Friday, December 20, 2013


“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 satisfied.
“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 sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:3-12)
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Lk 6:20-26)

I have a problem when I go to study the Beatitudes. Sometimes, when I'm reading the Bible and I come to a part that I've studied or heard taught multiple times, I think, “Yeah, I already know this,” and I start skimming ahead. I feel like I've heard people talk about passages like the Beatitudes so much that I'm not sure what I can add. Supposedly the best book to read on the Beatitudes is Les Beatitudes, by Jacques Dupont. It's a three volume set, 1,500 pages, in French. I get lost in that kind of detail. I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said.

A second problem quickly arises when studying the Beatitudes. How are we to understand them? Scholars and commentators don't agree on how to approach them; for example, some argue that the Sermon on the Mount doesn't even apply to Christians today. Individual Beatitudes get debated—are “the poor in spirit” materially poor, physically poor, or both? At face value, the Beatitudes seem counter-intuitive, to say the least: how can we say that the poor, the mourners, the persecuted are truly happy? And how do the Beatitudes apply to me? When I read them, I don't really feel like the kind of person they talk about. I've always had a job. It's always paid more than adequately. I've never known real hunger. I've never been persecuted. As Philip Yancey says, “What meaning can the Beatitudes have for a society that honors the self-assertive, confident, and rich?… Why doesn't the church encourage poverty and mourning and meekness and persecution instead of striving against them?” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 108)

Most preachers and writers spiritualize the Beatitudes. The “poor in spirit” are those who recognize their spiritual poverty, “those who mourn” are mourning their sinfulness, and so on. John Stott is an eloquent example of this approach:

The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple. We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it. This makes him meek or gentle in all his relationships, since honesty compels him to allow others to think of him what before God he confesses himself to be. Yet he is far from acquiescing in his sinfulness, for he hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness. We see him next with others, out in the human community. His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world's pain. On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin. He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as a peacemaker. Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified. (Christian Counter-Culture, p. 58)

All of this is good and true and helpful, but I'm not certain that it's what Jesus primarily meant. I don't doubt that Jesus meant this—after all, part of the genius of Scripture is that it can have multiple layers of meaning and speak on multiple levels, and Jesus is certainly smart enough to do this when he talks—I'm just not convinced that it's what Jesus was primarily trying to communicate. Part of my uncertainty is that Luke's rendition of the Beatitudes and the “woefuls” doesn't sound very “spiritual” as we commonly use the word. Part of my uncertainty is that even Matthew's version is hard to understand, and I'm not at all convinced that I would have come to this understanding without the help of preachers and writers like Stott. While I'm immensely thankful for preachers and writers like Stott, Jesus' first century listeners didn't have the benefit of help like that, so I wonder if Jesus' teaching was perhaps intended to be more basic than that.

Yancey summarizes the Beatitudes: “Lucky are the unlucky!” Perhaps a lot of the point of the Beatitudes is simply to shock us out of how we view the world.

It's very, very easy to reduce God to our own terms. It's easy to think that God is just like we are, except bigger. For example, we know what human power looks like, and we know what it looks like when humans have and exercise power, so we expect God's power to look the same, just bigger. We know what we consider to be blessings—health, wealth and comfort, safety and security, success—and so we expect God's blessings to look like that. We have some idea of goodness and morality, so we expect following God to be a matter of having the right goodness and morality and of improving ourselves until we have the right goodness and morality. We think of love as a warm sentimentality, so we expect God's love to be a great big giant warm sentimentality instead of what Rich Mullins refers to as “the reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.”

We expect God to come to earth in power and glory. Instead, he comes as a baby in a manger. We expect God to reveal himself in overwhelming power, so people have no choice but to believe. Instead, he restrains himself, giving people the chance to love him or to reject him. We expect God to wipe out his enemies. Instead, he gets himself killed. Carl Trueman writes, “Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death?”

Even if all of our expectations so far were wrong, we'd expect God to at least get respect and acknowledgement from people around him. Instead, the cross is “foolishness to the Greeks and an offence to the Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness” (Trueman).

Jesus is God's ultimate self-revelation. At the time he delivers the Beatitudes, his self-revelation is not yet complete; he has not yet gone to the cross. But he's started teaching the way of the cross here, teaching that God's power and God's blessings and God's wisdom and God's love are so often the opposite of what we think. The Jews of Jesus' day wanted a revolution, an overthrow of the worldly powers that opposed God; Jesus teaches that “when the kingdom of God arrived it would be a doubly revolutionary event. Yes, it would overturn all of the power structures of the world; but it would also overturn all the expectations about how that would happen” (Tom Wright, The Original Jesus, p. 32).

This idea shows up in many places in the New Testament. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk 14:12-14). “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29). “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19).

The point isn't that poverty or mourning, for example, is necessarily good. The point is that God reverses, and God completely ignores, what we in our fallen humanity and in our incessant jockeying for status and position and power think is good.

As Dallas Willard puts it, “Jesus' teaching does not lay out safe generalizations by which we can engineer a happy life. Instead, it is designed to startle us out of our prejudices and direct us into a new way of thinking and acting. It's designed to open us up to experience the reign of God right where we are, initiating an unpredictable process of personal growth in vivid fellowship with him” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 205). We talk often about how many Jews of Jesus' day viewed following God mostly in terms of keeping his Law and believed that all you have to do is follow the law and God will bless you, and we talk about how Jesus instead re-framed things in terms of loving God and knowing God. The risk, though, is that we turn Jesus' teaching into a new set of laws. If we're not careful, we can find ourselves saying, “All I need to do is be poor in spirit—as soon as I find the right book or the right preacher to tell me what that means—and be merciful and meek and pure in heart, then God will bless me.” Willard continues:

In the Beatitudes and the “woefuls,” then, Jesus refutes, from the vantage point of the Kingdom, human generalizations about who is certainly unblessable and who certainly “has it made.” The Beatitudes are not a list one must be on in order to be blessed, nor is the blessing they announce caused by the condition specified in those said to be blessed. Poverty, for example, whether in spirit or in pocketbook, is not the cause or reason for blessedness—entry into the Kingdom of God is the reason, as The Teacher explicitly stated. In these teachings Jesus lays his axe to the root of the off-center human value center and proclaims irrelevant those factors the world uses in deciding who is or is not well off. To see riches and poverty for what they are we must stand firmly within the Kingdom view of well-being. The essential point can be put into one shocking statement: under the rule of God, the rich and the poor have no necessary advantage over each other with regard to well-being or well-doing in this life or the next. (p. 208)

All are equal at the foot of the cross.

We've had 2,000 years to learn this way of the cross, and we still struggle.

In Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller talks about how, “as Christians, we might be obsessed with whether or not we appear cool to the world.” As an example, he tells of how he and his friend went to a Christian bookstore and were unable to find any discs with an ugly musician on the cover. He continues:

You can try the same experiment if you like. And I don't mean any of this to say that good-looking people are bad. I would actually like to be a good-looking person one day. I am only saying we are, perhaps, even more obsessed, in the church, with the stuff culture is obsessed with. We are hardly providing an alternative worldview. The mantra seems to be “Trust Jesus! He will redeem you to the world.”

The examples get worse. A friend told me recently he volunteered at a church only a mile from my house. This is a large church with a successful television ministry. He said his job was to usher everyone to their seats, and that after he had been on the job for a while, he was asked to put some of the more “pleasant-looking people” on the front rows as these people were more likely to be caught in the picture when the camera pulled out on the audience, or when the preacher walked down from the stage to make a point. (p. 210-211)

I know that there are churches that do things like this.

There are churches whose people target others like themselves, people of a certain socioeconomic class, and they spend big bucks building up their facilities and programs, and I know that facilities and programs can be good even when they're expensive, but sometimes I'm afraid it's just us trying to get position and respect, us thinking, “Blessed are the wealthy.”

Within a church, we gravitate to people like us, people having the same race and socioeconomic class and theological beliefs, because we think we're right, and we think we're blessed.

We think, “Blessed are those who do not mourn,” so we don't get close to suffering. We don't want to get our hands dirty. We start to think that “serious Christians will never have serious problems” and “God will never give you more than you can handle,” instead of facing suffering head-on, of being able to say with Paul, “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8-9).

Instead of saying, “Blessed are the meek,” we jockey for position and respect—we assert political power, and we try to get a Christian in the White House, and we force politicians to play up their spiritual lives if they want us to vote for them. Instead of saying, “Blessed are the persecuted,” we stand up for our rights and wage culture wars and form the Christian equivalent of the ACLU to file lawsuits against any whiff of persecution.

In my own life, I confuse the blessings I want with the blessings of the way of the cross. I want the blessing of health for my family and me, but God instead teaches contentment and faithfulness. I want the blessing of answers for my doubts and questions, but God instead teaches trust in him.

And I know that programs and facilities and church growth strategies and political involvement and health and answers can all be good and necessary things, but I also know how easily these overlap with our naive views of blessedness, with thinking that God's just like us but bigger, and I know how easily these can go against the Beatitudes, the reversals of the kingdom of God, everything being equal at the foot of the cross.

1 comment:

  1. Popular views of God's blessings prefer the Old Testament covenant, where the law of Moses says obey these laws from God and God will bless the kingdom of Israel with prosperity in their promised land. Americans have often thought they were another nation like Israel, who were blessed similarly.

    Jesus' blessings, however, focus on a new covenant and kingdom, a kingdom of disciples who serve him as king. His first beatitude in Mt. 5 is for the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. In Mt. 3-4, John the Baptist says this new kingdom and king are coming, and the king will baptize with the Spirit. When Jesus is baptized by John, the Spirit descends from heaven anointing him as the new king; the kingdom of (and from) heaven has begun. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to suffer hunger and temptations (to give up the way of the cross and become a king like all the others). Jesus overcomes and begins to call disciples to leave their fishing businesses and follow this poor Messiah. Then he begins to tell them who will be blessed: disciples who are the poor in the Spirit will be part of his new kingdom of (and from) heaven.

    Due to the preceding context, I think the best translation of the first beatitude is "the poor in the Spirit." Jesus is the first and foremost one who is poor and in the Spirit. And his disciples now follow him in this way; and in the future he will baptize them with the Spirit, just as John promised.