Sunday, January 29, 2017
A New Twist on an Old Teaching

“When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

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.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”                       (Matthew 5:1-12)

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I can’t read the Beatitudes without thinking about my 2008 trip to Israel, and specifically the day we visited the hillside that is the traditional location for the Sermon on the Mount, where this profound and central teaching of Jesus was first delivered. It’s a place of great spiritual significance to me, because while we were there our tour guide handed me a Bible and invited me to read the Beatitudes to the group – and I have to tell you, it was one of those overwhelmingly emotional moments when my life and faith merged in a very powerful and unforgettable way.

As second-nature as these words may be, though, on a day to day basis most of us identify more closely with a different set of Beatitudes. See if you can relate to any of these:

Blessed are the rich …. for they shall buy what they want.

Blessed are the strong …. for they shall get their own way.

Blessed are the beautiful …. for they shall get lots of attention.

Blessed are the winners …. for they shall be hailed as heroes.

Blessed are the lucky…. for clearly God likes them best.

Blessed are the talented … for they shall be admired.

Blessed are the famous … for they shall have credibility, especially on late night TV talk shows.

We all know this list, don’t we? Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, many if not most of us allow ourselves to be psychologically and spiritually conditioned by it. It’s the prevailing ethos of our culture, a reflexive part of human nature that forces comparison between us and others – the rich, the strong, the beautiful, the lucky, and so on – and presumes that God has somehow smiled more intensely on those who are rich, strong, beautiful, and lucky. We’re all pretty familiar with this list – and even if we can’t admit to resenting it,, we might at least acknowledge siding with comedian Woody Allen when he says “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and believe me, rich is better.”

I can easily imagine that Jesus was also familiar with this particular list, even though his context was in all likelihood remarkably different than ours. Human nature and the central questions of existence, I would submit, are probably fairly consistent throughout history, though – and I rather suspect that the people of his time were also preoccupied by similar fleeting realities at the expense of a deeper, more life-giving and hopeful approach to existence. So he proposed an alternate list of ideals to aspire to, the list we heard today….which, if we’re going to be totally honest here, doesn’t even sound rational, much less achievable. Taken at face value, for example, anyone living in a refugee camp outside a modern day war zone would naturally have a hard time being convinced that the meek will inherit the earth.

But here they are today for our consideration. And I think if we’re to make any sense out of the Beatitudes at all, we have to remember that Jesus probably wasn’t addressing this teaching to the rich, the strong, the beautiful, or the lucky. If we imagine instead that he was likely talking to the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the world-weary and those living on the edges of society, then they take on a different tone and colour entirely. So with that fresh perspective, try these on for size:

Are you feeling like your spiritual glass is half empty rather than half full? Are you feeling disconnected and dead-ended? Then blest are you because you’re already in God’s embrace. Are you feeling like life has let you down and loss upon loss has piled up on you? Then blest are you because God will be your comfort. Are you feeling like you give far more than you receive, but keep on giving anyway? Then blest are you, for God will affirm your faithfulness, be your companion, and provide. Are you feeling like you’re a lone voice crying in the wilderness for peace, mercy, justice and truth? Well then, blest are you when God fills you with hope and a sense of purpose. Are you longing to see the world the way God sees it? Then blest are you, for you will see grace manifested every day in myriad ways. Are you committed to the difficult and risky road of forgiveness and reconciliation as a way of life? If so, you get to call yourself a child of God. And are you prepared to persevere on the straight and narrow path that advocates for justice and mercy in this world? If you are, you’re in the good company of countless saints who have walked that path before you, so carry on.

Overall, it’s quite a different perspective, isn’t it? There’s far less taking for granted in understanding faith and life through this lens. It releases us from the bondage of our positive or advantageous conditions of life, and launches us into thoughtful and prayerful consideration – not of what we have, but who we are meant to be. That’s of critical importance every day, but especially, I suppose, on Vestry Sunday.

Blessed are those who pattern their lives on Christ and his teachings, for they – and the world – shall be changed. All thanks be to God as together we say Amen.

The Venerable Nancy Adams