The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
What are we to do with Jesus’ beatitudes? The church has never been certain. Do we obey them literally and we become the mourners, poor in spirit, and persecuted so we can be blessed? Are we to calm and assure the lowly God eventually will bless them? Are the Beatitudes for the spiritually elite, monastics and saints, but not for the rest of us? Is this how God reverses fortunes for the down and out when his reign finally comes? Maybe we really should be friendlier with them. We are confused about what to do with the Beatitudes, aren’t we? And we have enough trouble recruiting for Jesus these days. If we look confused, we won’t be helping the cause.
Beatitudes are “proverbs,” wise sayings people recognize. They compress truth in a pity statement all can understand. Jesus turns truth upside down – “Chicken Soup for the Lowly.” Our common wisdom says: “Blessed are the wealthy, for they won’t have money problems.” Or, “Blessed are winners of American Idol. They will become rich.” Who feels blessed when your spirit is low, or you mourn and grieve, or others persecute you? Not the meek, but the angry, obnoxious and irrational get the attention these days. Those Jesus blesses sound more cursed than blessed.
So how do we apply the Beatitudes – or should we just leave them alone and hope Jesus’ mercy will trickle down to us who’ll need mercy for being so confused. Jesus’ Beatitudes are hard and offensive. They bring comfort to the discomforted and discomfort the comfortable who like life as it is, and will fight to keep it that way. The gospel confronts and sometimes offends the comfortable, which is probably most of us. Jesus doesn’t see the world the way many of us want it to be.
Jesus’ Beatitudes take us into a larger world, if we are willing to see through God’s eyes. Notice how the Beatitudes will connect and dance together. For instance, the meek are not weaklings and the lowly. The meek are humble. Their hearts are open. They rely upon God more than self. That takes great courage. The meek are also more likely to have pure hearts, and stay singularly focused on God. And as the meek see God and then look at this world, they see a poverty of spirit in a world where too many live by illusions and hunger for false gods. When we see through God’s eyes we can’t help but mourn those who literally hunger, sleep in parks, can’t find work, the high infant mortality rate in our city, those who constantly live in fear. Jesus invites us into another way of seeing – and we won’t be able to stay as we have been for long, if we take his Beatitudes seriously, not literally.
Charles James Cook, a retired professor of Pastoral Theology, sees three attitudes or principles that can make the Beatitudes practical and applicable for living now. They are: simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.
Simplicity means not being simple, but attentive. Our personal opinions and thoughts chatter in our heads and we rarely are aware of them and how they influence us. It’s baggage we carry, and we can be wrong, especially if we’ve decided we know what Jesus means to say. Simplicity invites us to suspend our thoughts and listen deeply to Jesus’ words anew, as if they are freshly spoken directly to us. We receive more courage than fear when we hear Jesus say, “You are blessed in this life when you demonstrate humility, bring a peaceful presence, open your heart to others; show mercy; keep your eyes upon God.” Simplicity – not a lack of sophistication, but listening to Jesus, filtering out what we think we know, and realizing we haven’t heard all we need to hear yet. Simplicity means to invite a naiveté toward others. We listen to both those who feel blessed and cursed in this world, and learn how they hear Jesus and why they hear as they do, and how hard it is to accept Jesus’ words as their truth.
Hopefulness is another attitude that brings us into the spirit of the Beatitudes. We are short on hope in our day. Anger, cynicism and incivility usurp our hope. Anger can turn into hopelessness and cynicism. We may think the bad times are going to last forever; nothing will change; just better suck it up and get on with life. Such attitudes unchecked can make us uncivil toward others. The Beatitudes invite us into the hope Jesus brought to those who’d run out. His hope was neither superficial nor idealistic. His hope rested in the God who sends him to proclaim good news, a new kingdom, who allows the messenger to be shot, and then raises him from death so we can see differently. Your hope and mine begin in this story. Listening to Jesus, even when we can see no signs life will improve – can remind us the present times will not last. We may not know what will happen tomorrow. Our hope is in the One who holds each of our days, numbers the hairs on our heads, and is faithful to bring us out of our deaths into new places. Blessed are those who won’t give up.
Compassion is the final principle. Compassion says walls that keep us apart need to come down. We are all in this together – brothers and sisters. We all come from dust and to dust we shall return. We hold in common our emotions, our fears, our joys – and God’s love. Looking through God’s eyes we are the same, regardless of our successes smarts or bank accounts. Blessed are those who learn to see themselves in those they’ve been taught to hate. Blessed are those who realize we have more in common than in difference. Blessed are those who call enemies beloved, as God does.
I cannot speak Jesus’ full mind about his Beatitudes. I do think they lift us up to see this world and one another through God’s eyes. That can be scary. It takes courage. Blessed are you when you see through God’s eyes and are discomforted by the way the world is. Blessed are you when you have no fear in making a difference in this world, for God’s sake. When we but glimpse how God sees us, we’ll be changed by it, and blessed, and we just might become a blessing for someone else.