Summary: The beatitudes are neither moral commands or value recommendations - they are pictures of the Kingdom painted by Jesus
IT’S ALL ABOUT GOD’S KINGDOM
To appreciate today’s gospel, the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain, we need to understand how Luke leads up to it. Luke, chapter 6, begins in a grainfield. Jesus and his disciples are harvesting and eating grain. Some of the Pharisees confront them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
The next scene is in a synagogue. Jesus healed a man’s withered right hand on the Sabbath. The text says that the scribes and Pharisees, “were filled with fury, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Jesus came into having a time of tough opposition.
At that time, Jesus took his disciples and went out to a mountain to pray – I guess he had to get away. He prayed all night. In the morning he called all of his disciples together and appointed Twelve to be, “Apostles” - Simon he called Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas son of James and Judas who became a traitor.
In today’s gospel they have all come down from the mountain. It says in verse 17, “He stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples, and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” This was one big gathering of people. One thing, however, is different – this is a friendly gathering – no antagonists here – no protestors here. He is with his Following Friends.
That’s when the reading begins, “He looked up at his disciples and said:”
Listen again, to what he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” We ask, “Is that really true? Are we really blessed when such things happen to us?”
Following those four beatitudes are four woes: “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you who are laughing now. Woe to you when all speak well of you.” And we ask again, “Is that really true too? Are we really ‘in for it,’ when good things like that happen to us?”
I’m not sure I like the direction of his speech.. Do you get some of that feeling? This seems like a complete reversal of all the values we all hold so dear in our world. We try desperately, to avoid what Jesus says is blessed. Who in the world wants to be poor? Who in the world wants to be hungry? Who in the world wants to be sad and rejected and excluded? We go to great lengths not to experience those things.
And the woes he lists – aren’t those the very things we want? Maybe we don’t need to be overly wealthy, but we sure want a comfortable amount of stuff. Maybe we don’t need to have our stomachs full all the time, but we certainly don’t want to go hungry. We want to be happy, we want to have good reputations and we want to be included. What in the world is wrong with that?
What Jesus is saying to his Following Friends does sound a bit strange!
How do we make sense of these sayings?
Well, the first thing we need to do with this sermon, is not hear it as a set of commands. Jesus is not telling us to go out and “get poor” or learn “how to weep” or put ourselves into situations where we “get persecuted.” The more we hear these beatitudes as command (things we are supposed to do) the more they make no sense.
And they are, in fact, not spoken as commands. Read the sermon carefully - Jesus isn’t giving orders here. We make a mistake when we read it that way. Read carefully – he is not telling them, he is not telling us, and he is not telling anyone, to do anything!
So, if we read them as commands, yes, they are going to sound very strange.
Secondly, they are not value recommendations for our world – not that our world couldn’t use a few new values.
I went into that one near the end of the baseball season. Remember when I referred to one baseball player’s salary of $26M? What kind of value is that, when a baseball player is paid 1,300 times more, just for playing a game, than a public school teacher is paid for teaching our elementary children?
Our world does have some strange values. Apparently we are willing to search for, and kill terrorists on the other side of the world, and apparently we are willing to go more billions and billions of dollars into debt to do that – but we aren’t willing to give gay and lesbian people the same civil rights that we heterosexual people take for granted. Yes, we do live in a world that has a lot of strange values.