There’s a noticeable tension at the heart of this morning’s gospel, and understanding this tension is necessary if we want to experience the kind of blessedness Jesus describes.
Oftentimes, we read the Beatitudes as a kind of prescription for spiritual living: these are guidelines for those who want to be good, faithful, spiritual people. When we approach the Beatitudes in this way, we end up abstracting them a bit, turning them into something like religious aphorisms. Be humble; be temperate; be merciful; be pure in heart. That sounds good, right? Be nice to others, and they’ll be nice to you: that becomes the lesson of the Beatitudes when we treat them as principles for spiritual living.
But here comes the problem: reading the Beatitudes in this way makes it difficult to account for the rest of what Jesus has to say. This is where that interesting tension I mentioned shows up. After Jesus gets done talking about all the ways we should strive to be good, faithful, spiritual people, what does he say? “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
So here’s the question: why would anyone want to persecute good, faithful, spiritual people? Does it seem like the kind of people we would be inclined to persecute would be people who are humble, people who are merciful and temperate and pure in heart? Are those the kind of folks you’d expect we’d want to revile and slander? If the Beatitudes are such good news, and if those whose live in a manner that is consistent with the way of life described by the Beatitudes are humble, gentle, temperate people, pure in heart and faithful in word and deed, then why would anyone want to persecute them?
If the Beatitudes are just pithy little aphorisms about the spiritual life, there’s no real, good answer to this question. But maybe there’s more going on here.
The tension we see in our gospel lesson cuts rather close to the heart of the life of faith, because it draws our attention to the question of what exactly it means to be a Christian. How different are we, really? How different should we be? And how noticeable should that difference be? Should we stand out, or should we look more or less like everyone else? Is there really anything distinctive about the Christian way of life, or is Jesus simply reminding us of some self-evident moral principles that pretty much anyone who stops to think about it would recognize and affirm?
Of course, the Beatitudes are just one part of a much larger conversation: this section of Matthew’s gospel, the part we traditionally refer to as the “sermon on the mount,” goes on for some time. And throughout the “sermon on the mount” this question comes up repeatedly, the question of how different or how distinct those who follow Jesus should be from the rest of the world.
In fact, in the passage that immediately follows today’s gospel lesson, Jesus spells it out: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt loses it’s taste it’s no longer good for anything and is thrown out. You are the light of the world; does anyone who lights a lamp then cover the lamp with a basket? No, they put the light on a stand so that everyone can see; in the same way, let your light shine before others.” It seems clear that Jesus expects that those who seek to follow him and to live their lives in light of his teaching will serve as a sign to the world; they’ll be different.
The Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright uses the image of windows and mirrors to help interpret of this passage. On the one hand, there are those who surround themselves with mirrors, practicing their spirituality in a way designed to reflect righteousness back towards themselves, reminding them what good people they are. On the other hand, there are those who surround themselves with windows, practicing their spirituality in a way designed to allow righteousness to flow through them and out to the world. Those who surround themselves with mirrors have missed the point of what it means to be called by God. Being one of God’s covenant people means serving as a light to the world; it means being different. Hiding one’s light or hoarding one’s light, directing the light back towards oneself, that’s not faithful to the covenant.
So clearly there’s supposed to be something different about the people of God; otherwise, being a light to the world would be redundant. But this just brings us back to our original question: if God’s covenant people are to be humble, temperate, and merciful, pure in word and deed, why should they expect to be persecuted and reviled?
At its heart, that is a spiritual question: if we boil down that question to its most fundamental form, then ultimately the answer to that question has to do with the world’s rebellion against God. The people of God are persecuted, not because they’re humble, temperate, merciful people, but because they belong to God, and this world is in an active state of rebellion against God.
Now, that’s not something we like hearing; that seems so black and white, so simple-minded. People who talk incessantly about how bad the world is usually sound as if they’ve surrounded themselves with mirrors and not windows; they talk about how bad the world is as a way of reminding themselves (and everyone else) how good they are. And, indeed, one of the easiest ways we have of making ourselves feel better about ourselves is by judging someone else.
But all that amounts to is trying to turn the brokenness of the world to our own advantage. It’s not self-righteous to acknowledge the brokenness of the world; it’s only self-righteous to presume that we ourselves are somehow exempt from that brokenness or have through our own efforts managed to overcome it. But acknowledging the world’s brokenness—recognizing its rebellion against God—and then acting in a way that does not further contribute to that brokenness: that’s not self-righteous, that’s the path to life.
And that brings us back to our gospel lesson: blessed are those who are poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, for they are the ones who help to bear the brokenness of this world. They are the ones who suffer the consequences of the world’s brokenness but who don’t allow themselves to become self-righteous about it. The ones who suffer the consequences of the world’s brokenness, the ones who stand in the face of the world’s rebellion against God and take some part of the burden of that rebellion on themselves: blessed are they.
The Scottish Reformed theologian Thomas Torrance once suggested that the purpose of the incarnation had to do with what he called the “apocalypse of the human heart,” the “unveiling” or “revealing” of the human heart (in this particular season, we might even say the “epiphany” of the human heart). The closer God gets to us, the more we resent it, because the closer God gets the more his righteousness show up our unrighteousness, the more his faithfulness shows up our faithlessness, the more his wisdom shows up our foolishness. When God gets close to us, our heart is revealed for what it is. And in the incarnation, God gets pretty close.
But this is what had to happen, Torrance says: God had to get close enough to us so that he could draw out of us all the brokenness and all the enmity and all the rebellion that dominates our lives and direct it to the one place where it could not do any lasting harm. God had to take that brokenness on himself.
In other words, this is why those who are truly humble, those who are truly merciful and pure in heart, why those people can expect to be reviled and persecuted. Nice people are no threat to the order of the world; Jesus wasn’t crucified because he was a nice man who tried to teach people some simple spiritual truths. But holy people, righteous people, people who have learned to live in the wisdom and the power of God, those people are a threat to the order of the world, and the world will revile them.
That may not sound like good news; in fact, it may sound like downright bad news. It may sound as if the Christian life is a real bummer, all about suffering and affliction. But when we realize that it is by taking the brokenness of the world upon ourselves that we are able to participate in the redemption of the world, then suffering actually becomes an occasion for thanksgiving. Then we learn what it means to be blessed in the midst of poverty, to be blessed in the midst of tragedy, to be blessed in the midst of hardship.
Don’t get me wrong: poverty and tragedy and hardship are not good things, and they can be difficult to endure. But when we realize that it is most often through those kinds of experiences that God is working to save us and to save the world, then those experiences become occasions for faith and for hope and for love: a faith that God is working to bring about his will for our lives and for the world, a hope that clings to the promise given to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a love that endures everything.
Remember that we’re still in the season of epiphany, the season of unveilings and revelations and manifestations, a season of apocalypse. On this day we learn that it is in the lives of those who are willing to help bear the brokenness of the world that Christ is revealed. Blessed are those who stand in the place where our Lord himself stands, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. May this blessing be ours, today and every day, to the honor and glory of his Name. Amen.