Based on Lk. 6:20-26
The Beatitudes, the beautiful attitudes, or to put it into similar words of a recent popular song, the don’t worry be happy attitudes. Those of us who go to Sunday School and church regularly are likely very familiar with the Beatitudes. For some folks, the Beatitudes are nearly as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer.
It was Mark Twain who once said something to the effect that it’s not the difficult, obscure passages of the Bible—rather, it’s the simple, straightforward passages of the Bible that caused him the most trouble. That, in a nutshell, is the great paradox of the Beatitudes for us. We are so familiar with them that we think it would be very hard to misunderstand their meaning. Somehow, their familiarity causes us to miss or ignore or forget the extremely radical edge of the Beatitudes.
They are, in a word, Revolutionary—going even farther than that, they are downright Subversive! William Barclay called them: “a series of bombshells.” And Deissmann observed that: “They are spoken in an electric atmosphere. They are not quiet stars but flashes of lightning followed by a thunder of surprise and amazement.”
How is it that the poor, hungry, weeping, persecuted and excluded people are “blessed” or “happy”? How is it that the rich, those who have plenty of food, those laughing now, those who have “made it,” the superstars, the accepted ones—how is it that this second group of people are not “blessed” or “happy”? Such a message, if it is interpreted as literally true, certainly does turn everything in this world upside-down.
Why would Jesus name these, of all people, blessed? Would someone who had been told yesterday by the doctor that he or she was suffering from cancer—or worse yet, AIDS—consider him or herself “blessed”? Would a wife who is abused by her husband consider herself “blessed”? Would the child dying of malnutrition in say Ethiopia consider him or herself “blessed”? The physical states of a cancer or AIDS patient, an abused wife and a dying, malnourished child are clearly not fun, happy or blessed.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus made no clear cut distinction between what is material and what is spiritual. Jesus spent a lot of his time healing people who were sick, marginalized and dying. It is clear that this healing was for both the body and the soul/spirit.
This unity of body and soul/spirit is at the centre of what Jesus is saying in the blessings and woes. The poor, hungry, weeping, persecuted and excluded are blessed or happy not in the sense that their physical state is rewarded right now. Rather, they are happy or blessed in both the physical and spiritual sense in that they indeed have a reward in the future. Jesus gives them hope for the future. They are able to endure because of hope. Things cannot get worse, they can only get better.
According to Paul Tillich in, The Shaking of the Foundations: “The Beatitudes do not glorify those who are poor and in misery…Because they are poor.”(p. 27) The poor are blessed because they have nothing to trust in and no one to turn to but God alone. Insofar as they trust in God alone, they shall be blessed since the present and the future is in God’s hands. God, one day, shall change the present world order.
The unity of body and soul/spirit also applies to the rich, those who have plenty of food, those laughing now, those who are accepted and have “made it” now. It is important for us to remember that, as Tillich observes: “The Woes are not promised to those who are rich and secure…because they are rich.” (p. 27) In the Gospels, we see that Jesus did not condemn rich people like Zacchaeus and Matthew the tax collector because they were rich. The whole point of Jesus’ four woes is that their rewards, right now, are concerned only with this world. Those who receive their rewards right now trust in and worship them as ends in themselves. The result is that those who receive these rewards right now no longer trust in and worship God above all else. The other result is that to keep their rewards right now, it is necessary for them to continue to keep the poor poor, the hungry hungry, the weeping weeping, the excluded excluded. In other words, the rich are content to keep things as they are—i.e., the present systems and structures of this world—because all of the injustices of this world favour them.
This message of blessings and woes does shake us up. We emphasize so much in our society immediate rewards and results. Yet, our gospel for today and Paul, as well, remind us that if we live for this world only, we are the most to be pitied; if we demand or expect rewards and results given in full—then, we are in trouble. On the other hand, if our rewards or results now are denied us, Jesus assures us that our day will come; he will turn the present world order upside-down.
The beatitudes really stress the importance of a well-balanced life. This world and the world to come; the material and the spiritual are in most, if not all, of us out of balance. The good news is that Jesus calls each one of us back into a grace-filled, balanced life with him every day.
Whether we are materially wealthy and spiritually poor or spiritually wealthy and materially poor, one thing is certain: namely, God is in control, calling us to live in a revolutionary, subversive realm, which turns this world upside-down. Will you follow Jesus today in this upside-down way of life?
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