The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The blessed

Posted by Ron George on January 31, 2011


Van Gogh, The Poor and Money

"The Poor and Money," by Vincent Van Gogh, 1882


The preacher had it right: Jesus turns the world upside down. He teaches us to love what we hate and to hate what we love.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The preacher asks, How can one be blessed if one is poor in spirit, or just plain poor, or mourning or – God forbid – meek? How can one be blessed if one is persecuted? Purity doesn’t give us much traction in this world, and as for peacemaking, forget about it. You don’t defeat terrorists by waging peace. You don’t make the world safe for democracy or anything else by being a peacemaker. Well, Jesus seemed to think so; or at least, the first two generations of his disciples believed he did.

The beatitudes are the grabbers for the next three chapters of Matthew’s gospel. In journalism, we’d call them hooks. They might even be styled as headlines, and the message is clear, just as the preacher said: Read on but know this in advance – Jesus is going to stand your world on its head. He’s going to tighten the screws regarding anger and divorce. He’s going to challenge you to love your enemies and not to use your faith as an ego trip. He’s going to teach you how to pray and warn you against hypocrisy. He’s going to talk about your savings account and your materialistic anxieties. He’s going to come down hard on the rich and the religious establishment. He does it all in slightly less than 2,000 words in Koine, the language of the New Testament (2,400 words in English).

Are we ready for that? Is anyone? Most likely, most of the time, the answer is no, but as a friend recently reminded me, just yearning for such a life in God is a step in the right direction. Well, maybe, but certainly not if one step is all I take. Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” is a lifetime project. It takes many steps; and, as our scriptural tradition tells us, the way is narrow, fraught with that which Jesus teaches us to pray about every time we turn our attention to God – temptation.

Just who are these blessed ones, anyway? Well,  they are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the righteous, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers and the persecuted. By Matthew’s time, the community of faith recognized these types of blessedness. It was typical of this strange community of believers that the weak were strong and the poor were rich. Their gospel was a scandal because it announced that a man crucified as a rebel against the state – one of tens of thousands – was God’s son who had risen from the dead. It was of the essence of the paradoxical Christian gospel that world had been turned topsy-turvy by the irony of the crucified God. The outcast were in; the in-crowd, out.

In light of the beatitudes, then, we have what might be called the unblessed – the proud, the strong, the successful, life’s winners unchastened by their good fortune, the sheer luck of their position in the world and how much it might have cost others for them to be so rich. Gospel tradition teaches us that Jesus not only preached good news to the poor but that he also was poor himself – by choice. We’re taught that he became poor so that all who became his disciples might become rich, might be saved from themselves and their ridiculous self-delusions, and even that they might become God, as Jesus had done.

Nowadays, we seldom look for the face of God among those who are poor in spirit, down on their luck, homeless, destitute losers. They tend not to be found in our churches, where they belong, because we don’t want them there. They stink. They beg. They act strange. Worst of all, they’re not like us. If these losers clean up and sober up, we’ll take them, but not just as they are. We have specialists to handle “those people” whom Jesus really came to save from themselves. They are urban missionaries – the Good Samaritan Mission, the Salvation Army. We’re just not set up for that sort of thing – gospel ministry, according to our scriptural tradition. We’re set up for something else, for someone else – “normal” people with families and incomes. We’re set up for Sunday school, youth programs, adult Christian education, “worship services” and “ministries” sanitized against the pain and grit of life lived far beyond the margins of what most of us would call respectable.

Our scriptures teach that Jesus saw the losers of this world as beloved of God. How is it that we do not, we who are baptized in Jesus’ name and who celebrate the Lord’s death as he commanded?


4 Responses to “The blessed”

  1. Jean Willard said

    Oh, so true and we don’t really like it!

  2. Ralph Willis said

    Yes, Yes, Yes! Thanks Ron

  3. Harold Hollis said

    I remember these words from you at Holy Innocents only a few years ago: “We must wear Christ on our face.” Thank you, again.

  4. Catherine Penn Williams said

    “Our scriptures teach that Jesus saw the losers of this world as beloved of God. How is it that we do not, we who are baptized in Jesus’ name and who celebrate the Lord’s death as he commanded?”
    Amen! Thanks for this, Ron.

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