‘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. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12
Why did Jesus pick those people to bless? More accurately, did Jesus pronounce such blessings on such people, or did Jesus regularly observe some surprising good in the meek and the downtrodden? In any case, I get the feeling that as he looked out upon the crowd that had followed him up the mountain, he was speaking to them about them. To me, ‘Blessed are the meek’ reads as ‘Blessed are you for being meek’. In fact, in Luke’s account the beatitudes are translated ‘Blessed are you who_____,’ giving the indication that the crowd was of poor, hungry, hated people.
In reading Luke’s gospel, I often get a sense of conviction. When Jesus pronounces his blessings, coupled with parallel woes, I realize that I am most often in the Woe category. I am not hungry, so I will at some point be hungry. I am not poor, so I can expect somehow to be made poor. I come away feeling (a) guilty for not being poor, (b) compelled to clean out my closets and make a trip to Goodwill and (c) gutted by the fact that I don’t have the gumption to give it all away.
But Matthew’s version is a bit softer. Perhaps that is why it is more widely known (I don’t remember memorizing Luke’s list in Sunday School). Despite my white, male, middle-class richness, I do understand being poor in spirit. I struggle with ego so much that I have found myself envious of many a meek person. I know what my mourning sounds like (hushed, staccato with gasps of embarrassment). It’s not that Jesus wants me to ignore Luke’s list. It’s that Matthew’s Jesus understands that the human dilemma does not pass over the privileged classes.
Now that I am in my 30’s and happier than I have ever been, I can look back and see myself in Matthew’s beatitudes. In my 20’s, I had a little bit of adventure. I moved to St. Louis all on my own, thanks to the US-2 program. I lived and worked in England for a year, thanks also to the GBGM. I even spent 18 months in the God-box, putting your apportionment dollars to work. Working for the GBGM was largely a 9-5 task, save for those early mornings calling Manila and a summer of perpetual fatigue in Atlanta. I would walk 20 blocks to work, stopping only to get a muffin at the bakery. I walked home, sometimes alone, sometimes with a co-worker. After our good nights, it would be evening after evening alone in the city that never sleeps. I would call home and get updates on my mother’s chemo. I would walk to Barnes and Nobel and read comic books. I would ride the subway to Times Square to stare at lights and listen to free music at the Virgin Records store. I have never been so lonely in my life, which, given my dating record in high school, is pretty bad. Ironically, at a time in which I was giving my life to the church in a more complete way, I was seriously poor in spirit.
And yet, even today, thinking that Jesus really wants me to inherit the kingdom of heaven seems utterly ridiculous.
In the end, I haven’t inherited the kingdom of heaven. Instead, I persevered in a very common and very human way. I surely picked up some scars along the way that still hurt at times. Maybe heaven is that moment when Jesus says, with utmost credibility, ‘those days are over’. I guess those days are already over, but the fear of their return hasn’t totally passed. I may not have inherited the kingdom of heaven, but I have since gained a very valuable theological education, a wife of stunning quality, a daughter that brings unspeakable joy and a pastoral career that, on most days, is full of meaning. Funny how things turn around, often in spite of ourselves.
Page One is the first page I write for the upcoming week’s sermon. It is one page, stream of consciousness that gets me writing and reflecting on what I have studied thus far.