“And the Winners Are…”
4th Sunday after Epiphany
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A sure sign that we’ve misunderstood Jesus is that we do not find him shocking. His words are earthshaking – they should flatten us. But to many of us now they’re like stones rubbed smooth by centuries of handling – turned to conventional morality and devotional sentiment. Yet when he spoke them first, jaws dropped, eyes widened, heads turned. That he healed the sick and raised the dead was amazing, but what astounded them most was what he said.
Among his most arresting words are the ones he opened with in his first public address. According to Matthew he walked up the rise of a mountain when the first crowd came. They would hear his inaugural speech, which was bound to lay out his major themes and establish the whole tone of his ministry. What would he say? How would he begin?
He begins with this: “Congratulations to the spiritual beggars! God’s kingdom goes to them!”
Or something like that in his language. No English word really captures the sense of that initial word, the one he keeps repeating. In old translations he says, “Blessed are they”—but that sounds like stain-glass to many people now, and doesn’t communicate his original exuberance. In newer translations he says, “How happy they are” – but to our ears, “happy” is a word for feelings, and what Jesus means is far beyond feelings. So what does it mean when he sings out, “Blessed are they!” or “Happy are they!”
The word has a sense of heartily congratulating, of honoring and cheering, of powerfully lifting someone up, pronouncing the smile of God on them, and promising a bright destiny beyond this life. George Buttrick suggested the word could be rendered, “Bravo-joy!” – and the short story writer Mary Gordon recently wondered if when Jesus pronounced blessing if was “like being knighted.”1
Jesus doesn’t launch his teaching with instruction, admonition, doctrines or ideas. He comes down that hill shouting mazel tovs, handing out bouquets, cheering people – particular people. Of all the ways he might have begun, what he chose was like singing to them, “Bravo-Joy!”
That much in itself is surprising – but the real shocker comes in the kind of people he’s cheering, because by many standards it’s “a list of losers.”2 Types who go mostly unnoticed – and when they are noticed, are generally passed over, or worse. “Bravo-joy!” he sings over people who live at the bottom of the heap. We think we know where to look for happiness, but Jesus declares a different list of those to whom the ultimate happiness really belongs.
And the winners are . . .
The poor in spirit – spiritual beggars: those who see they’ve got nothing, who have let go or lost what they once clung to, and now have nothing left. Joy to you if your pride has taken a fall, if you’ve known failure and have nothing to show but your need for God’s grace. Congratulations! You are empty enough to be filled, and so you shall be.
And cheers for those who mourn! Those whose hearts have broken for the death of great dreams, the death of loved ones or of enemies; those who grieve the world’s madness and suffer because others suffer, bravo-joy to you! The wound in you makes larger space for the love of God, and you shall be comforted.
And congratulations to the meek! You who refuse to be aggressive or controlling but are teachable and useable, how happy you are! You don’t grasp at power or fear it, but give your consent to love’s power alone. Congratulations! You shall inherit the earth.
And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, how grand they are! You who want, more than anything, for God’s goodness to flourish everywhere; you who ache for that goodness in yourself and in your world – you are blessed, and you shall be satisfied!
And let’s hear it for the merciful! Those who risk their love on failures, who bear warm compassion toward the poor, the defeated, and the guilty. How happy they are, for in opening to compassion, they find compassion also for themselves – they shall obtain mercy.
And how happily blessed are the pure in heart! – those whose will isn’t split in a dozen directions, “whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil – and by their own virtues too.”3 To look in all directions at once is to see nothing. But cheers for those whose pure, single gaze is on the light. They shall see God.
And kudos to the peacemakers! – who lay themselves down like a bridge to those who are estranged or excluded or unforgiven. Seeking justice, peace, and reconciliation, they do the godliest work in the world. Bravo-joy! They shall be called the children of God.
And if you suffer for any of this, congratulations all the more! How blessed you are when people revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely on my account. It’s what the world repeatedly does to those who live my love and truth. And you will never be closer to God than when you pay a price for bearing witness to the light. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad! Your reward is great in heaven!
So there they are, the unlikeliest heroes. Jesus opened his ministry in song for them. Did you notice he left some good people out? He didn’t say, Blessed are the hard workers, blessed are the disciplined, the honest, the well-behaved. No, it’s the spiritual beggars, the mourners, the meek, and their kind whom he lifts up and points to and says: These are the favored ones! These are the blessed!
Did you hear him call your name? His roll call of the ultimately happy – were you on the list? Spiritual beggar? Mourner? Meek? Hungry and thirsty for righteousness? Merciful? Pure in heart? Peacemaker? Persecuted? Did he call your name?
Actually, yes, he did call your name– because the beatitudes are not just blessings on certain wonderful people, they’re invitations to come forward and take our place among them. Come and stand among spiritual beggars, mourners, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the others. And lease notice: when Jesus describes them, it is not so much in terms of what they do, but in terms of who they are. The fellowship of the beatitudes is not a fellowship of acting but of being and becoming – which is to say, to take our daily place with Christ, by whom, more and more through time, we become the become the blessed and we become the blessing.
To put it differently, these qualities of personhood lifted up by Jesus are a portrait of a human being fully and beautifully alive. Study it and you’ll see his features: utter freedom, calm faith, infinite compassion, gentleness and ferocity of spirit, indomitable gladness, a brilliance of blessing. The beatitudes show us that portrait. And across the top of it is written: “These are your features in God’s embrace. It’s what I see you becoming.
1 Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels (New York: Pantheon Book, 2009), 85.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blessed Are the Upside Down,” Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1995), 146.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan, 1963), 125.