November 2, 2014/All Saints Day
When I was a leader of a Senior High youth group about a billion years ago, two of my freshmen girls came into our Sunday afternoon youth group meeting singing a song about the Beatitudes that they’d learned at a church camp one summer. I have no recollection of the actual song, but I remember that it was a chirpy, happy little ditty. I remember thinking, “Well that’s neat. How great that they have this fun song to help them remember the Beatitudes.” I didn’t give it much more thought than that until a long time later. I heard these verses from Matthew and his telling of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the context of worship, and I heard them differently. When I really listened to Jesus’ litany of blessed are, I thought, “Well no wonder someone put these into a cheerful, bouncy tune. It’s the only way you can take them.” I found myself reacting to the Beatitudes set to song the same way I react to Noah’s Ark being made into sweet little board books for babies. In any other context, the story of Noah and God flooding the world should give us all nightmares, but you add a boat, animals and a rainbow, and it becomes a decorating theme for a nursery. The Beatitudes aren’t the stuff of nightmares, but I’ve always heard them as a list of standards. This is the criteria you must meet in order for you to be blessed. To be brutally honest, thinking of these as standards stresses me out. I carry enough stress because of the impossible standards I already set for myself; I don’t need these impossible standards added to the mix.
This story of Jesus climbing a mountain followed by his disciples, and sitting down to teach them by giving them a list of requirements is reminiscent of another story about a man climbing a mountain. That man climbed a mountain and met God at the summit. From that encounter, that meeting, he returned to the people who had abided by his leadership with a particular list of standards: the Ten Commandments. Moses sat with God on the holy mountain and brought back to the Israelites the Law. The Law provided the foundation, the structure, the outline, the blueprint of how they were to live as God’s chosen people. So with this image in our minds, it’s not surprising that we think of Jesus’ inventory of blessedness as commands. I always have. If you want to be blessed, this is what you have to do. That’s why I find them stressful and frustrating. Either I can’t live up to them or they sound absolutely dreary. Whether it’s poor in spirit or just plain poor, poverty is not a good circumstance. Blessed are the meek? What does that mean? Is it about humility or weakness? Blessed are those who mourn? There is a season for mourning, but isn’t there also a season for joy? If I have to live in a constant state of mourning in order to be blessed, then I don’t want it. And so on, and so on.
If we hear these words of Jesus as commandments, then I think my original interpretation rings somewhat true. But as one biblical scholar pointed out in his commentary, these statements about who is blessed are not spoken in the imperative voice. They are inscriptive. They describe rather than prescribe. Jesus isn’t setting out terms and conditions for being blessed. He is describing those who are blessed.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
If this is a description of a reality, it is a beautiful reality. The obstacle that it presents, though, is that it doesn’t describe our reality. Does it? Dr. Lance Pape, the scholar I quoted earlier, listed the beatitudes that we most often live by.
“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.”
“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.”
“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”
These are the beatitudes I actually live by, whether I realize it or not. While I don’t dispute the need for education, for aspirations, for working hard for something, Jesus was talking about something completely different. Jesus said that those who are vulnerable, those who are marginalized, those who are outcast and left behind and forgotten, they are blessed. The ones who would have been at the bottom of society were the ones that Jesus lifted up as blessed, honored, and cherished. Although Matthew’s gospel doesn’t pursue the theme of reversal like Luke’s does, the beatitudes tell of a reality that was radically different from the one the people listening to him dwelled in; just as it seems radically different from our own. The least of these are blessed.
Because this is such a different way of viewing the world and understanding blessings, it’s easy to think that it is less than good news for those of us who don’t live on life’s margins. Yet, I think that Jesus is offering an invitation, not just to the least of these, but to all of us. This is the kingdom of God. It is a place of blessing. Those who are least blessed, least honored in this world, will be the most blessed and honored in God’s realm. But God’s realm isn’t one of exclusion. We are all invited to live there. We are all invited to share in God’s blessings. Perhaps we are not poor, in spirit or otherwise, but we can help and care for those who are. Perhaps we are not in our own period of mourning, but we can give solace and comfort to those who grieve.
And maybe we are not so far away from those Jesus called blessed as we think. The states of being that Jesus describes are vulnerable states. At one time or another, in one way or another, we are all vulnerable. Perhaps the real blessing comes when we acknowledge our vulnerability rather than equate it to weakness. To be a peacemaker in a society that seems constantly at war is to be vulnerable. To grieve and allow others to grieve without giving into the “snap out of it and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is to be vulnerable. To speak our faith and take the consequences of that is to be vulnerable. It seems to me that Jesus was teaching, once again, that real strength, real relationship, and real blessing is found in our vulnerability, not in a lack thereof.
Today we are not only called to consider blessing, we are also called to remember the saints. I always believed that a saint was someone who was saintly; meaning they were perfect and without flaw. I realize now that when I’ve pondered the beatitudes in the past, I’ve seen those who are able to be the people Jesus called blessed as saintly. If that’s the definition of a saint, then I most certainly do not and will not ever measure up.
I think I got it both right and wrong. The description of the blessed as Jesus taught is a description of a saint. But that doesn’t mean perfection. It means faithfulness. The people I consider saints were not perfect. But they were faithful. They were willing to be vulnerable. Their relationship with God, and with others, exemplified peacemaking, purity of heart, meekness and humility, standing in solidarity with both the poor and the poor in spirit, and a willingness to be persecuted, laughed at, dismissed, and cast off because of and for the sake of their faith. Those are the saints. The good news is that the beatitudes are not about terms and conditions, standards or criteria. They are about hope. Father Bill Carroll said in our Bible study at the YMCA this week, that even as Jesus describes those who are blessed, he was bringing that blessedness into fruition. The time when those who are least will be blessed isn’t just far off and far away, it was then. It is now. We are invited to take part in God’s kingdom. We are invited to share in the blessings of God, and be in good company with all the saints. Let all of God’s blessed children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.