Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
The disciples and others who gathered to hear Jesus begin to preach what we know as The Sermon on the Mount had to have been disappointed by what they heard, especially this beginning part we call the Beatitudes, all the “Blessed are theys.” If they were anything like us, and there’s no reason to think they weren’t, those gathered around Jesus would have had hopes and longings similar to ours, things like hoping for more than what they had, wanting to be more than what they were, looking for security, searching for a path to well being and happiness. Those are the kinds of things most people want, but that’s not what Jesus offered up. When he started to talk about blessings, if they were expecting a motivational speaker who would tell them how to acquire the things they thought were blessings, Jesus wasn’t their guy.
Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are those who climb the corporate ladder; they will receive a comfortable retirement,” or “Blessed are those who invest shrewdly; they will enjoy comfort and security.” He also didn’t say, blessed are those who are rich or powerful, he didn’t say blessed are the well educated, or those who are free or those who are their own boss. He didn’t tell the people how to achieve the American dream. Maybe there was another wandering preacher up the road who would tell them all that, but not Jesus.
Instead, Jesus led with, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are meek and merciful and pure in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst not for popularity or acceptance or applause, not for money or achievements, but for righteousness, and blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted. One suspects that the crowd would have gotten smaller at that point with many heading up the road in search of the guy preaching the “God wants you to be rich” prosperity gospel.
Even those who stayed had to be scratching their heads, wondering what Jesus was talking about with these so called blessings. They had to wonder just like those of us who stay, because we wonder the same thing. When we think of blessings we do think of the good things that come our way. We count our blessings by counting our treasures, or we consider blessings to be the positive aspects of our life, family, friends, health, things like that. Pretty much every year in my Annual Report I end by saying that I feel blessed to be your pastor; it’s a positive aspect of my life, a blessing. I’m pretty sure that pastors who find themselves in conflicted, dysfunctional churches don’t say that; they don’t say, “I feel blessed that God has called me to serve among all you crazy people with your infighting and backstabbing,” but according to the Beatitudes, maybe they should!
Jesus’ list of blessings has troubled anyone who has ever tried to figure them out. As a list of goals, they just don’t work. The world does not say, blessed are the poor or the poor in spirit, whatever that means, or any of the other things Jesus calls blessed. No, in this world it’s quite the contrary. It is blessed are the rich and those who enjoy the good things life has to offer; blessed are those who just do it, the beatitude of Nike.
The problem with the Beatitudes comes when you try to take them and turn them into commandments, because that’s not what they are. Trying to explain them by putting a commandment behind each of them is a mistake that I and probably every other preacher has made at one time or another but it mostly winds up being a collective guilt trip because in listening to what Jesus says, most of us don’t find ourselves among those blessed. Making the Beatitudes into a “to do” program designed to get us on Jesus’ list of the blessed though, just increases the likelihood of them being totally ignored, seen as unattainable, reducing them perhaps to beautiful words for the choir to sing, but that’s about it. The question then is, if they’re not intended as something we’re supposed to strive for, and if they’re not just beautiful and poetic, just what are they?
First of all, the Beatitudes are descriptive, not prescriptive. Jesus could be prescriptive; he knew how to do that, he knew how to give commands and the Sermon on the Mount that we’ll consider over the next few weeks has its share, many of them very challenging as they too run contrary to conventional attitudes and practice, things like “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” that’s not easy to do, or “do not judge so that you may not be judged,” I don’t know about you, but I can be very judgmental. Jesus did know how to be prescriptive, but that’s not what’s going on in the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are descriptive, but they describe a world we’re not quite ready for. One article I read said that what the Beatitudes do is to change our geography meaning that they change where we stand, causing us to look at things differently. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He created an image that he knew would get a reaction because it moves us away from the predominant view of what the world thinks about who is blessed, thus raising a challenge. What he says bothers us or at least it should, because, as I said, we don’t necessarily find ourselves on Jesus’ list of the blessed. Our geography needs to change in order for us to understand who Jesus is and what he’s talking about; it needs to change for us to understand the kind of kingdom that he’s talking about.
Although we had something of a Christmas flashback last week with the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” passage from Isaiah, we are well past Christmas now so I shouldn’t be channeling Ebenezer Scrooge anymore, but I am. What I was thinking is that what Jesus does with the Beatitudes is very much like what the spirits did to Mr. Scrooge. He had his notions about who was blessed and who wasn’t, with blessing mostly having to do with wealth. He couldn’t see anything different until his geography changed.
That’s what the spirits did; they moved him around in the past, the present and the future so that he had to look at things from a different perspective causing him to see, for example, that the Cratchit family, poor as they were, were blessed in ways that Scrooge hadn’t been able to see or even imagine, also causing him to see that the poor were fellow human beings and not just members of a surplus population that needed to be reduced.
If you know the story, you know that the spirits didn’t tell Scrooge to do anything. There were no commands, nothing prescriptive. They just showed him things, a different vision of the world and it bothered him enough so that he did act, becoming, as the story says, as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city ever knew.
With the Beatitudes, Jesus, like the spirits, also doesn’t tell us to do anything. All he does is to move us to a different place with a vision that upsets what we consider to be the way things are, making foolish the wisdom of the world as St. Paul says, causing us to reconsider what it means to be blessed. Having been moved, having our geography changed, our behavior also changes. Those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are hungry, those who are persecuted look different to us and we can’t ignore them.
With the Beatitudes placed at the beginning and with the change in our geography that they cause, we’re set up for the rest of Jesus’ sermon. In essence what he has done is to disorient us in order to reorient us to the reality of his kingdom, a kingdom not yet revealed in its fullness, but one that is always breaking in, upsetting things we think can’t be upset, further changing our geography if we have eyes to see.
It does seem likely that the crowd around Jesus would have gotten smaller on hearing what he had to say. Those who stayed, like us, would still have had questions, questions like, “OK, you’ve changed our geography, but we still need some help. Just what should we do; we want to know.” Jesus almost never gave a straight answer and I don’t think he would in this case either. Instead he might say, “Have you read the prophet Micah, chapter 6, verse 8? I like that one. ‘And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”
If you want the Beatitudes explained in a practical way, Micah 6:8 is probably as good as it gets. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
Rev. Warren Geier