Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Beatitudes (Part 1)

And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.

Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:

"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 filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

For they shall obtain 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."

- Matthew 5:1-10

In yesterday's reading, we read of Jesus choosing His first disciples. First there were the brothers Simon (called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishermen. Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." Next were two other brothers, also fishermen, mending their nets with their father: these are James and John Zebedee. Jesus called them as well, and they followed Him. These men all were prepared for Jesus' ministry through John the Baptist. Then Matthew sums up Jesus' early ministry: And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.

In today's reading, we hear Jesus' preaching. We begin the Sermon on the Mount, which will continue through two chapters of Matthew's gospel.

And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. My study bible points out that this position, being seated, is the traditional position of a rabbi who is teaching. It notes, "To understand this sermon is to recognize this Rabbi is the one true Teacher of Israel." We also understand, from His seated position, that this sermon is given to instruct, with patience and care, and given for understanding, for thoughtfulness and good instruction. It is not a rousing speech, given only for emotional impact. So, we get a sense of Jesus' personal approach, persona, and impact. Later in Matthew's gospel, He will say, " Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." We begin with the Beatitudes. These first ten verses of the Beatitudes can be seen as a sort of counterpart to the Ten Commandments. Jesus gives us the Ten Blessings, if you will. He is teaching us about His kingdom, the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven He seeks to bring into the world, and asks us to live as a part of. My study bible explains that "Blessed in this context indicates heavenly, spiritual blessedness rather than earthly happiness or prosperity." And so, we begin with notions of what it is to be poor and blessed, but we have to understand it in the proper context: in Hebrew, my study bible points out, "poor" means both those who are materially poor and the faithful among God's people. So, the "poor in spirit," it notes, "are the "humble and lowly, they have the heart of the poor and their total dependence upon God. They are truly the 'spiritually rich.' " This teaching is about our own disposition in life, whether or not we are humble. Jesus has been teaching, as did John the Baptist, about the necessity of repentance. Whose is the kingdom of heaven? Those who can repent, or "change their minds" as the meaning of "repentance" in the Greek teaches us. How can one be free to change without humility? This is the way we enter the kingdom. We exchange a "worldly" pride, for a different kingdom.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." To mourn here is the experience of loss -- but it is connected to repentance and change, to letting go of something. As we exchange one sort of kingdom for another, we let go of all the things we think we need, including our ways of thinking and being we need to change in order to practice repentance. My study bible says, "Those who mourn over their sins and the suffering of mankind are genuinely repentant, to be comforted in the new age." A "holy sorrow," it notes, is part of conversion, and is distinguished from ungodly sorrow, which is a sadness that leads to despair. We may grieve for a broken world, for our own brokenness, but there our comfort is at hand.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." In this sense, "meek" means more than we understand in the English. Rather, it means gentle. That is, a strength under control, not moved merely by anger and emotion. In repentance and the mourning associated with it above, we receive a perspective that allows us to use a strength in our choices. This is the strength to turn to God and that comes from faith, not merely to act on our own immediate impulses. My study bible says, "Meekness is not passive gentleness, but strength under control. Jesus' promise of future blessings is not for the powerful, the rich and the violent, but for those who are meek and humble: they will inherit the earth, the new earth which is everlasting." In humility, we turn to God for direction and strength, whether or not we are feeling angry, upset, proud -- it doesn't matter. This is what it is to be "meek" in the Greek. We exchange a worldly kingdom of material power and force or manipulation for another.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." What then, is the most important thing? In humility, in the power to repent, what becomes the great wealth that we seek, that is of that kingdom which we exchange our worldly ways to inherit? Righteousness here is not only to live a good life, but one that is full of God's justice, fairness, good choices. If this is what we hunger and thirst for first, rather than all the things that might seize our passions, then we shall be filled. It is akin to the great commandment of putting God first, and the righteousness God will teach us with respect to all else.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." This is an important conditional statement, one of many we encounter in the gospels. And it appropriately follows the previous Beatitude about God's righteousness. How do we practice that? My study bible says "mercy is love set in motion, love expressed in action. God's lovingkindness, His mercy in taking our sufferings upon Himself in order to grant us His Kingdom, sets us free from captivity to the evil one. In view of God's lovingkindness, we in turn are to be merciful to others." The great commandments are inseparable from one another: to hunger and thirst for God's righteousness first before all things is to then express that in our lives. But note the pattern established here: first we find repentance as the primary message before all things in the gospel -- we have to be willing to exchange our ways of thinking for the ways God will give us, an earthly kingdom for another. The Beatitudes are a recipe for transformation, with God's help.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." And this is the effect of that transformation, from one way of thinking to another. To be purified is to be transformed and tested in the fire of the Spirit of God. This isn't a one-time process, but a lifetime process of exchanging one way of thinking for another, the loving power we receive from God's reality, the currency of God's kingdom. My study bible points out, "to be pure is to be unmixed with anything else. The pure in heart are devoted to the worship and service of God. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, they (1) practice all virtue, (2) are not conscious of any evil in themselves, and (3) live in temperance -- a stage of spirituality attained by few in this life." We continue on this journey of deepening faith and reliance upon God, "making our eye single" as Jesus will say, so that this righteousness of God becomes more fully our true desire. We give ourselves to God as we grow in repentance. Thus, my study bible says, we shall "see God through communion with His Son."

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." If we think about it, this process of repentance that Jesus has described leads to a great reconciliation within ourselves -- and thus it can pervade what we do with our lives. Christ Himself is of course the great reconciler, the Prince of Peace. My study bible says, "The Holy Spirit gives peace, the sign of God's presence, to those who meditate on Christ and imitate Him. . . . thus, peacemakers share God's peace with those around them . . . becoming, by God's grace, sons of God themselves."

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And finally, we must come to understand what God's peace and reconciliation may bring. We may find ourselves at odds with the "worldly" kingdom. We may be persecuted for our ways that are different. But this kind of suffering, says Christ, is blessed, for we are a part of that kingdom which He brings to the world. My study bible says, "Children of God uphold God's truth and refuse to compromise with the ways of the world. They give themselves to no other. It is not surprising then that they, like Jesus should be persecuted for righteousness' sake. For Christ's kingdom is the crown awaiting the righteous."

Taken as a series of steps for understanding, Christ's Beatitudes are those that teach us of transformation, of entry into that kingdom in relatedness to God, to Christ Himself -- the One who will do it all for us in the example of His life, our Reconciler who will Himself suffer for that kingdom. But we take comfort in our growing love and peace as we practice this repentance. We open up new ways, perhaps with each new day, to turn over a part of ourselves to God and to this process, to the Spirit that teaches and leads. Perhaps there are more and more things we need to grieve, to mourn, to let go of, even ways of thinking and beliefs precious to ourselves. But each is a step toward reconciliation and peace, and the love of God, and the growing hunger and thirst for that kingdom and its righteousness first. We exchange one worldly kingdom, for another heavenly kingdom that then is a part of this world. To be crowned and persecuted for such, says this Gospel, is to have this kingdom for ourselves. It is a long journey, the journey of a lifetime. But this choice is the "one thing necessary," "the better part" -- and, as He has promised, "no one shall take it away" from us (Luke 10:42).

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