[Image description: Photo is of the cover of The New Interpreter’s Bible.]
I led a discussion of the Beatitudes in Sunday School today. In the Bible, the Beatitudes are statements of blessing that Jesus gives to his disciples at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the Beatitudes as told in Matthew 5:3-12:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The Beatitudes are tricky. In context, they are revolutionary; Jesus and his disciples were persecuted and eventually executed by legal authorities for threatening the established social, political, and religious order of the Roman Empire. When looking at the key words’ original meanings, I learned that underpinning the Beatitudes is a drive for justice. For example, as the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary noted, “righteousness” isn’t about being “personally pious.” In the original Greek, the word dikaiosyne, usually translated as “righteousness” in this passage, also means “justice.”
The Beatitudes contradict typical social attitudes about wealth and power with shocking fierceness (see also “The Woes” in Matthew 23). They turn expectations upside down. When I read them, I get the impression that God loves and honors those whom society looks down on (like the poor). We don’t need to become rich or powerful to be worthy of love and justice, but God celebrates the difficult work of peacemaking; God understands the sorrow of those who cry out for justice and is on our side–that’s huge. Unfortunately, many people (myself included) have defanged the Beatitudes, making them all about personal piety. It’s hard not to; the powers that be don’t want justice for the poor and downtrodden, and that agenda shows up all the time in Christian communities. It’s difficult, especially in the United States, to push back against the notion that if you’re poor or suffering, you’ve done something to deserve it. Sunday school illustrated this problem.
When we discussed the Beatitudes today, I noticed an interesting pattern: people defended the rich. Even though I tried to emphasize the importance of justice in the Beatitudes, the discussion kept cycling back to these three areas: defense of the wealthy, personal guilt, and individual piety. The class struggled with the language around wealth and poverty, asking “How can that be? Does that mean that you’re not blessed if you’re not poor?”
I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I suppose it depends on how one defines wealth (and how that wealth was acquired, and what you do with it). In Jesus’ day, social mobility was limited. In general, the rich stayed rich, and the poor stayed poor. Resources were limited. In order to become ‘wealthy,’ you would have to take from someone else, in the way that a king collects tribute by force (see 1 Samuel 8 for more spicy commentary on that). In other words, if you became rich, there was a good chance you were also greedy.
In our current culture, where we like to think that wealth is a meritocracy, that idea can be uncomfortable, even for people who aren’t wealthy. Here in the American South, it’s common to believe that financial benefits will accrue if you are faithful to God and that abstract benefits to the economy justify the runaway accumulation of wealth. The (often unrealistic) belief that you should be able to get out of poverty through hard work and dedication, the “bootstraps” narrative, is also common.
Some folks turn to an explanation I call the “IN SPIRIT Loophole” to avoid acknowledging the blessing of the poor alongside the peacemakers and the merciful. We don’t know exactly what “poor in spirit” means; some think that it refers to humility, while others think it refers to a sense of ‘downtroddenness.’ Literal, physical poverty and blessedness just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t leave room for that. Luke just says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Way to refute the Prosperity Gospel in one fell swoop.
It may not mean the rich aren’t blessed by God (though it probably did when first written), but it entails a countercultural worldview either way, one that lifts the lowly, sorrowful, and oppressed. It doesn’t tell them to change. It does challenge us all to do hard work (including acts of mercy, peacemaking, and things that make us unpopular with the powerful forces that govern our lives), secure in the knowledge that we are loved, respected, and valued. We don’t rely on the blessing of governments, corporations, or other powers for worth, even though we live under their influence.
That idea was very hard for my class to accept (and I don’t blame them). We went around and around, raising defenses whenever I steered the conversation toward justice. It was a bit like trying to work the knots out of tight muscles; when a muscle is chronically tense, it forms a habit of tension. It may need regular massage and other caring work to stay relaxed for very long–and that can be painful. Reading challenging scriptures like the Beatitudes in unconventional ways is challenging. We can only get so far in thirty minutes of meandering group discussion, but I hope that it inspired feelings of compassion and courage alongside the frustration.
“Some Modern Beatitudes – A Sermon for All Saints Sunday” – a different but beautiful take on the Beatitudes
“Rightwiseness and Justice: A Tale of Translation” – why dikaiosyne ends up getting translated as “righteousness” instead of “justice”