January 29, 2023

The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. Yet they remain an enigma to most of us. They go against the grain of common thought.

Author, Kurt Vonnegut some time ago in an In these Times magazine article wrote:
“For some reason”, he said, “the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
—‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
Vonnegut clearly has a point. The Beatitudes still seem foreign to our culture. –The most religiously adamant of folks, who would complain about our culture’s failure to hold up biblical standards never quote the Beatitudes as part of those standards.  –Their critique comes from a wholly different direction.

The Beatitudes have that unreal quality to them. –They lift up the poor, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the peacemakers. —These are not the people we strive to be in 21st century America. The persecuted better get a lawyer. –The meek, it seems, get taken advantage of.

And that’s the problem with the Beatitudes.   If we’re honest, we have no deep desire to be meek or poor in spirit. Our Declaration of Independence declares that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t mention grief!  And as for being persecuted for following Jesus so faithfully?  It is quite clear most Christians want and expect political power as part of our birthright.  We simply are miles away from where Jesus was both in our status in the world and in our mindset.

Matthew sees the Beatitudes as integral to the nature of the church and the Christian culture.

One of the problems has always been how to translate the Greek text.  Biblical scholars come at it from lots of different angles.

A number of modern translations including the newest, the ‘Common English Version’ and older Good News version, use “Happy are those who are poor in Spirit” rather than the traditional Blessed …are those — ”

The late Robert Schuller called them the “Be-Happy Attitudes” in one of his books: That’s not at all what they are in the context Jesus said them or Matthew wrote them, say scholars. Personally, I don’t think “Happy” in English quite catches the sense of Jesus’ meaning.

Some other translators have tried using “Favored,” –Favored are those who are poor in spirit,” or “Congratulations to you poor!” But again, none of these words quite seem to catch the full flavor I sense in Jesus’ words. That’s why I prefer the New Century version Lei read from this morning.

Matthew’s Beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, but prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already-present kingdom of God. –It is not about “Happiness” in the conventional sense, or good fortune.

The Greek word is Makarios. –In ancient Greek times, that word referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The “Blessed Ones” were beings who lived way up there in some other world. To be in this blessed state, you had to be a god in ancient Greek thinking.  The ones with Makarios, or the “Blessed Ones,” existed on a higher plane than the rest of us.  They were gods above the fray of human struggles and pitfalls.

The term came to have other layers of meaning.  It was sometimes used to refer to those who had gone in death to that other world –the world of the gods. -Like we sometimes say, of those who have died, “She or he, is in a better place now.” Then it was later used to refer to those who were the wealthy, the upper crust, the 1%, those who lived like gods.

Recent studies in social history have put an emphasis on the honor – shame values as pivotal in Mid-Eastern cultures, -especially in ancient times and suggested that Jesus’ meaning was around this more community oriented value.

These scholars have come up with: “How Honored, are those who are spiritually poor” – “How honored are those who mourn…”

It was a pronouncement of honor based on the values of the community of Christ –as opposed to common cultural values of wealth, family name and connections.

As one scholar puts it:

—-“These verses don’t show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their society.

Jesus establishes a radical new way of seeing ourselves and what is worthy of our life investment, what we are to value in life.  He gives a new context for the honor/shame value paradigm so important in the first century mid-eastern world.

Remember that Jesus broke many taboos of his culture -he spoke with women, even about the Torah, he offered healing to Gentiles, he ate and drank with those considered unclean. –All of these would bring shame on him and his family in the culture in which he lived.

Jesus wants to turn the values around and put a new emphasis on what gives honor.  It is not the elite who are blessed–or honored, or favored in God’s true world.  It is not the rich and powerful who are to be looked up to and honored… It is not those who exact revenge and keep the family name free of any put-downs.

Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings, God’s honor on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers. -he saw the world in a different way. He calls us to a different value set, to treasure a different set of goals. He even talked about ‘Loving your enemies’! — Jesus turns it all upside-down.

The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed, honored, ones in God’s kingdom, are of a completely different ilk.

Jesus is suggesting the establishment of a different kind of community for those who follow him.

What a challenge to the church! And how seldom we are able to live up to it!

The O.T. prophet Micah, 700 years before Jesus, once asked quizzically:  What does God require of us?   Not sacrifices, he says, not impressive temples, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility.  —Sounds simple, but in truth it is a radical religious affirmation that challenges much of religious tradition!

To Jesus, teaching this new understanding of God’s favor, honor, and blessing, is both a sign of God’s different Kingdom,- and the kind of world his followers are called to live towards.

Jesus challenged people’s cultural and religious assumptions in his day, and he continues to challenge our cultural and religious assumptions today!  –He calls us to live as if God’s rule were here on earth now –as if we belonged to God’s culture above all else.

What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture’s games for status and power?  –That what Jesus puts before us today.

[email protected]