The Beatitudes–these 12 verses at the beginning of Matthew 5–have been called by one commentator “Christianity for Dummies.” You may have heard of that series of books–the “Dummies” series–I got “Robert’s Rules for Dummies” when I was moderator of the Southwest Association, and there are an astonishing number of subjects the series deals with–”Facebook for Dummies,” “The Bible for Dummies,” “Accounting for Dummies,””Acrylic Painting for Dummies,” “Acid Akalyne Diet for Dummies,” and that’s just the beginning of the “A’s”– you name it, and chances are there is a “Dummies” book to help you through. The idea is to cut through all the jargon and intimidating details of a topic or system, “‘dumbing down’ their core concepts to their absolute essentials in a non-threatening, ‘how-to’ format. That’s exactly what Jesus does for us,” this commentator claims, “in this week’s gospel,” [David Sellery, This Week’s Focus, 1/29/14] in the Beatitudes. “Christianity for Dummies.”
Well, you know me. Why make something simple when you can find layers and nuance and complexity?! I just find these sayings at the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” as Matthew has arranged his teachings here, to be too challenging, too startling, too threatening to be dismissed as “for dummies.” “The Be-Happy Attitudes”? as Robert Schuller called them? Really? “Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…”? Don’t worry, be happy?
Makarios is the Greek word used in all these sayings. It gets translated as “blessed,” or “happy,” but in a society that was based on honor and shame, like 1st c. Palestine was, it really has more the sense of “honored.” “Honored are you who are poor in spirit…honored are those who mourn…honored are the meek…” not shamed, not ridiculed. Those who heard Jesus’ teaching these things would have been shocked, just as we are, to hear this reversal of the world’s values and priorities. When had they ever felt honored for their poverty–of resources or of spirit? When had those who mourned felt good about it? When had hunger – for food or for righteousness– been regarded as a good thing, let alone rewarded?
“The Biblical tradition,” as Disciples of Christ author and pastor Bruce Epperly writes, “is always counter-cultural in spirit. It agitates [others say it “afflicts”] the comfortable, whether conservative or progressive, by challenging our lifestyles and assumptions. And, conversely, as the saying goes, it also comforts the agitated [or afflicted], those at the margins of life, those with their backs against the wall, or struggling with debilitating life issues.” [adventurouslectionary, 1/20/17]
Counter-cultural indeed, and getting more so by the minute, I have to say. While I wholeheartedly agree that the suffering and sense of abandonment of any of our citizens and brothers and sisters is cause for concern and attention, that is no reason to abandon the values of our Constitution or our faith, to discriminate on the basis of religion, or race, or station in life. “Honored are the poor…those who mourn…the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” It doesn’t get more currently counter-cultural than that.
“What does God require of you?” the prophet Micah asks those who have thought to buy God’s favor with elaborate offerings and shows of piety? How will God regard those who have devastated the land with their cheating and lying? “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” God asks. “Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths…” “God has told you, O mortal, what is good [Micah says]; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Christianity–the essence of the Biblical tradition–for dummies.
Back in 1997, Apple Corporation launched an advertising campaign called “Think Different.” It featured portraits of people who had dared to go against the grain, the game-changers, people like Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, and Apple head Steve Jobs himself. “Think different,” Jobs said. “We were here to put a dent in the universe; otherwise, why else even be here?” It was an appealing, attractive invitation to buy into (literally) Apple’s minimalist aesthetic and technology, which, could be argued, did change the world. But it was an advertising campaign, not only urging our consumption of a product but has now become an overwhelming conformity. “Think different?” Have those of you–those of us–who have entered into the world of personal computers and smart phones tried to really “think different” and turn off the machines? Take a break from social media, wrestle with an idea instead of just Googling it? And what might “think different” mean in an era of “alternative facts” or “fake news”? It gets curioser and curioser, doesn’t it?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek [not Caspar Miquetoast types, but those who are empty enough of self to be filled with God], for they shall inherit the earth….” This is about far more than thinking “different”–this is about living “different.” A life of “transformed non-conformity,” as Martin Luther King Jr. said. A life of being joyful–not just “happy, ” but being in harmony with the essential intention of the universe. “Be joyful,” farmer/poet Wendell Berry wrote in Mad Farmer Liberation Front, ” be joyful,/ though you have considered all the facts.” “Practice resurrection,” he said. Live different. Think of the portratis in that campaign–Jesus, Martin Luther king, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Malala Yosefsay…
These 9 verses are less of a prescriptive “how-to” and more of a descriptive “this is what life is like.” For example, you don’t have to go out and seek things to be sad about so you can be “blessed” or “honored.” Sorrow and loss will find you. They are part of life. Not because you have done something bad or because you deserve it or God is punishing you. Even when you are mourning, you are “blessed,” you are not alone, you will be given the capacity to endure. God is with you. So it is when you recognize how “poor in spirit,” how prone to discouragement you are, how prone to bitterness, or judgmentalism, or prejudice; “I recognized I was powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or food,” the first step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says; or, as Luke’s version says, when you are poor – period – which happens, which is part of life for an overwhelming number of human beings on this planet– “blessed,” “honored” are you; you are not alone, you will be given the capacity to endure. God is with you.
These “blessings” or makarisms are a description of life that is interdependent, fueled by sacrificial love, that may very well lead to persecution in this world which does not honor living “different,” but is the way things work and are structured in God’s way, in that way less traveled, to riff on Robert Frost, and is the way to identify with the suffering of the world. This “letting go to transform the world” [Epperly, op cit.] is the only way it will be healed.
As we look for Epiphany moments in these days and weeks to come, we might look not only amongst the usual places and to the “usual suspects,” but also in the unexpected, the unloveable, the un-beautiful, the unsuccessful, at least by the standards of our culture. We may find glimpses of God that shake us up, turn our assumptions and expectations upside down.
While I’m still not quite ready to call them “Christianity for Dummies,” I do think that the Beatitudes and Micah’s 3 requirements – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God–are worth knowing by heart. Add these to our commission and maybe the 23rd Psalm to keep in your backpack of words to live by. In these days and weeks and even years to come, we may need to be able to call up these blessings to help us endure. Let’s see if we can do this–
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall 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 before you.
“The Gospel is a word of protest,” NT scholar Karoline Lewis says, and “The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.” [workingpreacher.org, 1/29/17] A call to action and a description of how God works in the world. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” the great Jewish writer Elie Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Protest with our lives, our words, our thoughts, our prayers. So may we “live different.” So may we be part of the healing of the world.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark