This morning’s gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12: the Beatitudes.
Are the Beatitudes “gospel” or “law”? Certainly they can function as law: it’s difficult to hear them and not to feel yourself weighed in the balance and found wanting. Am I “meek”? Do I “hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Am I “pure in heart”? *shudders*
But in the end, the word you keep coming back to in the Beatitudes is “blessed”. As pointed out by Revd Jonathan Fisk in a video I blogged about last year, this is a proclamation of blessing, of good news – not of laying down the conditions of entry to the Kingdom or cracking the whip on those within it.
This morning I reflected on one particular way in which the Beatitudes are “good news”. Look at those whom Jesus pronounces to be “blessed”:
- the poor in spirit;
- those who mourn;
- the meek;
- those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
- the merciful;
- the pure in heart;
- the peacemakers;
- those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
The point is not that we are to congratulate or reproach ourselves depending on how well we feel we fit this list. The point is that all of these are conditions whose benefits in this world are not always immediately obvious. Who wants to be “poor in spirit”, let alone to mourn or undergo persecution? The meek inherit nothing, the naive hopes of peacemakers are the first casualty of war, the merciful are condemned for letting guilty people off the hook. As for the pure in heart – well, first show me someone who is pure in heart.
Wiseacres can then line up to tell us that these things are all very well, but in the real world you have to show a bit more backbone and have sharper elbows if you’re going to make something of your life. And let’s be honest: they have plenty of evidence to back up their case.
What Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, however, is that appearances can be deceiving. It is the cynical Realpolitik of wealth, self-sufficiency, comfort, reciprocity and exploitation that is the foolish ideal: the most fundamental reality, the reality of eternity, is the one whose qualities are described in the Beatitudes and lived out for us most fully by Jesus himself.
Even if I am not poor in spirit, it is good news that poverty of spirit is (and will ultimately be revealed to all as being) blessed. (It is also good news that thinking yourself not to be poor in spirit will be shown to be the greatest poverty of spirit of all.) Even if I am not mourning, or meek, or pure in heart, or hungering and thirsting for righteousness, it is good news that those who are are blessed. It is good news that those who work for peace or suffer persecution will be shown not to have wasted their lives.
In short, the Beatitudes are an expression of the theology of the cross: that the truth about God (and hence the truth about us) is hidden underneath suffering and weakness.