Monday, January 23, 2017

For Real?

The Beatitudes don't make sense. In Matthew 5:1-12, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek..." And, on behalf of the disciples, I want to raise my hand and say, "Um, Jesus? I don't think that's right." Sure, after centuries of reading these words of Jesus, we've convinced ourselves that they make sense. We've allowed the familiarity of these nonsensical statements to become a substitute for comprehension. But if we look at the words and consider what Jesus is really saying, I don't think there's any way around them but to admit that they don't make sense.

When we encounter something that we can't wrap our minds around, there are a few ways to proceed. The easiest thing to do is just ignore it completely. If we pretend that it didn't happen or does not exist, then we can move on with our lives without having to engage that which we do not understand. I suppose I could ignore the gospel text and preach on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 or Micah 6:1-8, but a quick look at those lessons suggest that they aren't any easier to grasp. In fact, Paul's "message of the cross [that] is foolishness to those who are perishing" is pretty much the same thing Jesus is talking about in the first place (more on that later this week). Also, I'm not a big fan of ducking an exegetical fight, so ignoring the Beatitudes isn't going to work.

Another option is to convince ourselves that what Jesus was saying isn't what he really meant--that this was a hyperbolic illustration or a parable of some sort. In other words, we can decide to interpret these words as true in a larger sense without forcing any resemblance on reality. That way we can rest easy knowing that the poor and meek and hungry aren't actually blessed in their poverty, weakness, or hunger, but, in a more general way, God pities those who are in a place of struggle and that pity is itself a blessing. Not convinced? Neither am I.

A third possibility is to project the truth of these sayings into the future--that someday the poor will be blessed, the mournful will be blessed, the hungry will be blessed. This seems particularly possible in Matthew's version of the Beatitudes as each one, except the first, concludes with some version of "...for they will be comforted." Maybe the content of that blessing, therefore, is not to be received until Jesus comes back, until all things are completed, until the world ends, until these pour souls are dead and resting comfortably in the bosom of God. As a realist, I find this possibility very attractive. I do believe that someday all of those who are struggling in this life will have their struggles put to rest. I believe that the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful will find their reward in the next life. But I don't think that's good enough for Jesus, and I don't think that it's good enough for God.

I think we're supposed to take Jesus at his word and let the incomprehensibility of his statements be the thing that teaches us. I'll spend the rest of the week trying to grapple with some sense of an answer--or perhaps a better way to put that is to say that I'll be looking for an effective way to communicate that irreconcilable struggle to a congregation from the pulpit--to the question, "How is that blessedness a reality here and now despite all indications to the contrary?" How can anyone say to a mournful widow, "You are blessed?" How can anyone say to the hungry, "Take heart: you are blessed?" In fact, I'm pretty sure James had something to say about this in James 2:16. But I believe that there is real, genuine, true blessedness in those states. As a wealthy, powerful, joyful, insulated-from-hardship, privileged man, that's a dangerous thing for me to say. But I didn't say it first. Jesus did. And my prayer is that God will help me see that impossible blessedness as a lens through which I get a glimpse at God's nature.

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