Beatitudes for the Pandemic?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples
came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
--Matthew 5:1-3 NRSV
For the next three Sundays at PHCC, I will be preaching about stewardship or what does God expect us to do with our money. PHCC’s annual pledge campaign begins this week, and financial support of PHCC matters more now than ever, however people of faith resisting the temptations that come with money matters all the time. How can Christians have a positive view of money that inspires generosity rather than nagging, guilt and shame? That’s what I’ll be talking about the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, this means I’ll miss out on preaching about All Saints Sunday, one of my favorite Sundays of the year. Some churches preach on the saints (churches that are Catholic, Episcopal and some other Protestant churches), but other churches combine it with All Soul’s Day, a day to remember all those who have died. I tend to do the latter, because in “low church” congregations like ours we don’t usually elevate some Christians above others. I believe it’s a great time to recognize all the “lower case” saints who have influenced our faith journeys.
It’s also a good time to reflect upon the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 5:1-12, often called the Beatitudes. Since I won’t be preaching on them Sunday, I’ll write about them this week.
Why are they called the Beatitudes? The Latin translation of these verses from the Greek each began with the Latin word “beati” meaning “happy”, “rich”, or “blessed.’ (The original Greek word “makario” meant basically the same thing.) Over time, first in Latin and later in English, the term “beatitude” came to mean a state of being happy, rich or blessed. Some confusion comes up in modern English, because the only word we usually hear based on the root “beati” is “beatify’ or “beatification” which is a step on the road to sainthood in the Catholic church, so those of us who aren’t Catholic don’t naturally connect “beatitude” and ‘blessed”.
Another problem for English speaking Christians is the confusion with our modern use of the word ‘attitude” meaning (according to Google) “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior”. Confusing “beatitude” with “attitude” risks interpreting these verses as ‘attitudes’ Jesus wants us to have. In other words, Jesus says to us “Be poor in spirit, mourning, persecuted, etc.” in order to receive God’s blessings. Indeed, many books have been written with just that interpretation. At best this is only part of what these verses mean, at worst this way of understanding the Beatitudes entirely misses Jesus’ point.
I believe the best way to interpret these verses is not as an instruction manual from Jesus, but as declarations from Jesus about how the world really works, all appearances to the contrary. A group of clergy called SALT Collective does a nice job of describing this way of understanding the Beatitudes:
Jesus paints an utterly counterintuitive picture of blessedness: looking around the world, then and now, and it’s easy to conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, strong, satisfied, ruthless, deceptive, aggressive, safe, and well-liked — and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly “blessed” are actually the poor, mourning, gentle, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled.
When we usually make use of the word ‘blessed” we mean it in material terms, as in I am blessed to have the basic necessities of life (or maybe I’m blessed because I own a bunch of stuff and have a big bank account). Perhaps, we may use the word “blessed’ to describe less tangible things such as the blessings of family, friends and the like. Yet, I believe Jesus is using the term “blessed’ to literally mean divine favor and not about something we possess or earn. Read this way, the Beatitudes become words of consolation and encouragement for those who need it most.
Even if the world does not value you like it does celebrities, the one percent, the rich and the powerful, God values you, cares for you, loves you and knows you.
Especially if your circumstances make you wonder if God cares for you at all or if God even exists, know God loves you, cares for you, loves you and knows you.
Jesus’ words about who is blessed comes at the front of his Sermon on the Mount. Before he gets around to the instruction list, Jesus has already declared who is blessed. So, we need not waste time and energy on trying to earn or keep God’s blessing. God’s blessing of the poor in spirit, the mourner, the gentle, the hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, and persecuted already exists! It is the way God’s reality works, a preset condition and we do not have the power to lose this divine favor if we are among those on this list!
The minister and author Nadia Bolz-Weber describes it this way:
Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”
Bolz-Weber and other authors have taken their turns of writing their own Beatitudes declaring who is blessed by God, especially people our society doesn’t value, so I thought I’d write a few of my own during this time of pandemic.
Blessed are the quarantined for they shall experience the presence of God.
Blessed are the lonely for they shall have a Divine friend.
Blessed are the caregivers for they shall be cared for.
Blessed are the anxious for they shall know peace.
Blessed are the overworked for they shall find rest.
Blessed are the unemployed for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who protest, organize and vote to provide care for the uninsured, the underpaid and the cash strapped for great shall be their reward.
Whom would you write a Beatitude for in this anxious and turbulent time?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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