Texts: Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
None of these virtues are not the typical kinds of things that we aspire to, that will help us get ahead in life. It is the bold, the strong, the clever, the quick-witted who succeed. All too often, it is also the deceitful, the arrogant, the callous, and the brazen. The meek, the mournful, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers… these are the ones who are used, abused, walked over and discarded by the ambitious on their way to the top.
If these beatitudes are not about being successful, then perhaps they are about being saved; perhaps Jesus is telling us what we must be and do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. It would certainly fit with Matthew’s theme; the first part of his gospel tells the story of his own call and the call of his disciples before he gathers them on this mountain to teach them about what it means to be disciples. Matthew sees Jesus as the New Moses—a child rescued from the murderous intentions of a frightened king, a Jew who came out of Egypt. In this scene Jesus, too, delivers the law from the top of a mountain.
That’s how many of us have been taught to read this text: not as beatitudes, declarations of blessing, but as “be-attitudes:” attitudes that we must be. With a text this familiar, it is hard to hear it any way but the way we’ve always heard it. We listen to Jesus naming off blessings, and we try to compare ourselves to his list: “Am I meek? Am I pure in heart? Am I a peacemaker?”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says. We would expect disciples to be “rich in spirit:” vibrant, full of life and a sense of where God is at work in the world. Instead, Jesus says, blessed are they who are spiritually empty, spiritually lacking. Blessed are the agnostics and the atheists: these will inherit the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are those who mourn” he says. How often have we heard the message, implicitly or explicitly, that following Jesus leads to a life that is happy and full? We are constantly bombarded by messages telling us that if we are unhappy or unfulfilled, that means we’re doing it wrong, that there is something that needs to be fixed, whether by pharmaceuticals or therapy or consumption or the power of positive thinking. But Jesus says that the mourners are lucky—they are the ones who will be consoled.
“Blessed are the meek,” he says. Meekness, we’ve been told, is not about being a doormat, but about being gentle, humble, down-to-earth; but no matter how you dress it up, it’s not a recipe for success. Industrialist J. Paul Getty famously said “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.” To be meek very often means committing the sin of disregarding one’s own self-worth. Jesus says, “blessed are the doormats—those whose faces are ground into the dirt will be the ones to inherit it;” certainly not by their own power or ambition.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he says. Hungering and thirsting means never being full. It would be far better to say, “Blessed are those who are satisfied by righteousness.” It is a special kind of hell to live with a vision of the way things could or should be and to constantly observe reality falling short. It’s the kind of disappointment that can break people. Yet, Jesus says, these folks will be filled—not because their vision will come to pass, but because God’s will.
“Blessed are the merciful,” he says; “blessed are the pure in heart.” He might as well say “blessed are the naive and the gullible and those easily taken advantage of.” Mercy invites injustice, and purity invites violation. But blessed are these, Jesus says, for where others take and take and take, these will receive that which they freely give. It certainly won’t be the takers that show mercy or godliness; it will be God and the community of God’s people.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says. The trouble with peacemaking is that it too quickly turns into peacekeeping: appeasing the bullies and the tyrants in order to avoid conflict, or else using force and violence to subdue all threats. Peacemaking sounds great, but it comes with a price: the peacemaker is seldom at peace. Such is existence for the children of God.
“Blessed are the persecuted,” Jesus says; “blessed are the hated.” No one aspires to such things. In a perfect world, righteousness would not bring persecution, but praise; discipleship would not cause reviling, but revelry; but this world is not perfect, and so persecution and hatred are sometimes the natural consequence of a life well-lived.
To these disciples listening to Jesus’ sermon—to these fishermen and tax collectors and peasants and day-laborers—these are words not of command, but of pastoral care. Over the next few weeks, as we hear more of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship, he’s going to set a very high bar.
We’ll hear him say things like “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” and “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it is better for you to enter the kingdom of heaven maimed than for your whole body to go into hell.” His words will challenge us, make us cringe, make us wonder how on earth we could possibly afford the high cost of discipleship; but the lessons to come are built on the foundation of these beatitudes: it is Jesus’ way of reminding us that although discipleship may seem beyond us, those of us listening to this sermon have been called not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are.
Jesus foolishly insists that it is our very weaknesses that make us suitable for discipleship. The wisdom of the world says that these so-called beatitudes are liabilities, not assets; that in order to succeed, we must fix them or work around them. The wisdom of the world says that weakness must be excised like a tumor until all that is left is strength. That’s how we get a head in business, in politics, and in society.
Matthew’s gospel story climaxes when the good, religious people of the world—the people who denied their spiritual poverty, who rejected meekness, who misunderstood mercy—decided that it was better to persecute than be persecuted. We decided to excise that weak, foolish rabbi from our midst so that he wouldn’t cause any more harm, make us foolish and weak like him. The wisdom of the world was the wood with which the cross was built. In our desire to eliminate weakness, we killed the foolish teacher—and then we learned how strong God’s weakness is.
The irony is that if we read the Beatitudes like a list of commandments, like a list of attitudes that we need to be, then we are operating by the same principles; the only thing that changes is our criteria. Unlike the powers of this world, God is not a petty tyrant to be flattered and appeased with obedience in the hopes that we will escape God’s wrath. Jesus isn’t giving us a list of pro-tips to get into heaven; he’s encouraging us to see ourselves as God already sees us: as blessed.
In God’s foolishness, the very things about us that make us weak and sinful are the very roots of our greatest virtues. For example, I said earlier that peacemaking too easily becomes peacekeeping. The beatitude is Jesus’ reassurance that opposite is also true: all the fearful peacekeepers of the world can see in their sin the gift of God. In embracing their blessedness, peacekeepers can participate in God’s work of not just keeping the peace, but actually making peace—true, lasting peace.
So it is with each of these: blessed are the beat up and burnt out; blessed are the doormats; blessed are those who must rely on others; blessed are the naive and the gullible; blessed are the ones who are never satisfied; blessed are those who bear the burden of doing what is right. None of us want or should want to be any of these things, but in each of these miserable conditions is hidden a powerful foolishness that can help us all experience God more fully.
Not all of us are all these things. Not all of us have to be all these things. If you see yourself in this list, know that despite all evidence to the contrary, you are blessed; if you don’t, know that these people are among us already. They are overlooked, ignored, feared and forgotten. In God’s foolishness, God made it so that none of us can find the kingdom without them. We need each other. If you want to see God, go follow them around; you might just find out what it means to be blessed in the process.