Summary: Approaches the Beatitudes as the promise of a future great reversal of fortunes (uses images from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame).
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake."
Jesus’ words in this sermon on the mount sound very comforting, very uplifting, very comfortable. I think that most of us, when we hear these beatitudes read from scripture, try to place ourselves somewhere in the list. We may listen and think, "ah, I’ve been merciful to people at times." Or we may sit and remember a time when we made peace with a friend or a relative. Typically, we hear these words as great promise, because we like to see ourselves included in those that Jesus describes as blessed.
But what does it mean to be blessed? Does it mean that we have physical possessions, that we have a house to live in or lots of things to surround ourselves with? Think for a moment. Who are the people in this world who we consider the blessed ones? Is it the person who won the publisher’s clearinghouse sweepstakes? Is it the person who has a big house, a boat, a vacation home up north? Is it the person with no debt and no bills? Is it the executive with the big three who is making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? Is it the parents who just had a healthy baby or the kid at school whose parents just bought her a brand new car? Far too often, the people we consider blessed are those who have THINGS!
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus uses the word ’blessed’ in a totally different way. Although the world may see at the rich and powerful or the high and mighty as blessed, Jesus says that God has blessed the lowly, the meek, the poor, the hungry. Jesus takes the popular worldview and turns it upside down.
Do any of you remember the Disney movie from a few years ago called Hunchback of Notre Dame? As the story goes, once a year the people of Paris have a street festival. On that day, everything is topsy turvy, sings Clopin, the narrator-jester. At that festival, they crown the king of fools, who is actually the ugliest, most hideous person there. Why do they crown the least likely person, sings Clopin? Why, because everything is topsy turvy! A king becomes a clown and a clown becomes a king, he sings.
At that festival, Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame, is crowned the king of fools. He put the top in topsy-turvy, sings Clopin. Jesus’ words about being blessed strike us in sort of a topsy-turvy fashion. Those who seem to be less fortunate, who look like they are not as "blessed" as we are, turn out to be those who God proclaims as blessed, as fortunate. The fortunate ones in God’s eyes, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity. What seems up is actually down and what seems down is actually up. Jesus’ reminds us that God’s ways of seeing things are sometimes topsy-turvy from the way we see things.
The beatitudes are not "entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven", but descriptions of the nature of God’s rule. Jesus is not pronouncing blessing, that is, his words do not cause the blessing. Instead, Jesus is describing a situation that exists. According to Jesus, when the rule of God is fully realized, the people who will benefit are those who now have no reason for hope or cause for joy, who seem to have been denied their share of God’s blessings in this world. The people that Jesus describes as blessed people are those for whom things have not been the way they ought to be. For such people, the coming of God’s kingdom is a blessing, because when God rules, things will be equalized.
Our response to the beatitudes should not be going out and trying to make ourselves meek, or poor in spirit, or hungry, or righteous. Jesus may call us to that action later, but here, Jesus is merely disputing the conventional wisdom about who is "blessed". Jesus is not telling us to become those people, he is telling us to look at those people through God’s eyes. Although we may not think of people in those situations as blessed, God’s view is different. The poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, are blessed, not because they are virtuous, but because they have something to look forward to in the great divine reversal.
St. Paul writes about the cross being foolishness to those who are perishing. These Beatitudes of Jesus illustrate the kind of foolishness that is spoken through the cross. What looks like topsy-turvy day is only an example of the reversal of fortune that will be found in the kingdom. Those who looked blessed are not, and those who seem cursed are actually those who are blessed.