SCRIPTURE STUDY: The Beatitudes, part II
Lost to us, who encounter these passages 2000 years after they were first spoken, is the incredibly subversive nature of what Jesus is espousing in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ society, like ours today, took certain things for granted. People consider themselves “blessed” if they have wealth, status, and power. How often have we heard, or said ourselves, “God has really blessed me,” in some reference to our good fortune, good luck, good health, success, etc? And by extension, those who have experienced misfortune, tragedy, hardship, and suffering, many of us privately pass judgment on—thinking that perhaps it is their fault, or they deserve it, or they’re just not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to make it. We even go so far as to chalk it up to God’s punishment or karmic justice. In Jesus’ time, we know that those who were broken, physically deformed, mentally unstable, and sick or those who suffered loss and tragedy were literally considered to be cursed, as in the story of Job. It is a vicious circle and blatant attempt to justify by God the success of a few at the expense of the many. Those who succeed must be blessed by God; and those who don’t…well you can put two and two together.
Think, for a minute, just how twisted Jesus’ words are: The meek or the lowly ones didn’t inherit land; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness experience disappointment, not satisfaction; those who mourned dead fathers and sons, the loss of their ancestral lands and other manifestations of the oppression of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee did not find comfort, no matter where they looked, including to their own corrupt religious and political leaders; what did it matter to have a “clean heart” to the leper whose physical “uncleanness” marked him as a sinner and put him outside of the bonds of community; and to extol an ethic of mercy when justice, better understood as vengeance, was foremost in people’s hearts toward those who had wronged them?
The Beatitudes undermine the dominant cultural and even religious values of Jesus’ time and our own. They subvert our warped theologies that serve to justify economic, political and religious systems that elevate some of us while placing the blame for other’s lack of success on their sinfulness, their moral weakness, their laziness, or their obviously inherent unworthiness.
In verse 7 of the Beatitudes, Jesus promises that those who show mercy will be shown mercy. It is an ethic of reciprocity that Jesus will come to again and again in the Sermon on the Mount (most pointedly in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;” and the Golden Rule). The practice of mercy is not nearly as common as we might think. Mercy involves entering into a situation, a relationship really with someone, going past the rules and the easy, stock answers which protect us from taking responsibility for the harsh pain such decisions cause. We are more concerned about what is fair, what is just even, rather than showing mercy. And yet, the second part of verse 6 implies that we all shall need mercy someday, and that those who practice mercy, will be shown mercy when their time comes.
As we have already alluded to above, Jesus asserting that those with a “clean heart” will see God subverts every law and disposition which judges people based on outer appearances. Jesus lived in a society of purity codes, where someone’s purity or cleanness was based on physical manifestations of sinfulness—sickness, rashes, deformities, disabilities. This brings up a good question for us, one which we wrestled with on several occasions during our two week study of the Beatitudes—namely, who is Jesus talking to? Who is the audience for the Beatitudes? Is it aimed at the poor and broken and downtrodden? Thedisciples? Those curious folks somewhat invested in the status quo but still intrigued by Jesus enough to come out to hear him speak? The Pharisees? And so on. And maybe the ears Jesus speaks to change from Beatitude to Beatitude… Anyway, in the case of verse 8, imagine being one of the lepers, lunatics, paralytics, diseased ones who have not the standing or money to be made clean again through the proper channels (priests of the Temple system reserved the right to name someone clean or unclean and the ability to make payment to the priest thru sacrificial offerings often played a part in the transaction). Imagine being told that it is the interior, what is inside of a person, that determines whether one may see God? How liberating for the leper! And how threatening to the priest whose livelihood is based on the people’s willingness to cede control to him!
Someone at the study also pointed out the connection between the Beatitude in verse 3 and verse 10. Both the poor in spirit and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are promised the same thing: the kingdom of heaven. And the tense is different than the verses between these two—no “they will be satisfied,” et al; but rather “theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Right now, right here. And in trying to define that fuzzy term “poor in spirit,” we have a little insight into who those might be—perhaps they are also the ones who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of justice? A friend of mine, a longtime priest in Mexico, once told me that persecution is the sign of the true church; the church that is really being faithful to Christ and the proclamation of the kingdom of God is bound to be persecuted by the powers invested in the status quo, the way things are.
In the final Beatitude, verses 11-12, Jesus changes the object of the Beatitude from the third person to the second person, aiming what he now says directly at the disciples, those who followed him up the mountain and whom he began to teach. The Beatitude states, “Blessed are you WHEN they insult you and persecute you…” No “ifs,” but a resounding “when.” The implication is not to be missed: If you follow this Jesus, if you choose to align yourself with him, “they” will insult you, persecute, slander you, etc. “They” is defined by the next statement: “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus places those who will follow him in the line of the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah. And the “they” who persecuted those prophets were the political and religious powers of their time. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet is set up against either the king or the priest, as well as the systems they represent. This is to be the task of Jesus’ disciples, of the church. To stand with those who are named “blessed” in the Beatitudes, to prophetically speak the truth of Jesus to those in power, and to suffer the persecution that flows from such actions.