Summary: 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 wil
We have as our Gospel reading this morning what is certainly one of the best known and best loved portions of the Bible.
Along with 'The Lord is my Shepherd' and 'For God so love the world ...', these verses from the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5 must be amongst the most frequently quoted words in the entire Bible.
They are traditionally known as the 'Beatitudes':
"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 the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Despite the occasional confusion with the 'cheese-makers' here I think you'll agree that most of us know these (and the other four blessings that accompany them) pretty well. They are amongst the most celebrated words Jesus ever spoke, though I'm not entirely sure why?
I think that for many people it's because these words strike them as being a beautiful (almost poetic) description of the sorts of qualities that God looks for in people?
I used to have a poster on my study wall with the Beatitudes printed on them, and it had an image of a beautiful landscape in the background, so that these Beatitudes appeared almost as a work of art, worthy of reverence.
I can remember too hearing these Beatitudes read out on TV more than once by a man with a deep, soothing voice, and with similar beautiful images running in the background, again reflecting the perception people have of these words as inspirational.
I have an immediate problem with this though. I've never been able to see that there is anything inspiring about having a poor spirit! Mind you, I'm not sure I've ever had anyone satisfactorily describe to me what it means to be poor in spirit either, but it's not something that sounds intuitively attractive.
Being a 'peace-maker' or having 'purity of heart' indeed depict admirable qualities of character, but I've never heard anybody say of their child, for instance, "Oh, he's such a lovely boy. He has such poverty of spirit."
Maybe it loses a lot in the translation. The Bible I was working with yesterday translated this first Beatitude as 'Blessed are the spiritually destitute', but that doesn't help a lot either, does it, for in truth, we generally admire people who are spirited (ie. full of spirit) rather than those who are spiritually bereft?
If the first Beatitude is difficult, the second is even more confusing at this level. To say 'blessed are those who mourn' is pretty much the equivalent of saying 'Happy are the sad', which seems to be just plain self-contradictory!
Of course if these words are intended as poetry we shouldn't be trying to dissect them and scrutinize them as if they were logical syllogisms, and yet I'm not convinced that the Beatitudes of Jesus were ever intended to be a work of art or beautiful in any sense of the word.
I remember Kierkegaard saying that admiring Jesus for His beautiful language is like admiring St Paul for his tent-making skills. Our concern should not be with the beauty of Jesus' words but with their relevance! Jesus didn't give us these aphorisms so that we can admire them but so that we might live them out! And this introduces us to a second approach to the Beatitudes, which sees in them words to live by.
I have a friend who refers to herself as a 'Christian of the Beatitudes' by which she means that while she may not accept all the traditional Christian dogmas about Christ, the cross, the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Kingdom, here, in the Beatitudes, she finds not only inspiration but direction!
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are the peacemakers ...
And this woman (while I wouldn't say she was poor in spirit by any stretch of the imagination) certainly does strive to be a peace-maker - devoting herself more or less full-time to the struggle for peace in Israel/Palestine (God bless her).
I didn't check this out with my Islamic friends, but I can see too how this approach to the Beatitudes could fit quite comfortably with the Islamic understanding of Jesus. Prophet Jesus, from an Islamic perspective, is another prophet like Moses who brings His own set of laws, and there seem to be real parallels here between Moses climbing Mount Sinai to deliver his 10 Commandments and Jesus climbing His mountain to deliver these 8 commandments-of-sorts that we remember as the Beatitudes.
The problem with this approach though is that, like the first approach we mentioned, it fits some Beatitudes better than it does others. While it makes sense for Jesus to urge us to be peace-makers and to be merciful, it makes less sense to have Him urging us to mourn and to get ourselves persecuted! And, for that matter, I'm likewise not sure how you exhort someone to achieve greater destitution of spirit?