Modern Christians love the Beatitudes. The poetic beauty of Jesus' opening to his Sermon on the Mount has captured our attention and inspired awe for so many. We learn about the Beatitudes as we grow up in church, we sing songs about them, there are probably many of us that could recite at least a few of them from memory. But the truth of the matter is that when Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee thousands of years ago and began preaching, his words would have come as a great shock to the crowds listening around him.
The Beatitudes seem to have lost their shock value in the modern world, though really they should seem as shocking to us today as they did do those first crowds so long ago. For those who had been struggling through life, Jesus is bringing shocking news that now they will be blessed. While those who have been relatively comfortable in life are now hearing that perhaps their life is not as blessed as they thought. But no matter from what perspective or time period you hear the
Beatitudes, the most important thing is to understand what Jesus is teaching through these announcements of blessing.
You see, these are not prophecies about the way things will be in some yet to be determined future. Nor is Jesus here speaking new commandments that must be followed by all people. These are not even conditions for being included or incorporated into the kingdom of God. Rather, Jesus is stating here the reality of God's kingdom as it is. Through these Beatitudes, Jesus assures the community that while life may be difficult now, those who faithfully endure will be blessed through God's kingdom.
A parable is told of a farmer who owned an old mule. The mule fell into the farmer's well. The farmer heard the mule "braying", or whatever mules do when they fall into wells. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the mule, but decided that neither the mule nor the well were worth the trouble of saving. He would have to rent a crane, and the old well was dried up anyway. So instead of going to such trouble, the farmer called his neighbors together and told them what had happened. He then enlisted the neighbors to help haul dirt to bury the old mule in the well and put him out of his misery.
As you can imagine, initially, the old mule was hysterical! But as the farmer and his neighbors continued shoveling and the dirt hit his back, a thought struck the animal. It suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel load of dirt landed on his back, he should shake it off and step up! So this he did blow after blow. "Shake it off and step up...shake it off and step up...shake it off and step up!" he repeated to encourage himself. No matter how painful the blows, or distressing the situation seemed the old mule fought "panic" and just kept right on shaking if off and stepping up! It was not long before the old mule, battered and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well! What seemed like it would bury him, actually blessed him, all because of the manner in which he handled that dirt being shoveled into the well.
That's life! If we face our problems, respond to them positively, and refuse to give in to panic, bitterness or self-pity, the adversities that come along to bury us usually have within them the potential to benefit and bless us!
Most of the people standing around listening to Jesus as he began to preach were probably feeling a lot like that mule. They would have felt like an entire village was throwing dirt on their back. Many would have been struggling through life, just trying to make ends meet. They would have felt like all their efforts were getting them nowhere and it was just one struggle after another. Then, for those listening to Jesus who felt that they were not poor in spirit, or mourning, or meek, or any of the other traits Jesus mentioned; they would have believed that they were doomed. There probably would have been a sense of panic among such people. What do I need to do to get out of this mess?!? What do I need to do to be blessed?!? I've got to get busy or I am going to be buried alive!
Jesus words might have caused great panic among those listening to him, but it turns out that he was speaking exactly the words they needed to hear. These "blessings," the "wonderful news" that he's announcing, are not saying "try hard to live like this." Nor is Jesus suggesting that these are simply timeless truths about the way the world is, about human behavior. If he was saying that, he was wrong because mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don't inherit the earth, those who long for justice often take that longing to the grave. This is an upside down world, or perhaps a right-way up world; and Jesus is now saying that with his work it's starting to come true. Jesus is saying it may feel like you're at the bottom of a well with dirt being heaped upon you, but it turns out that dirt is a real blessing. It turns out that dirt you thought was going to be the death of you is actually going to bring you life! That's why Jesus' words here are gospel, good news, not just good advice! This is something important for us to realize as we read the Beatitudes. Our 21st century busy-body minds are trained to believe that at least some work is required for any good outcome. So when we read the Beatitudes, our interpretation tells us that if we want to be blessed, we have to do those things that Jesus mentions. We have to be poor in spirit, we have to mourn, we have to be meek and merciful, we have to be pure in heart, we have to be peacemakers, and we have to be persecuted for righteousness' sake.
But the Beatitudes are not direct calls to action; rather, the Beatitudes are promises. We do not have to do anything, we just have to be in God's presence. We do not have to rig up any elaborate system to extract ourselves from whatever mess we may find ourselves in, we just have to recognize that through Jesus Christ, God is blessing us in ways that we couldn't even imagine. And we have to realize that Christ blesses us simply because that is the way of God's kingdom; extravagant love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and life offered freely and willingly to all who will recognize the blessings that are right before us.
The good news of God's kingdom is that to know it's blessings, we do not have to do anything, we just have to be. How often have we gotten into trouble because we got too focused on getting something done? I think we tend to do that a lot these days, and often it causes trouble. Maybe because we're not spending enough time at home or with family. Maybe we mess things up because in the midst of getting one thing done, we forget about something else that needs to be done. It can really be a problem if we get too focused on the doing of Christianity, and forget about the simple being. We just need to be in Christ's presence. It is when we allow ourselves to slip out of Christ's presence that things become problematic; that dirt starts to pile up on our backs rather than becoming the stepping stone that will free us.
Jesus' words in the opening of the sermon on the mount describe those who find their being in the eternal God. The message of the Beatitudes is that it's what we are that really counts, not what we possess or have done. And all these characteristics Jesus describes are a result of our being in Christ. When we really start taking just a quick little look at these promises of the kingdom of God, and also the descriptions of those who receive the promises, we find that we begin to get a sneak peek into God's kingdom. And we also begin to realize that God's kingdom is the polar opposite of what the world has stamped down as accepted standards.
Jesus Christ is revolutionary, and if we are to truly follow Christ, we are going to have to be revolutionary as well! And as much as we need to be comforted and filled, as much as we want blessings and mercy, as much as we yearn to be the precious children of God; is it worth the cost? The Beatitudes show us that for Jesus, righteousness is more than the sum of any commandments; it is a total change of attitude and mind. And when we allow ourselves to be in Christ's presence, we are transformed. Those who are praised in the Gospels are men and women of humility, love, trust, fidelity, and courage. They are not yet perfect, but they are converted and their interests and desires are turned in the direction of the kingdom of God. Is this a description of us as well?
One preacher has summarized the Beatitudes very simply. He says, "You are loved. Go, therefore, and act like it!" Only then will we know the full measure of the blessings of God's kingdom! May it be so—for you and for me. Amen.
Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth: hear the prayers of your people, strengthen us to do your will and to serve you in the world in ways that bring about your reign of grace, reconciliation, peace, and healing.
Hear us, as we pray for those in poor spirit, who feel empty inside and who dread the day.
Hear us, as we pray for those who mourn and grieve, who ache with loss for someone much loved.
Hear us, as we pray for the meek, who do not grasp or shout or demand to be first in line.
Hear us, as we pray for those who hunger for justice, who toil to bring
Hear us, as we pray for all who are merciful, who have learned to forgive even those who have caused them pain.
Hear us, as we pray for all who are pure in heart, in whom there is no vengefulness, but only love.
Hear us, as we pray for the peacemakers, the ones who, by their words and deeds, can change the world.
Hear us, as we pray for those who are persecuted, and keep them safe from those who would hurt them.
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