One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and began to teach them.
– Matthew 5:1-2
Nice words, aren’t they? God blesses those who are poor, who mourn, who are merciful, whose hearts are pure, who are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who work for peace. Nice thoughts – nice to know that God blesses them, because the rest of the world knows how crazy they are.
Isn’t that what we really think? We don’t really hear these words from Jesus and think that they apply to us do we? Anybody here want to sign-up to be one on this list who is blessed by God? Novelist Kurt Vonnegut pointed out how most Christians don’t really place a high value on the Beatitudes. He wrote: For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
We really don’t want to keep these words in the forefront of our thinking. After all, who wants to be poor, or in mourning, or humble, or working for justice, or merciful, or persecuted for doing right, or mocked or lied about? And anyone who says they do, they are just not in touch with reality. After all, reality tells us we are in danger and need to protect ourselves. Reality tells us there are mean and nasty people coming to this country just to kill us and destroy us. So we need to take whatever actions are necessary for our safety and security.
Reality tells us you don’t want to identify too much with the poor, the humble, those who want justice, the merciful, those peaceniks, those whose hearts are pure, those do-gooders. They are losers. They are not successful and that is really not the pathway to happiness and blessing. Those who are happy and blessed are winners. Several years ago the Raleigh, North Caroline News & Observer published a list for measuring a successful man. It read like this:
- His ability to make and conserve money.
- The cost, style and age of his car.
- (This is my favorite) How much hair he has.
- His strength and size.
- The job he holds and how successful he is at it.
- What sports he likes.
- How many clubs he belongs to.
- His aggressiveness and reliability.
So let’s be honest. Jesus’ beatitudes are not a manual to achieve happiness or a blessed life. Rather, they are unconditional declarations about those in specific situations who will receive mercy, see God, be satisfied, inherit, and so on. They are stated in the future passive voice to give hope to the community. The future tense of the beatitudes resists all notions that what Jesus is offering is a “philosophy of life” intended to reduce stress, lose weight, advance in one’s career, or preserve one from illness. What Jesus is offering, instead, is a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that humility is the way of God, that righteousness and peace will finally prevail, and that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty. So blessed are those who live this life now, even though such a life seems foolish, for they will, in the end, be vindicated by God.
Ultimately, the beatitudes reveal God’s nature. Unlike society – which blessed the beautiful, the wealthy, and the powerful – God blesses the poor who realize their need for God, the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who work for righteousness. As these persons are cared for and honored by God, so are Jesus’ followers encouraged to do the same.
Jesus is boldly challenging our view of reality. He is really suggesting that the way we think the world works is not really the way the world works. And, if we truly want to live in God’s reality, then these are the guidelines for finding happiness and blessedness.
But, Jesus is not sharing these guidelines as requirements for receiving God’s favor. These are not a new list of commandments. These blessings from God of which Jesus speaks are a gift from God. Those Jesus pronounces as being blessed by God have not done anything to earn this blessedness. They are pronounced winners because God chooses to bestow this happiness upon them. The Beatitudes are therefore all about God’s grace. You don’t have to do something to earn this blessing. Just receive it as a gift from God. It is pure gift – grace.
This is in sharp contrast to the blessings of the Hebrew Scriptures. There the blessings are conditional. People are urged to act or pray in a certain way, and only then will they receive blessedness. The typical form is: “Blessed is the man who … does this or that. But Jesus proclaims blessing on all who are poor, who hunger, who weep, without the addition of any other conditions which must be fulfilled. There are not conditions to be met before someone can be blessed by God. This is the new reality Jesus proclaims. Without lifting a finger, congratulations! You are a winner! God has chosen to bless you. All those the world labels as “losers” or “naïve” or “out of touch” with reality, Jesus proclaims they are blessed. There is abounding grace for those who are poor, those who mourn, those who work for justice, those who are humble, those who are merciful, those whose hearts are pure, those who work for peace, those who do right. Accept the gift of divine happiness. That is where things begin for us – with God’s free, uncalculating love. Nothing else but sheer grace!
Now the world will continue to stomp on you when you embrace this reality. The world will tell you how naïve you are to think that anybody does anything after receiving grace, after receiving blessings for free. But a colleague tells a story about a sermon given by a young, single mother from her wheel chair which confronts that lie. She had been badly and permanently maimed in a road accident. She spoke about the face that after the disaster she felt useless, like so much trash. But there came upon her an awareness of her special place in the Holy Spirit’s affection. To the Divine she was the most precious thing imaginable. This overwhelming awareness and feeling that she was truly loved by God, even in her seemingly useless state, gave her the impetus to take up her life again and live it gloriously. This quadriplegic chose the hymn following her sermon: “Amazing Grace.”
Through many dangers, toils and cares,
I have already come:
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The power of the grace of God is truly transformative in a human life. In fact, it is the only thing that is capable of transforming our lives and setting them right. That is why Jesus proclaims this list of those whom God blesses, for those God blesses are those who are truly open the transformative working of God’s grace. When you consider yourself self-sufficient, strong, and among the power brokers of the world, then you do not see a need in your life for God’s grace and the transformation it will work.
True blessedness is not bestowed upon us by the world. And since our blessedness is not dependent on living this way of Jesus perfectly, but is freely bestowed upon us by God, we are free then to daringly aim high. We can aim to follow the call of God through the prophet Micah to embrace the work for justice (to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancements of others); to love kindness (reordering life into a community of enduring relations of faithfulness); and to walk humbly with our God (abandoning all self-sufficiency and acknowledging in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God, and God alone). We can strive for this and know that we are free to dare to fail sometimes, maybe even often. For even if we are not courageous enough to fully embrace God’s reality, Jesus tells us, God still loves us. God’s constant love is the fundamental reality, on which we build our security and our future.