The good news of the Beatitudes

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.

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10 Responses to The good news of the Beatitudes

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    My pastor and I worked through this text before he preached last week. We found that there were very strong parallels to Isaiah 61, which allow this to be read Christologically. I think the primary message to take away is that God has arrived on the scene. I see this as being parallel to a father going off to see if he is able to secure an inheritance for his family. When he arrives at the door, they wonder whether he succeeded. He starts to sing, “You better, not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I think all the ethical injunctions would immediately be lost to the family. Oh! Santa’s here. Dad must be Santa. He got the money!

    But this is only easy to read as Gospel if we see the background.

  2. FDN says:

    To even be capable of questioning whether this might be Law should cause us to reflect on the extreme degree of social and material privilege we enjoy. The vast majority of people in world history – and the vast majority of hearers of Christian preaching – would have no reason to question whether they are the people to whom the Beatitudes refer. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or how old you can afford to let your daughter get before selling her into marriage, or whether you will live through the birth of your next child, you don’t sit around wondering if you are “really” poor in spirit or even pure of heart. You hear these words, and your attention perks right up because you KNOW without further elaboration that he is talking to/about you. (Especially if you know your Hebrew Scriptures and what they have to say about the spiritual relationship between rich and poor.) The Beatitudes then appear not as a laundry list of soteriological functions on moral attributes but as an explanatory construct for why it might be reasonable, in the face of all evidence, to believe that God is on your side.

    I’m not saying the poor are unreflective, but through my contacts with them I have come to see the kind of scrupulous conscience which finds great meaning in the individualistic Law/Gospel distinction as a bourgeois luxury. The poor know that the nature of life puts a limit on how much sin can be realistically avoided; but they also know they are more sinned against than sinning, they know that God knows it, they expect him to respond accordingly – and Christianity’s long-term success is largely due to the fact that it promises he will. Which doesn’t mean that every individual, however disadvantaged, shouldn’t be called to conduct himself justly in his personal affairs. But problematizing this other aspect of it – the Social Gospel, if you will – is just not on. The real tragedy of life is that life itself is, for far too many, already much more “law” than God himself would ever wish to give us. And he knows it better than anyone.

    That may not sound orthodox, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that even the most orthodox pastor, when faced with truly desperate mundane suffering, will heed the good Doctor’s words that “it is difficult for even the most learned theologians” to divide Law and Gospel, and STOP TRYING.

    But don’t mind me, I’ve been catechized by Scandinavians. 🙂

  3. John H says:

    FDN: first, what a delight it is to see those initials pop up on here again!

    Second, thanks for this great comment. Whatever the Guardians of Lutheran Orthodoxy might say, you are 100% spot on. So easy to read the Beatitudes (and indeed the entire NT) “from above” rather than “from below” – i.e. as texts addressing the comfortable (but angst-prone) middle classes of the 21st century rather than the poor of the first (and every subsequent) century.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    “To even be capable of questioning whether this might be Law should cause us to reflect on the extreme degree of social and material privilege we enjoy.”

    I can see this now. But we have to be careful in how this gets applied.

    In my early years, there was a lack of distinction between Law and Gospel in the teaching. But there was also the individualistic reading that FDN targets. It is quite possible to say the Sermon on the Mount is the Gospel, and then give the Sermon an individualistic reading. (John MacArthur does in “The Gospel According to Jesus.”) The orthodox distinction does not introduce the individualistic reading where it wasn’t.

    I also think most orthodox pastors will use the distinction in a particular way during suffering. Rather than give a lecture on the distinction between Law and Gospel, they will present those passages that they think are most likely to strike the hearer as good news. If there is a bad reading they can see open, or open to the person before them, they will avoid it. I think even less orthodox pastors may gravitate this way just because they see what happens when they don’t.

    I also have to wonder whether there are really no angst-prone poor people in the world. It might be that among the rich and the poor, there are temperamental divides that place some one one side and some on the other. But it’s quite possible to worry whether or not you can afford the time to do so. John Bunyan wrote about Doubting Castle and Giant Despair despite being so poor that he and his wife did not have a dish and a spoon between them. And many of the world’s poor are not busy. With no opportunity they suffer grinding poverty, but also have a lot of free time. Whatever the percentages, there have been such people throughout the ages, I’m sure.

  5. John H says:

    Rick: It’s true that introspective angst isn’t solely the preserve of the materially comfortable.

    But I don’t think that changes FDN’s basic point: that those to whom Jesus addressed the Beatitudes would have seen them as applying directly to their situation, not as setting a spiritual standard to which they had to aspire.

    This perhaps explains why Jesus so quickly attracted crowds of people to hear preaching that resonated so strongly with their lives – and then lost them once he started talking about more difficult/obscure things (eating and drinking his flesh and blood etc.) that were less “relevant”…

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    I tend to agree with her on how the original audience probably heard it. My earlier comment suggested a way of reading that was less legal. I just think the individualized reading is something that we have to deal with now, one way or the other. The butterfly wings have been touched. I’m also more than a little itchy about the suggestion that if you’re really poor, the distinction between Law and Gospel doesn’t matter. That seemed to go beyond this text and suggest that the whole way of reading was wrong. I’m not sure how wide she was aiming there. What did she mean by distinguishing? Talking about the distinction? (I’ll grant that is probably out of place in such an instance.) Or applying the distinction? (That is helpful so you don’t snap the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick.)

  7. FDN says:

    I don’t think the distinction between Law and Gospel doesn’t matter if you’re poor. I do think it appears very differently – if anything, more pointedly. I know, from experience, that many suffering people find it either insulting or ironically amusing if a well-fed preacher should consider it necessary to specifically inform them concerning Divine judgment on humankind (or, as commonly happens, to offer prayers for the seriously suffering in a way that implies no-one present is among their number).

    The Lutheran church. as I’ve experienced it, isn’t a very friendly venue for the frank acknowledgment of mundane suffering, material or emotional. Many U.S. Lutheran preachers, when they describe human misfortune, mention only trivial matters that assume a certain degree of privilege – like being passed over for a promotion. I’ve never heard the Lutheran interpretation of a life spent, for example, raising several children in a single motel room with no cooking facilities, on the run from violent relatives. I certainly see no evidence that people with lives like that actually show up to, let alone acquire membership in, any of the churches I’ve attended, or that the pastors I’ve known (some of them fairly well) would know what to do with them if they did.

    I could be wrong. One pastor has argued quite strenuously that I am, that “‘everyone has a great struggle’, and many people here are going through more than you can imagine, you just don’t see it” but: A. I may not see their sufferings, but I see what kinds of cars they drive, and what kinds of addresses show up on the directory (mine is always the most modest by far in both cases, and I am perfectly comfortable) and B. why shouldn’t we see it??? what’s to be ashamed of? Not that I demand to know everyone’s business. But having personally been through a couple of situations which, while nothing compared to what many people in this world go through, were a bit beyond “missing a promotion” – the pastor’s discomfort was palpable; the pressure to gloss things over, focus on “Gospel,” and keep smiling, surprisingly intense. It wouldn’t take much for a person to decide that that’s completely unworkable and that they’re better off staying away entirely. Especially if they happen to be aware of any of the dozens of other local churches, in every American town, that don’t have this issue.

  8. John H says:

    FDN: Our congregation isn’t as bad as that, thankfully, and our pastor certainly isn’t – but being disproportionately middle class is an affliction that affects most churches, alas. (One possible exception in the UK being black-majority churches.)

    And even where poverty, marginalisation and suffering are acknowledged, it’s still as “we” the comfortable people talking about “them” the suffering people. Whereas the Beatitudes – esp in the version as recounted by Luke – make it clear that it is the poor, hungry, weeping and hated who are suppose to be the “we” in the church.

  9. FDN says:

    Oh – are the white working class not very churchy in Britain? Here they very much are. But not Lutheran. (Well, maybe in the traditional Lutheran heartland of the upper Midwest they are. But I’ve never been there.)

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    FDN, I think that discussion is a good one to have, aside from any questions of Law and Gospel. How we speak in a public setting is an important question. I think most pastors want to speak in ways that reach those who are actually sitting in the pews. It is one thing to ignore situations that are unlikely in a given setting, and quite another to end up insulting those who are actually in attendance.

    In our congregation, the “Prayers of the People” are led by members of the congregation. When you have several laymen involved, over the course of the year most of them have directly or indirectly been involved with suffering, and it shows in how they write their prayers. When I lead the prayers, I tend to use the LCMS resources at the “Let Us Pray” archives. Some weeks those are outstanding. Some weeks they are totally unworkable. And more often they are mostly good but need some editing to fit our congregation. (And I like to edit the prayers for those in authority so that the prayer doesn’t come across as a divine stamp of approval on whatever they should do. I often add a prayer that they would not fall into temptations endemic to their vocations.) The prayers from the site have often mentioned the unemployed, and I have elaborated that to include the underemployed, the overemployed and the misemployed. People have appreciated that as those categories are very real, too, and those situations often last very long. Anyway, I think perhaps what this brings up is that some pastors who insist on doing these prayers so that they can model theologically correct prayer may be missing an opportunity for seeing a wider set of circumstances prayed for by people who know.

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