A few months ago, one of my clergy colleagues was greeting worshippers at the sanctuary exit at the end of service. She shared smiles, hugs, and handshakes, got brief updates about people’s families and jobs and illnesses, and exchanged pleasantries. But then, a scowling person brought her up short. This dissatisfied worshipper looked at her severely and noted, “You shouldn’t be so political in church.”
Now, many a minister is struggling these days to strike the balance in this politically polarized society. We try to remind ourselves and others that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican; at the same time, we try to be clear about the Gospel’s call, remembering that scripture called us to welcome immigrants and refugees and care for the poor long before immigration policies, refugee resettlement, and poverty relief became political footballs. We are all trying to resist being “too political,” while also trying to be political enough — that is, to be clear about what Christian discipleship entails, even if that ethic steps on the toes of the powers that be or some contemporary policy debate. So it’s not too surprising that my friend was reprimanded for being too political in church. Except for one thing: she hadn’t preached the sermon that day. She hadn’t offered a pastoral prayer or a children’s message. On that day, as the associate pastor, she took the back seat to a senior pastor and a visiting bishop, and so the only words she had said in church were not her own partisan thoughts, but the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter five, verses one through twelve.
That’s right: she was reprimanded for being too political… because she read the Beatitudes.
If that congregant truly did not recognize the words of Jesus, that’s a shame; at the same time, though, the congregant was correct in calling this teaching “political.” These words had political resonance in their own time and they have political resonance in our time — they are words that lift up the powerless in society and, implicitly, dress down the powerful. Indeed, in another account of the Sermon on the Mount, the one we find in the Gospel according to Luke, the beatitudes that begin with “blessed are…” are matched with an equal number of woes: “Woe to you who are rich…, woe to you who are full now…” and so on.
The form of the beatitudes is one that would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners. These kind of statements were called “makarisms,” named for starting with the Greek word “makarios,” which means blessed, fortunate, happy, or in an advantageous position. Typically, though, a makarism would have been a tidbit of practical folk wisdom. For instance, in the deuterocanonical book of Sirach, we read, “Happy is the man who lives with a sensible wife” and “Happy is the one who finds a friend, and one who speaks to attentive listeners.” Traditionally, a makarism is a type of proverb that memorably sums up a bit of wisdom that seems intuitive or sensible. Jesus turns this formula on its head, declaring that those who seem to be ignored or forgotten, the downtrodden and marginalized, are in fact happy, blessed, and fortunate.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he proclaims. “Blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… blessed are the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Jesus takes the common formula of the makarism, and uses that formula to say something surprising and subversive. Those who would appear to be most down on their luck, forgotten and abandoned, are in fact blessed; they are especially close to God. To a crowd of mostly peasants under the thumb of an oppressive imperial regime, Jesus declares God’s special care for them, that God is on their side, that they are better off, spiritually speaking, than Caesar or Pontius Pilate or Herod or any of the cruel and powerful men who appear to have been showered with God’s blessing in the form of material wealth.
At that time, people often assumed that the righteous were blessed by God with good fortune and good health, and thus, conversely, if someone was very poor, or disabled, or ill, it must be because God had not blessed them, which could only mean that they were not righteous. Jesus pushed back against that way of thinking as he asserted God’s care for the poor, the mourning, and the persecuted, and as he befriended outcasts and poor people and healed people who were sick. Jesus’ every action proclaimed that God’s love is for all, not just for the ones who have material, financial, social, and physical advantages. Jesus’ every action proclaimed that the ones the world cares for least have a special place in God’s heart.
You would think that Christians today would have learned that lesson, but that’s not always the case. The rise of social media has given us the ascendancy of the hashtag “#blessed.” It’s a kind of label people put on their photos to indicate that they feel fortunate, lucky, provided for by God. If you look at the kinds of photos that people label in this way, you start to get a glimpse of what our culture thinks “blessed” might mean. Photo: a pile of birthday gifts. Hashtag: blessed. Photo: a chubby baby stacking blocks. Hashtag: blessed. Photo: white sands, Caribbean blue waters, perfectly pedicured toes on a beach lounger. Hashtag: blessed. Photo: a gym selfie, showing off the progress of rippling muscle and whittled waistline. Hashtag: blessed.
Even Christians, to this day, associate the word “blessed” with fiscal success, happiness, comfort, pleasure, popularity, and fortunate coincidences. But Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes challenge us to think differently about what it means to be blessed. For many of us, there may be some difficulty in hearing these words, because it makes us wonder whether God’s blessings are for others and not for us — while some of us struggle daily to make ends meet, others of us go through our days in relative comfort, with little anxiety about whether there will be enough money to keep a roof over our heads and food on our plates. Most of us don’t especially identify as persecuted. Many of us are not currently mourning. Are God’s blessings for those who are not poor, not mourning, not persecuted as well?
The Beatitudes speak of God’s love for the marginalized, and while God’s care for the poor and forgotten is essential for us to remember, some of the other Beatitudes speak to a wider variety of stations of life, giving us a glimpse of part of our call as Christians.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus says. Jesus is speaking of those times when our desire to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven goes beyond a religious obligation and becomes a deep and driving desire in our lives. He is speaking of the people who are so outraged at refugees turned back at our city’s airports that they put on their shoes and go over to JFK airport to raise their voices. He is speaking of people who are so distraught that children go to bed hungry that they devote their money and their time to supporting the work of the local food pantry. When you are so outraged at injustice that your work to make the world better becomes as important to you as eating or breathing or sleeping, Jesus says, you are blessed. God is with you.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says. The word “merciful” there doesn’t have anything to do with personality or temperament. Rather, it refers to those who show mercy. The ones who share a smile and a kind word with the panhandlers on the street, whether you give them some money or not. The ones who see a person in distress and stop to ask if they can help. The ones who choose to forgo some luxuries so that more of their money can go to humanitarian aid in conflict zones. The ones who make daily choices to be kind and compassionate. When you move through the world treating other people as children of God, Jesus says, you are blessed. God is with you.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says. Often we think of purity as synonymous with innocence - something that we lose over time if we’re not careful. Conservative branches of Christianity make much of purity rings and purity balls which symbolize a commitment to a particular kind of sexual morality. But the notion of purity which we find throughout scripture is a bit different. Purity isn’t something you have and then lose via the contaminating influence of the world. Rather, scripture speaks of purity as something gained through the purifying influence of God’s righteousness: in some verses made famous in Handel’s Messiah, the prophet Malachi writes that God is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap. Jesus speaks of God separating wheat from chaff, keeping what is good and sifting and burning away what is bad.
When we confront and repent of our own sin, we are becoming more pure in heart. Anti-racism advocates point out that, given our society’s culture and history, racist attitudes and assumptions are something that we all (white and non-white alike) are exposed to in overt and subtle ways, and internalize without awareness, let alone malice. Therefore, almost everyone has some unexamined racial biases that we have to become aware of and work to counteract. One of my favorite explanations of this idea is in a TED-X talk by cultural commentator, hip-hop DJ, and Upper West Sider Jay Smooth. He talks about how we tend to think of racism like tonsils — you have them or you don’t; if you get rid of them, then they’re gone forever. Instead, he says, we need to think of racism like dental hygiene: our environment causes us to “build up little pockets of prejudice every day, like plaque” that we need to work each day to deal with. If someone tells me there’s something stuck in my teeth, I shouldn’t be defensive: “What do you mean? I’m a clean person with excellent dental hygiene! How could you say that to me?” Instead, I should be glad they told me, so that I can fix it. As we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we will find in ourselves many ways that we are not pure in heart — pockets of prejudice, or selfishness, or cowardice; long-held grudges; ways that we cling to what is easy rather than what is right. Each time we encounter one of these baser impulses, it is uncomfortable, but each time is an opportunity to let God purify our hearts. When you confess your shortcomings and commit to do better, when you are purified in heart, Jesus says, you are blessed. God is with you.
Jesus’ message in the beatitudes is that God’s blessings are not just for the happy, the fortunate, the comfortable. God’s blessings come to us in the midst of the pain of growth, the struggle for justice, the depth of despair. Jesus reminds us that God is with the poor, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the heart-broken. And God is with us. God is with us not just in picture-perfect moments of joy and delight, but in the midst of pain and fear and sorrow. When you speak the truth with tears in your eyes and rage in your belly, blessed are you. When you recommit yourself to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, blessed are you. When you spurn the comforts and accolades of this world and choose instead the foolishness of Christ’s way of self-sacrificing love, blessed are you. Blessed are you. Blessed are you.