Back to God, thank goodness, if only for my own sanity.
Liturgical churches are entering a few weeks when the gospel readings in Matthew will be from the Sermon on the Mount. I regret that it will be for a few weeks only. Wouldn’t it be better to stretch it out to cover a little at a time over many weeks? It’s so easy to let the deeply rooted revolutionary power of these words slip by as we gulp down whole paragraphs without giving them the thought they deserve. As it is, we don’t even get the whole sermon. We just fiddle around in the Fifth chapter before moving on. Consider this Sunday. It’s the Beatitudes, known to most parishioners as the part where Jesus says who God blesses in special ways. What a relief to know God has done the blessing, taking a load off of our backs, one we weren’t really carrying anyway. That may be a little harsh, but these beautiful words of blessing have a way, I fear, of becoming platitudes in their familiarity when they are meant to challenge us in radical ways.
“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Let’s start with blessed. If God is blessing anyone or anything, and we are followers of God in Christ Jesus, ought not we to be participating in extending God’s blessings right along with him? Isn’t it a call to action as disciples, and not just a statement about what God is doing while we watch? What would that mean in practical terms? In part it means to become the people whom God blesses in special ways. Amending behavior, and practicing it until it becomes a habit of the heart is not easy. Nevertheless, says God, it will lead to ways of life that bring fulfillment beyond measure. But what kind of fulfillment? The lives of the martyrs don’t portray the fulfilling life I have in mind. What about you? Thankfully not many of us are called to be martyrs, and it’s reassuring to learn from those who have trod the path of discipleship before us that God’s promise of fulfillment is true and comes in many other forms, excluding the popular gospel of prosperity. That’s half of it. What would it mean to participate with God in extending blessings? That’s even harder. Our judgment about what others need and how to provide it is always well meant, but often condescendingly wrong. Learning how to love others as Christ has loved us takes a lifetime, and that’s too short to get it right. But we can try, and that’s what we are asked to do. When Jesus sent brand new disciples two by two into nearby villages, they didn’t have to go far and didn’t have to do much. They just had to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and offer God’s blessing, which would flow through them, however imperfectly, into the lives of others. Maybe we mess things up when we try to be the producers of the blessing rather than the communicators of it.
Turning to the first beatitude, who are the poor in spirit? Are we supposed to become poor in spirit? That doesn’t seem right. As a young man, to the extent I gave it any thought, which wasn’t much, I suspected it meant people who are sad or grieving. I wondered if Matthew wasn’t getting a little too maudlin compared to Luke’s version that leaves it a blessing of the poor, which is something I could more easily understand. I’m inclined now to believe Matthew got it right, and understand it as those who are struggling with their faith. Not only those of us who have our doubts, but those who are spiritual but not religious, and atheists who spend so much energy consumed with arguments about the God they don’t believe in. We are to take them seriously with love, encouragement not condemnation. After all, how much faith is enough? The size of a mustard seed, we are told. That’s not much. And who are we if not among them? “I believe, help my unbelief,” said the father who feared for his epileptic son. Or Thomas who had learned the hard way not to trust what the others said. Each waited to see and touch Jesus himself? We are, if we are honest, among those who are poor in spirit. We believe yet need help with our unbelief. We’re a step or two behind the disciples of whom Jesus said “Good grief you guys are thick. Are you never going to get it?”
Just the same, we can be, however imperfectly, the presence of Jesus for those who yearn to hear him, see him, touch him, keeping in mind that we are care givers, not cure givers. What we are able to bring is a flicker of the light of the kingdom of heaven. If theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and we have been instructed to proclaim that the kingdom is at hand, then it is through us that its presence will be made known. Through us, not because of us, not by our own doing, but because of our intentionality to be bearers of the light. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Well, those are a few random thoughts about the first beatitude. You can see why I wish we could spend more time with them.