Today we hear one of the most beloved pieces of scripture. The Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel have been the source of inspiration for Christians for centuries, for artists and musicians, for entire ministries, and even for comedians like Monty Python. As soon as we hear that phrase, “Blessed are…” our eyes close and we let the words flow over us. We nod in assent, and maybe even whisper, “Yes!” And as the preacher for In-Gathering Sunday, getting the Beatitudes in the lectionary is like being handed a silver platter. What other inspiration can we need on a Sunday like this than to think about blessings? That is what our Stewardship Committee has been encouraging us to do for weeks: to think about the ways that we are blessed and to return that blessing to this community through the gift of our financial resources. That message could not be better captured than in the Beatitudes from our gospel lesson today.
Or at least that is what I thought before I started really working with the Beatitudes this week. The more I poured over the text, the more I became confused. Then the questions came pouring in: What does it mean to be poor in spirit? How do we know if we are pure in heart? I might prefer peace, but could any of us in our everyday lives be considered peacemakers? And those are just the surface level questions. When we read at a deeper level, ethical questions begin to emerge. Our news outlets have been flooded lately with people who are reviled, persecuted, and having evil uttered against them. All we have to remember are Christians in Iraq, Palestine, or Burma whose very faith means a life of oppression and sometimes death. Is the word for them today, “You are blessed”? Many a liberation theologian has balked at the idea of Holy Scripture being used to keep down oppressed peoples.
Luckily, I stumbled on two things this week that opened up the Beatitudes for me in a fresh way. First I began to look at what the word translated as “blessed” really means. There are a couple of words in scripture that are translated in English as “blessed,” but they do not necessarily have the same meaning. In our Beatitudes today, one scholar argues that the phrase translated as “blessed are you when…” is more rightly translated as “You are on the right road when…” For example, “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[i] So blessed does not really mean, “Happy are you when people persecute you,” but instead, “You are on the right road when people persecute you.” Somehow this translation makes for a much more sober, honest rendering of Jesus’ words. Jesus is not saying that these things are cause for happiness in a superficial way. Jesus is saying that we are fortunate in those experiences because they point us to a deeper truth: that we are heading in the right direction, making the right decisions, and living a meaningful life.
The other source of insight I found this week was from The Message’s translation of this text. If you are not familiar with The Message, The Message is a paraphrase of the Bible: not a literal translation of the Biblical language, but a modern rephrasing of the text to make the text more accessible. Of course, biblical scholars often cringe when they hear certain paraphrases of key texts, but in the case of the Beatitudes, I found this paraphrase quite useful.
I have taken the two ideas – The Message’s paraphrase and the new introduction of “You are on the right road when…” and want to read for you my hybrid rephrasing of the Beatitudes. Our text now goes like this:
You are on the right path when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule. You are on the right path when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re on the right path when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re on the right path when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re on the right path when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re on the right path when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re on the right path when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re on the right path when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that— You’re on the right path every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit God. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, God does! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. God’s prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
This Stewardship Season, we have been talking about “Walking the Way.” Certainly Walking the Way is a metaphor for our journey into a time of reflection about the value our money holds for us and how our relationship with that money is connected to our relationship with God. But the Walking the Way metaphor is one that goes beyond just our money too. Walking the Way is a metaphor for our entire journey with God – a path that is ever winding, has steep slopes at times, is sometimes full of potholes and rocks, and at other times is as smooth as a freshly paved road. Our entire life is a journey – one in which we mature in faith from the time of our birth and baptism to the time of our old age and death. We are constantly Walking the Way with Christ, growing, learning, messing up, and returning to a loving God.
What I like about this reworded rendition of the Beatitudes is the affirmation in them. When we are on a journey, Walking the Way, we sometimes struggle to know whether we are on the right path. We wonder if we are where we should be and whether God is really with us. This rendition of the Beatitudes gives us a tiny glimpse into that affirmation: You are on the right path when… Of course, the description is not all roses. Mourning, persecution, and making peace are not easy roads. But a sign of true discipleship, of Walking the Way, are those times when the path is in fact quite rocky. Then we know that we are on the right path, and Jesus is walking right beside us. Amen.
[i] Earl F. Palmer, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 238.