Wrestling with the Beatitudes

Well, the long-awaited Sermon on the Mount series begins tomorrow night at Bloom, and I’m still in thick of wrestling with those beautiful and cryptic opening verses – the so-called “Beatitudes.”

1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Preparing to preach is a funny thing.  Sometimes you wrestle with a passage and a sense of the driving force of the passage just jumps off the page.  How you ought to preach it is self-evident.  Other times, the passage seems impervious to your efforts to understand it.  As if it’s holding back something.  It won’t yield it’s fruit easily.  I feel this is one of those passages.  So as a way of driving my soul into the heart of this text…  I’m going to wrestle with it publicly.

At one level, so it seems, the beatitudes are simply an extension of the core message of Jesus: “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.”  That is, the gracious reign of God is now available to human beings, whatever their situation, and as such their deepest desires and pains are matched and then out-matched by the wonder of God’s “now” kingdom.  Jesus then is declaring “blessed” (Gk: ‘makarios’, which means something like “Good for you!” in English) those who find themselves in all kinds of situations the world counts “unblessed”.  So, to the spiritually poor (those excluded by mainstream religion?), Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand, and it will soon be populated with people just like you!”  To those whose lives are broken with grief, Jesus says, “Good for you!  For the kingdom is at hand, and every tear will be wiped from your eyes!”  To the pushed-around and left-behind, the bullied and abused (the meek), Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand and even you now can be an inheritor of the earth.”  To the peacemakers, Jesus says, “Good for you!  The kingdom is at hand, and it will soon be shown that your efforts had an eschatological horizon… you are the sons of God!”  And so forth.

This is the interpretive decision made by Dallas Willard and others (including James Bryan Smith in the book we’re working through in our house churches, “The Good and Beautiful Life”).  The beatitudes are an extension of the core message of Jesus.  Those who are “truly well off” or “blessed” are those in such situations, NOT BECAUSE of the situations, but because the kingdom is available to them.  Honestly, I like that angle.  Yet for me it leaves something to be desired.  Here are a handful of things that I can’t make compute with that line of thinking:

1) This message, while delivered in the hearing of the crowds, is not ADDRESSED to the crowds. It is addressed to the disciples, who have recently left everything to follow Jesus and now must learn what it means to live in his company.  They are those who ALREADY have responded to Jesus’ basic message about the availability of the kingdom, and now must learn what living in that kingdom looks like.  I don’t know that Jesus is repeating himself here.

2) The beatitudes, while not setting forth a new system of merit (do this and God will love you), DO still, as far as I can tell, make certain positive commendations. In other words, the “attributes” outlined in the first half of each beatitude are not purely “undesirable” states of being.  Poverty of spirit, having nothing in our hands but God, is a good thing.  To claim nothing in this life as our own, meekness, is a good thing.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a good thing.  Purity of heart is a good thing.  Peacemaking is a good thing.  Showing mercy is a good thing.  Living righteously and being vilified for it is a good thing.  Right?  That leads to #3.

3) Seems to me that there is a “Christological shape” to the beatitudes.  In other words, in the words of John Paul II, the beatitudes are “a sort of self-portrait of Christ.”  Christ is the one who empties himself (poor in spirit), who mourns over Jerusalem, who had no place to lay his head (meekness), who hungered and thirsted for the righteousness of God, who was unremittingly merciful, who did nothing for himself but everything for God and others (pure in heart), who made peace by telling the truth and reconciling enemies, and who was executed as a criminal for his actions (persecuted for righteousness), and who in so doing became in himself, precisely IN his cross, the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill.  And then of course he calls us to follow him in that (to use a Bonhoeffer phrase) “costly discipleship.”

Is it possible that the cross is the ground and horizon of the beatitudes?

Anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts running through my noggin.  It’s hard for me to think the beatitudes are not fundamentally related to the kind of discipleship that “turns the world upside down” and draws persecution on itself.  They are certainly not a new merit-system.  Rather, I want to say that they are both DESCRIPTION and INVITATION.  They both describe the life of one who has left all to follow Jesus (“poor in spirit” and “mourning” aren’t bad ways to begin that description) and invite them into a depth of following that will end at the cross.  The “blessed” life is the life that is utterly abandon to the person of Jesus and his calling.  “He who loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it for eternal life.”  Such a life will include a fair share of poverty and mourning and getting bullied around and thirsting for righteousness and showing mercy and cleansing the heart and making peace and suffering for righteousness sake … And at every point Jesus would say to those who undertake such costly following: “GOOD FOR YOU!  You now know a joy that those who don’t follow cannot know, and you will know it all the more when the kingdom is fulfilled!”

Moreover, I cannot help but notice a certain progression in the beatitudes, and though I haven’t run across many commentators who point it out, the more I stare at the words, the more evident it becomes.  It is as though the life of following Jesus takes us from poverty to persecution… from mourning to mercy… from meekness to peacemaking… from hungering for righteousness to purity of heart, etc.  It is almost as if we begin in the following with a sense of “nothing in my hands Jesus, except for you and your call” and end with “Good Lord, Jesus (pun intended), following you has gotten me into a world of hurt.”  And perhaps then we’re back again at poverty of spirit.  Poverty to mourning to meekness to hunger to mercy to purity to peacemaking to suffering for righteousness, and back again at poverty…  Ever learning what it means to lay it all down; ever experiencing the joy of Jesus in fresh ways; ever living as homeless pilgrims awaiting the life of the age to come.

Just a few thoughts.  God give us light tomorrow night … more and more and more light.

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