway, Jesus says "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This seems to be kind of a poetic thing- he starts off with "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" and right here he ends with "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Also, those who are not afraid to do what's right, even when facing opposition, are those who really understand what it means to be part of God's kingdom. They don't fear anything the world can throw at them- they believe God's kingdom is more real than any persecution.

"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."

This one is different because it says "blessed are you". What does it mean to say "you" instead of "those who [fill in the blank]"? Jesus is talking to his disciples here- he fully expects that they will be insulted, persecuted, and falsely accused because of their commitment to him. The previous ones were more general.

In other words, this is the only one of the beatitudes which is specifically for Christians. The other ones can apply to everyone.

Jesus tells his disciples to "rejoice and be glad"- the previous beatitudes do not have any sort of command attached to them. "Rejoice and be glad" because the prophets were also persecuted.

But my advice is: don't be so quick to look for persecution. If people are opposing you, is it because of your commitment to Jesus, or is it because you're being a jerk? "Jesus said we would face persecution!" is too often used as an excuse to not care about whether you're being nice to people.

When there is backlash against Christians, when people are hurt or angry by things we say or do, we have to take that seriously. We have to look at the reasons why- are they angry about Jesus himself, or are they angry because we're using Jesus as an excuse to judge them?

What is the purpose of the Beatitudes? Is Jesus saying these are things we SHOULD try to be?

Or is he just telling us facts?

For some of the beatitudes (meek, merciful, peacemakers) it's clear how you could choose to be like that. For some (poor in spirit, hunger/thirst for righteousness, pure in heart) it's about being a certain type of person, and to become like that would be a slow process, but it can be done if you work toward it and pray for God to change you. For some (mourn, persecuted for righteousness, persecuted for Jesus), these are caused by circumstances beyond your control.

So should we understand this as "You should be poor in spirit. You should be meek. You should be merciful. [etc etc]"? No- this passage is about encouraging those who are weak or going through bad situations, and showing that in God's kingdom, they are the ones who are truly blessed. God is with them, and God understands. If we think of this as a list of commands, it puts pressure on us- "oh no, what do I need to do to be 'poor in spirit'???" - rather than the encouragement that Jesus intended.

(Though if you have opportunity to be merciful or a peacemaker, please do so.)

Summary/ take-home message:

Almost every one of these statements is incredibly backwards. "Blessed are the poor in spirit", "blessed are those who mourn", etc... They are meant to seem backwards and ridiculous. Jesus is reversing the way things normally work.

This passage is meant to be shocking. How can it be good to be in need, dependent, weak, dissatisfied, persecuted?

And what shocks me is I have to conclude Jesus is not just talking about Christians. What part of mourning, being meek, being merciful, hungering for righteousness, or being persecuted for righteousness requires being a Christian? Even the more spiritual-sounding beatitudes can quite easily apply to people of other religions besides Christianity.

In the coming weeks, we'll see how the rest of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount reverses/challenges things people had been taught. He starts here, with a shocking list of which groups in society are truly blessed.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: In which Jesus actually starts doing stuff (Matthew 4:12-25)

Next post: Salt and High Standards (Matthew 5:13-20)

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