The Beatitudes represent Jesus’ work of grace before the demands of discipleship in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ blessings sound strange to us because they bless the very people we think of as down and out. Jesus’ blessings offer a future joy, but also a present encouragement.
We may all struggle with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. What do we do with its call to control our deepest thoughts, emotions and urges? We may understand that this call invites us to allow God to change us from the inside out, starting at the very core of our being.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ insistence on turning the other cheek takes all our effort. Jesus’ call to love our enemies goes against our every impulse.
Thank goodness, though, for the Beatitudes at the start of the sermon. Jesus gives the word of grace and blessing on the front end. The waves of blessing after blessing just flow over us as Jesus pronounces them. Yet, even about these blessings, we might express some doubt. We can almost hear, in between each verse, a person standing up to ask Jesus about that blessing. What might some people, especially in today’s world, have to say to Jesus about these blessings? Some people might even want to offer a protest about these blessings. Maybe we can imagine how some of these protests might sound.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But, Jesus, how can you say the poor in spirit should feel blessed? The poor in spirit have experienced the pain of life seeping into their hearts, their minds, their spirits. Life has worn them down. You can see in their eyes that life has squeezed the fight out of them. Poverty, oppression, fear and hopelessness all can sap a person’s energy and outlook on life. Those are the poor in spirit. How can we understand them as blessed?
Yet, despite that voice that speaks between the lines, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn.” What do you mean, Jesus? Grief hurts deeply. When we grieve, our emotions swirl around inside us. Anger, hurt, sadness and fear all rush at us. Grief takes forever. We think we finally see progress, and then we slam into it again. Other people, even those close to us, do us no good. They tell us to “get over it” or that the death was “God’s will.” They send a card or flowers, and then we never hear from them again. Besides dealing with the pain, we must deal with the loneliness. Even after the intensity of the grief begins to fade, we still miss the person for the rest of our life, with every birthday and special event like a fresh scalding of hurt. We do not feel blessed when we mourn.
Yet Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek.” In the first place, Jesus, meekness will get you nowhere. Success takes a certain aggressiveness. Surely, Jesus, you don’t call your followers to failure. Besides, even apart from the battles of life for a measure of recognition, what about people who really suffer because of passivity? People in abusive relationships need strength and confidence to break free of the control. Meekness just leaves people trapped. Not only do the meek not feel blessed but advocating for meekness might undermine the determination people need to get out on their own and start a new life.
Yet, despite these concerns, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Jesus, how can we not hunger and thirst for righteousness? We long for right relationships between people. From the feuds within our own families to the cruelty of war, we ache for people to come together. It’s not right that we fear for our lives every time we watch the news. It’s not right that we can’t get along in the church itself. It’s not right that we find our country so divided. We want right relationships between people, but we also want people to know you. We want those who feel alienated from you and from God the Father to find you. We don’t even feel comfortable inside our own skins sometimes. We want things to be right and for right relationships to form. We don’t feel blessed; we feel a sense of anxiety because we don’t know how to fix things. We don’t know how to bring people together.
Yet, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful.” Well, maybe sometimes, Jesus. It’s true that sometimes when we offer mercy, we see a real healing. We can repair friendships and families. We can end long resentments. We can overcome the past. Other times, Jesus, we find our mercy thrown back in our faces. People refuse to admit their error. They blame us instead of accepting our forgiveness. We forgive and the person doesn’t change. We end up right back where we started. Forgiveness and mercy can heal, but not always. Forgiveness releases our anger, but we can still feel like the victim.
Yet, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Jesus, we like to think our hearts are pure. We consider ourselves the good guys. We think our love for you is unmixed, and that we reach out in love to others. We have trouble controlling our thoughts and temptations. We find maintaining any kind of purity a real struggle. Fighting the urge to give in does not feel blessed; it feels frustrating. Even when we win, the temptation just shows up again the next day. Envy, bitterness, greed and lust never go away. Purity of heart sounds good, and we like to think of ourselves that way, but we really must work to have any goodness at all.
Yet, Jesus pronounces, as if we could just try a little harder, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed is the peacemakers.” Hey, Jesus, don’t get us wrong. We are all in favor of peace. We just can’t trust the other guys. We must prepare to defend ourselves. We live in a dangerous world. How can we make peace with people trying to blow us up? How can we make peace with drug dealers and drug cartels? Peace sounds great, but I’m going to protect myself.
Yet, despite the danger, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted; blessed are you when people revile you and utter evil against you.” Jesus, I thought religion was supposed to make life easier. The preacher on TV said that you would give us what we want, and we would thrive if we had enough faith. Who needs persecution and calumny? Besides, if anyone tries to speak out against Christian leaders who go too far, who say racist and mean things about the poor, they always whip out their Bibles and wave this verse around. This verse must be for the ancient world and Christians in communist countries or something. It doesn’t apply to us.
Yet, Jesus pronounces, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
We hear these voices of objection, these comments between the lines of the Beatitudes. The objections point out the startling nature of Jesus’ blessings. Jesus blesses those who do not now feel blessed. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven, where God will heal the creation. Those whose spirits have felt crushed by life will experience an uplifting. Those who grieve will experience reunion and joy. Those who could not fight back will experience victory. Those who long for right relationships in the world will experience fulfillment. Those who have offered mercy, even when it was rejected, will receive mercy. Those who have tried hardest to allow God to work in them will find that even trying to stay pure in heart has its rewards. Those who have tried to make peace during the violence of the world, who have sought with great effort to bring reconciliation, will find that God has used their ministry. Those who have endured persecution for fighting against the darkness of the world will experience the favor of God, who endured their hurt along with them.
Jesus’ blessings come to us as promises. They express what will happen in the kingdom of heaven. Yet they also teach us about God’s work among us now. God redeems our efforts, empowers our forgiveness and draws out the purity within us that lies beneath our weakness and corruption. We may not find our efforts easy, but God notices every step we take that reflects the values of the kingdom of heaven. God will bless us even amid all the ways life weighs us down and the ways we resist the sin of the world.
Let us hear — and rejoice in — Jesus’ blessings.