Matthew 5:1-12 Epiphany 4, 2017
The middle-eastern folk tale Aladdin tells of a Genie (two, actually), and their ability to grant wishes to the one who finds the bound spirits (jinni) and sets them free by rubbing the ring/ lamp. The notion of receiving three wishes from a Genie has become the format for many a joke (which often has the third wish undoing the first two), and ice-breaker discussions. Without overthinking it too much, if you had three wishes, what would you wish for (and you can’t wish for more wishes)? For those who don’t particularly like their job, they might wish for a new one, or enough money so they wouldn’t need to work again. Some might wish for good health (and if these were your first two wishes, that leaves you with only one left, so be careful with this one). The more altruistic might wish for peace on earth, or an end to poverty and hunger (although this could be accomplished in the first wish, if the amount of money was sufficient to both take care of you and everyone else on the planet – although I can see this being a tad inflationary). Some might use that last wish to secure eternal life. When used as a discussion-starter, the wishes we make tell others something about what we value (and should inform us the “wisher” as well. There’s an old adage however that provides a caution to this whimsical wishing, that goes something like, “you’d better be careful what you wish for…”
Unless your reality is vastly different than mine, Genies in lamps who grant wishes are in short supply these days (especially since “I Dream of Jeannie” went off the air some years…or decades ago). Even without the aid of a Genie, people continue to aspire to many of the same values and ideals that would likely be found on their Genie wish list. In reading the text from Matthew 5 on the Beatitudes (from the Latin word “beatitudo” which is translated blessing), my guess is that not many of these qualities/states of being would have appeared on your wish lists. Although sometimes translated “happy”, the word “blessed” probably contains more of a sense of “well-being”, or “right standing with God”, than the way we tend to understand and use the word happy today (which is how we would describe our state when eating fresh apple pie with vanilla ice cream, or when you find the last parking stall in a parkade, or when your team wins the Super Bowl on the last play of the game). Those things make us happy…but not necessarily “blessed”.
Let’s have a look at what Jesus thinks are the greatest of all virtues and states of being (commentators have often discussed whether the beatitudes are to be understood as virtues to aspire to, or states of being, but I think they contain elements of both).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I’ll bet that wasn’t one of your 3 wishes. In Luke’s account of this, or a similar teaching in Luke 6:20-26, he simply states “blessed are the poor.” What might it look like to be “poor in spirit”? Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message renders it this way, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” I don’t think that’s far off. The Bible identifies the chief sin of men and women as that of pride (which is still the case). The essential nature of pride is that one doesn’t need God, and doesn’t need others. Its nature is expressed well in our toddlers with some of their first words being, “I can do it myself”. Pride always puts us at enmity with God and others. It always aspires to dominate and control. The “blessed” ones, or the ones in the blessed estate, are the ones who find themselves “at the end of their rope”, and know that they’re simply not up to the task when it comes to living God’s kind of life. They don’t come to God (or others) with chests puffed high, but realize that they are bankrupt in and of themselves. Although not what many of us wish for, often monetary and/or spiritual poverty has a way of reminding us of our need for God (and others).
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Anybody have that one on their wish list? Although one can’t be certain, it is quite likely that this doesn’t refer to the kind of mourning one experiences at the loss of a loved one, but rather a type of mourning that is directly related to finding oneself at the “end of their rope” in regards to God. This is likely what Isaiah has in mind when he says, “Woe is me! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Is.6:5. Quite likely this is the emotional outworking of the intellectual realization of our hopeless condition. We’re in a good place with God when we realize that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves, and we acknowledge that both in our head and our hearts.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Don’t tell me, half of you wished to be meeker? This beatitude is pretty closely related to the first two, for not too many come to the realization that they are at the end of their rope, simply can’t manage life on their own, and actually feel proud about that. This is a pretty tough virtue to inculcate, for like humility, the minute we think we’re making some progress on the road to meekness…we know that we are not. Some have a personal disposition of humility/meekness, and if that’s you, then you’re blessed. Many however don’t, and for those of us who find ourselves in this camp, we need to hear Jesus’ words to; “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Mat 11:29. In taking on his “yoke”, we find ourselves in fact yoked to him, and over time his cadence become our cadence, his ways our ways, and his nature our nature (to a point at least). Like prayers for patience, prayers for meekness and humility may be answered in ways that aren’t always agreeable to us.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Most of us deal with hunger and thirst regularly – but it’s not likely for “righteousness”. Often we can see where others are desperately lacking in the whole area of righteousness, but we’re not so good at seeing its deficiency in ourselves. It’s what Jesus calls the “log-in-the-eye” syndrome. Many of our Lutheran scholars interpret “righteousness” here in light of St Paul’s and Luther’s understanding of the imputed righteousness that we receive by grace through faith, which then puts us in a right standing with God (also known as forensic righteousness); “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:21. In my estimation, Matthew is likely using that term more in keeping with what we often find in the OT regarding “right actions”: “Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” Ps 106:3. Wouldn’t the world look different if we as Christians started to “hunger and thirst for doing what was “right” – both toward God, and others? Again, more often than not, we’d rather our thoughts and deeds be justified (declared to be right) or vindicated, rather than conforming them to God’s standards, and then living those standards out in love towards others. Most of us would sooner be “right” than “righteous”.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. When I think of the word “mercy” I think back to a time when we kids used to “rough-house” (wow, I haven’t heard or used that word for a while) a bit on the school playground. On occasion one kid would grab another by the arm (or neck, which was a tad more dangerous), and would demand the other beg for mercy (or say “uncle”, though I’m not sure why). When someone is about to twist your arm or neck off…you need a bit of mercy. Although I won’t give an extensive word study on the word “mercy”, essentially it means that we don’t get what we deserve (negatively speaking) when it comes to God. The Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death”. Rom 6:23a, but in the second half of that verse we read, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Justice would see us getting death for our sins, both physical, and eternal. Mercy spares us from the punishment we rightly deserve. Grace gives us forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life instead of punishment. That’s a pretty good deal.
The Bible teaches that mercy comes to us freely from God, and therefore we are to dispense it just as freely to others (See Mat 18 and the parable of the unmerciful servant). The Bible also teaches that as we respond mercifully with others, God continues to extend more mercy to us, and God knows we need it. If that mercy should not be shown to others…we and God have a problem (read the end of that parable). Often we desire mercy for ourselves, and “justice”, or at least our notion of justice, for others. We’ve chosen the right path, and/or we’re in a good place with God when the mercy we have received from God, flows into us…and out to others.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Anyone wish for a pure heart from their Genie? O that we would have all wished for that. One of the great tragedies of our days is the massive amount of impurity that comes our way via any and every screen (or book) we come close to. I watched a segment from Art Linkletter the other day, and became nostalgic for days gone by. Although I don’t remember much of the 50’s, and certainly realize that those times were not without their problems, it seems to me however that there was a purity and innocence back then that is hard to find today. God through the apostle Paul calls us to think on those things that are; “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy”. Phil 4:8 We’re in a good place with God when we do.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Finally, we come to one that someone might have actually wished for, although probably not to be an agent of it. If ever there was a day when Christians needed to model the virtue of peace and peace-making…it’s today. There is a level of anger, verging on hatred, displayed now that I have not witnessed in my lifetime. Perhaps largely because of the relative anonymity of social media, people feel entitled to rant and rave and express vitriol in their speech like never before. Am I missing something, or is Jesus calling us here to be agents of peace rather than instruments of discord? I realize that it takes “two to Tango” (which I always understood as being, “two to tangle”, for I guess the Tango was not a popular dance in Viking at that time), but when one acts as an instrument of peace, the chances of the other wanting to join in the dance are increased significantly I would think. For God’s sake, and I mean that reverently, and for the sake of God’s people everywhere, let us all hear and embrace this beatitude of peace.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These aren’t really beatitudes per se, but rather the expected outcome of living a “blessed” life, and probably be the last thing that any of us would wish for ourselves or our loved ones, and we often pray against them. They are however the outcomes of living the life Jesus both commands and models. He wasn’t just “whistling Dixie” (and I’ve used that expression before, so I shouldn’t have to explain it again) when he said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also”. Jn. 15:20b. The Devil, the world, and our own evil selves aren’t that keen on the beatitudes, and that unholy trio will do all within their power to see that they make it tough on those who try to live them out. Jesus states the reason for this simply and clearly in Jn. 3:19, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” The words and actions of Jesus and those he calls “blessed” serve as a pronouncement of judgement on ourselves at times, and others who would rather live in darkness, no matter how good our peace-making skills may be. We shouldn’t be surprised when others treat us as they treated our Lord. It goes with beatitude living.
These “beatitudes” or “blessings” may not be anything we would wish for…but they are what we need. God calls us not be critics or spectators in the Christian life, but rather disciples, and in that calling, promises blessings. My one wish for myself, and for all of you…is that we should all be “blessed”. Amen