Texts: Micah 6.1-8; 1 Cor 1.18-31; Matt 5.1-12
The Greek word for blessing used in Jesus’ sermon has much the same connotations as our English word “blessed.” In Greek literature, it is often used to describe the status of the gods or of wealthy and powerful people. The Romans translated it into the word beatitudo, meaning “the state of being happy,” and which is why we call these the “beatitudes” (not because these are “attitudes” that we should try to “be”). Other English translations of the word include “happy,” “fortunate,” or “privileged.” However, it really doesn’t take a very close reading to see that these words fall short. Fortunate are the poor in spirit? Happy are those who mourn? Privileged are the persecuted? However, the challenge is not so much in the translation of the word as it is in its definition. In the beatitudes, Jesus is both teaching us about the kingdom of God as well as adjusting our idea of what it means to be “blessed.”
One basic premise of our religion has been that if we follow God and do God’s will, we will be blessed. The common myth for just as long has been that this blessing takes material forms: if you are a good Christian, God will give you good things—health, safety, possessions, etc. The reality is often different. Even within the bible itself we see this tension. Job wrestles with the question of why a righteous God allows righteous people to suffer. Micah seeks to understand how God’s chosen people Israel could find themselves so beset by misfortune when the wicked nations around them flourish. In a dramatic courtroom scene with the very hills as witnesses, Micah blames Israel’s hardship on their sin of breaking God’s covenant and offers this solution: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” The implied consequence of doing these things is that Israel will prosper like the other nations do, or perhaps more.
We still believe this, but sometimes we believe it a little too much. There is an insidious heresy within Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel which deceives millions of Christians, telling them that if they have enough faith and do enough good, God will bless them with an abundance of good fortune and riches—material reward for their righteousness.
Jesus says the opposite. He says that it is not reward, but suffering that marks the true people of God: poverty of spirit, mourning, showing undeserved mercy, the pitiless and thankless work of doing peace. In the beatitudes, Jesus shows us unequivocally that God chooses to align Godself with the poor suckers at the bottom of the social order, not the shining stars at the top. God sides with the oppressed, not the oppressors.
To be blessed does not necessarily mean what we think it means. We consider blessing to be a state of being in which life is happy and easy, but Jesus shows us that to be blessed often means to be living a life that is full of suffering. At least, that’s the case right now. Each beatitude is followed by a reason: “these people are blessed because…” and it’s in these reasons that we see the happiness, the good fortune and the privilege we have come to associate with blessing. Those who mourn will be comforted; those who hunger for righteousness will be filled; the pure of heart will see God. Those who suffer now will see the fulfillment of their longings because, in the end, God’s vision for the wholeness of creation will be accomplished: the kingdom of heaven will come. Those who suffer for it now are blessed because when it does come, they will be ready for it.
In the meantime, however, the waiting is hard. The future tense of these blessings in the beatitudes resists every notion that Christianity is a scheme or a philosophy or a guiding principle that will help us to be happy and successful in the present moment. Following Jesus does not help us lose weight or get a promotion or find our car keys or cure cancer. Instead, our faith is an orientation towards God’s promised future. It is a proclamation that we believe God’s reign is meek and merciful, peaceful and just; that these blessed principles describe how reality will be, even if it isn’t now. So, blessed are those who live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish; for they will, in the end, be vindicated by God. To be blessed is to live as people out of time, citizens of a future that does not yet exist, but which we know to be immanent. To be blessed is to live as a fish out of water, gasping for the breath of God.
A Christian life is a life of suffering; not for suffering’s sake, but for the sake of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. As we see others suffering injustice and persecution, we may turn away and “count our blessings,” or we may suffer alongside them, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, working for peace, mourning that the world is broken as it is, even facing persecution ourselves by those who consider themselves righteous. In doing that, Jesus says, we are truly blessed.
To do as Micah suggests—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God—is to set ourselves up for suffering in the midst of an unjust world. The unexpected surprise—the epiphany, as it were—in all this is that while we so often feel separated from God in our suffering, when we are suffering for the sake of God’s reign, God is actually more fully present with us. Of all the places we might see Christ in our lives, nowhere is he more fully and reliably present than on the cross.
So what does it mean to be blessed? It means not to be satisfied, but to be unsatisfied; to be always yearning for, always mourning over, always hungering after a fulfillment for which we hope but cannot yet see. To be blessed is to be sustained as we wait for God’s just and merciful future only by the passing glimpses we catch of it through sacraments. To be blessed is to have our hunger and thirst for justice slaked only by the body and blood of one who was himself unjustly killed. Though he died, God’s love and justice were stronger than death, and it is that love and justice with which he feeds us at this table.
There is a story from the Hasidic tradition of the Rabbi, who was asked one day by a student, "How can one tell when the new day has come?"
The Rabbi reversed the question and asked his student,
"You tell me how you can know."
The student guessed, "Is it when the rooster crows to signal a new dawn?"
"No," the Rabbi answered.
"Is it then perhaps when one can discern the silhouette of a tree against the sky?"
"No," he was told. "The surest way to know when the night is over and when a new day has come is when you can look into the face of a stranger, the one who is so different from you, and recognize him as your brother. See her as your sister. Until that day comes, it will always be night."
To be blessed is to live in the darkness of night hoping, waiting, straining to see the light of a new day. While we sit, we sing against the darkness, “Amen amen. It shall be so. Alleluia.”