The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time treat us to a surfeit of riches. There is a beautiful passage from Zephaniah (2:3, 3:12-13), another from 1 Corinthians (1:26-31), and the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel (5:1-12a). The struggle this week is not what to say, but what not to say. Each of these passages demands serious attention and thought, but it is impossible to consider all three of them in a blog post. Realistically, one could argue that any one of them offers too much depth to consider in a blog post.
It is the Beatitudes, though, that draw me in. The Beatitudes in Matthew are the beginning of what my late teacher Ben F. Meyer called “Five Speeches that Changed the World” in a little book of the same name. In this book he examined the five discourses in Matthew’s Gospel, of which the Sermon on the Mount is the first. The Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount.
"When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "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 will be filled. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."
Jesus, as the one whom Matthew presents as the New Moses, the one who completes the work of Moses, climbs the mountain, as Moses did when he received the 10 Commandments. What Jesus delivers in the Beatitudes is a challenge to the notion of human flourishing and how it is understood. The word which we translate as “Blessed” is makarios in Greek, which can also be translated as “happy.” But why are these people, the meek, the poor, the humble, the mourning, the persecuted and the reviled happy? This runs counter to most human notions of happiness, such as one might have in the midst of a Minnesota winter, where happiness looms as a cold drink on a warm beach with the waves lapping at my feet…Sorry…I lost myself in a reverie. Hard to argue with that reverie, though, as a normal vision of human happiness and, in fact, much of the Old Testament notion of blessedness is based upon having many sheep, many children, a lot of land and a long life. That is, blessedness, happiness, can be understood at least partly, if not only, in material terms.
So why should these people, Jesus’ disciples, be happy in situations which most of us would consider miserable? Because God was about to reverse their situation: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (v.12). This happiness, then, is apocalyptic in nature, for it will come in the future. All those are “happy” who are destined for the divine reward, which focuses us on the issue of salvation in the world to come. The disciples of Jesus can be miserable now and happy forever. The rewards, not just in v. 12, but throughout the Beatitudes are focused on the future: “they will be comforted…”; “they will see God”; etc.
Yet, when we look at Jesus’ Beatitudes more carefully, we see that the disciples of Jesus are to be (in Matthew’s version) “poor in spirit” or to “hunger after righteousness.” The virtues which are reflected here belong to those who yearn to be with God. In most cases it seems to speak to those whose material situation is lacking or who are suffering and who because of this must rely on God. In this passage Jesus challenges us to find our support in God not in things or status because these things will be gone in an instant. Upon whom or what do we rely then? The reality that the Beatitudes speak to present happiness and blessedness in addition to future happiness came to me years ago when I was working in a crisis center with people who were often suicidal, who were dealing with depression, trauma, abuse or simply the vagaries of life. This might seem like an odd place and time to reflect on happiness. It became clear to me, though, from meeting many people whose lives had taken sudden downturns, out of the blue, that it could, and would, happen to all of us at some time. The loss of dreams, of a relationship, of money, of hope, of a friend, of illness, of death – we are not immune, none of us, to these realities. At times such as these, how can we imagine our lives as happy or blessed lives? Are our lives over when we suffer pain and loss?
This is not meant to minimize the reality of pain and loss nor to suggest that we ought not ameliorate it wherever and whenever we can. It is just that at times of crisis we are forced to consider the nature and meaning of life and its worth. If one follows God in this world, even if we do not have ample worldly goods or are suffering the pain of loss, can we not also say that this still can be the good life, the virtuous life, the happy life? Can we not say the blessed life is being shared even now? The happy life is a good life, one in which we live in relationship with God for our true happiness and sustenance. A person who lives virtuously, even if not rewarded materially in this life, can claim a share of blessedness, of happiness now. The reward is not simply in the life to come, but living life now with an eye to eternity.
John W. Martens
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