Skip to main content

Making sense of the beatitudes




A sermon preached All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2013)
The Rev. John Ohmer
Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal

For years, the beatitudes – these “blessed are…blessed are…” lines we’ve just heard -- never made much sense to me.

At least part of the reason is that at first reading the beatitudes do not sound like anything we would aspire to:

“Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, and who weep?” Wait, I’m blessed if I can’t pay the bills, DON’T have enough to eat, and when I’m crying my eyes out? “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you…”?!? You’re saying I’m blessed when people insult me, throw me out, or speak lies about me to discredit me?

In Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, at least they get spiritualized and we hear “blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who hunger for righteousness. But none of that spiritualizing here in Luke: nope, it’s blessed are the poor – the economically poor, the people who don’t have sufficient financial resources to get by. Blessed are the hungry:  people who can’t afford groceries, have empty pantries, no food in the refrigerator, can’t even entertain the idea of eating out…

And in case we don’t get the point, in Luke’s gospel, unlike Matthew’s gospel, we get a whole series of “woes” -- woe to you who ARE full now, who are laughing now, when people speak well of you.

?!? WOE to me when I have “a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation?”[1] – again, aren’t all those things good things?

And if we’re “blessed” when we DON’T have any of those things, then are we really sure we want to be blessed?

So let’s be honest: this passage challenges us. It is a reminder, on All Saints Day, that the life of holiness for which many saints are honored – the life of discipleship to which we are called, the spiritual life as opposed to the materialistic, consumerist, or selfish life – the Christian life as Jesus calls us to follow it, is challenging and difficult.

The Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48284 [retrieved November 18, 2013]


But if we spend just a little time zeroing in on these beatitudes, I think they can be good news to us…they can be a relief, and even a bit of a life-raft coming our way. 

The first thing to remember is that the word “blessed” that we keep hearing here is a translation.
Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.[2]  Years after Jesus’ death, as Christianity spread, Jesus’ teachings were translated. The major languages they were translated into were Greek and Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire.

In Latin, there is a term for the state or condition Jesus is describing here.

The term is beatitudo”

It’s the word we get our English word “beautiful” from, but it means more than physical beauty.  Beatitudo is a state…a condition…a way of being…

Beatitudo is a state or condition, a gut sense, deep down, that all is well.

The English translation I could come up with, based on a combination of words and phrases I’ve seen, would be something like “knowing that you have a special place in God’s heart[3], to have life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of your outward conditions, free of the illusion that you can take care of yourself.”[4]

Hear that again:

Knowing that you have a special place in God’s heart, to have life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of your outward conditions, free of the illusion that you can take care of yourself
           
Maybe that is something you recognize…something you have tasted at some point, even if for a fleeting moment…a sense that all is well,
all shall be well…
not because of any external circumstances, mind you –
and often in spite of external circumstances –

sometimes we have a sense that everything’s okay.

A sense, often just fleeting,
 but still, a powerful sense of bliss. All is well.

Again this has almost nothing to do with what we normally think of as “things going well.”

We can have this sense of beatitudo – this sense that all is well – when things are not well, and perhaps at their worst.

You often see it in people who are keeping vigil in a hospital or hospice, (weeping)
People who are about to undergo surgery.

You often see it in people who are going through the most terrible things imaginable.

They of all people are the most surprised at their inner state of being…despite external circumstances, they just have a sense no matter how things turn out, everything is okay.

That’s beatitudo.

Now unfortunately, English does not have one word for this state or condition. Translators of the Bible have to pick one or two words for each word they’re translating. They can’t use a lot of words to translate one word. They can’t write,

Jesus said, “Knowing that you have a special place in God’s heart, to have life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of your outward conditions, free of the illusion that you can take care of yourself, are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Knowing that you have a special place in God’s heart, to have life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of your outward conditions, free of the illusion that you can take care of yourself are you who who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Knowing that you have a special place in God’s heart, to have life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of your outward conditions, free of the illusion that you can take care of yourself are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

It just doesn’t flow right, takes up too much space. So translators need to pick one or two words.

So when those who were translating either their Greek or Latin Bibles into English, and they thought about people who were in this state, they probably thought, you know what they are?  They’re blessed, that’s what they are!  So unfortunately, whenever they ran across the term beatitudo, they picked the term “bless-ed,” or “blessed.”  

I say that’s unfortunate, because the term “blessed” or “blessed” has come to mean those upon whom God shows favor. Those who have received good fortune – you hear people say, “I’ve been very blessed with a good wife, healthy children, a good year.” “I feel very blessed,” by which we mean, generally, that things are going well.

But we’ve seen that the exact opposite is true! We’ve seen that beatitudo, this condition of “knowing we have a special place in God’s heart, life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, comes to us precisely in those times when we have been stripped of or finally surrendered the illusion that we can take care of ourselves.

The irony is, this sense of bliss , this sense that all is well, is often completely absent when things are going well for us, and it is most powerfully present when things are falling apart!

Not long ago there was a meme floating around the internet called “the paradox of our times.” The paradox of our times is  that we have
bigger houses and smaller families.
more conveniences but less time
more medicine but less wellness
more information but less communication.
We spend more, but have less,
buy more but enjoy less…

And so that is one of the challenges this passage gives us today: it reminds us that we can be surrounded by wealth and health and luxury and be perfectly miserable inside.

And it reminds us that if you want to find Jesus, go find the poor, the hungry…go to the jails and prisons, talk to the outcast, because we know of other people, and perhaps from our own life experience, that the trappings of a “good life” can be just that: trappings.

Why is it we can feel closest to God not in the luxury of a five star hotel drinking cold champagne, but in the squalor of a Honduran hut drinking warm coca cola?

Why is it that in good times, surrounded by people who are laughing, we can feel perfectly miserable inside, while at bad times, surrounded by sickness and tragedy, tears running down our cheeks, we can feel at peace? Because “to be blessed is to have a relationship with God that is not in jeopardy.”[5] Because it is true that when we are rich in spirit or in things, we are under the illusion that we can take care of ourselves. In such times, we do not know our need for God. We are not beatitudo!

That’s why Jesus says, “woe to us when we are rich, laughing, self-satisfied -- that’s all the satisfaction we’re going to get.

But when we are poor, or with the poor, we do know our need for God. When we are weeping – or with the weeping – we are spirit-satisfied, and that satisfaction lasts. When we are down and out, or with the down and out, we feel Jesus reaching out to us…touching us, healing us, filling us with his love.  

Beatitudo, Jesus said, are the poor, the hungry, weeping, reviled…not because of their exterior condition, but because their exterior condition allows them to know their need of God, allows them to see the ways God takes care of them, reminds them that in the MIDDLE OF their deplorable condition, the Kingdom of Heaven has moved in on them, has been made available to them.

Let us pray the prayer attributed to St. Francis, in the Book of Common Prayer, page 833:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.


[1] E.Elizabeth Johnson in Feasting on the Word, All Saints Day commentary
[2] a  Semitic language that includes Hebrew and Arabic
[3] E.Elizabeth Johnson in Feasting on the Word, All Saints Day commentary
[4] Amplified Bible, Matthew 5:3
[5] E. Elizabeth Johnson

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Irresponsible to be Silent

A sermon preached June 19, 2016 The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia
(“Dear Lord: Carry your word into the most protected parts of our hearts.”)
Today I don’t have a traditional sermon. I certainly don’t have a sermon about Father’s Day, but now that I’ve mentioned it, happy Father’s Day. Today, instead of a traditional sermon, I feel led to share some things that have been on my heart this past week.
I’ve been your Rector here since August of 2012. Those of you who have been here a long time know that my preaching style is almost always “expository,” a fancy word that simply means you take a passage of scripture, and having studied it during the week, you show – or expose – its meaning and relevance as best you can, and then you sit down, trusting Holy Spirit will be hard at work simultaneously translating for each of you what you need to hear on any given Sunday.
One of the implications of this style of preaching is I tend not to preach “to…

Let's Unpack One Trump Tweet on Refugees

No one can  -- and I certainly don't want to try -- to unpack every tweet the person currently holding the office of President of the United States sends out.

No one has the time to respond to every one of his tweets on just one issue. Although I wish I had the time on the issue of the Executive Orders recently issued in regard to refugees.

But every so often I feel I MUST respond to at least SOME of those tweets, lest I grow accustomed to them as normal. And I refuse to normalize the abnormal. 

Take one of Saturday's tweets, for example: in response to Judge Robart's temporarily stopping an Executive Orders, there was this: 



“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” 

Let's unpack: 

"What is our country coming to..." 
Does that lament sound familiar? Ask yourself: who often says it, where do you hear it from the most? Is it a positive, hopeful line of thinking? I wil…

The Beatitudes, Lady Liberty, and Refugees

A sermon preached January 29, 2017
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

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, for in the same way they persecuted the p…