Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes (see below) have always been clear statements to me of what we might expect in the Kingdom of God. They reflect the "upside-down" kingdom that Jesus preached, and speak to deep longings in the human heart for justice, peace, mercy and comfort.

The Beatitudes say that everything we might be tempted to do out of haste, fear, self-interest or thoughtlessness--letting the hungry go hungry, arming ourselves to feel safe, denying our need to mourn, trodding on the meek--are the opposite of what we need to do to participate in God's kingdom. They are a reminder of God's justice and of the way God looks at the world. God blesses the gentle, the humble, the sorrowful, the hungry and the peacemaker, as well as the persecuted and the merciful.

The Beatitudes advise my community to behave gently and build peace, to walk humbly and seek righteousness.

As we know, Matthew's Beatitudes are more "spiritualized." Luke's Beatitudes treat physical situations: blessed are the poor, not the poor in spirit; blessed are they hungry, not those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. The Lukan Beatitudes also offer four warnings or woes directed toward those with money and status.

My social location as a woman, a Quaker, and a person in solidarity with the poor and oppressed draws me towards the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes reflect what I wish my values to be and challenge an aggressive world (and self) to become gentler. As an educated, middle-class white person from a wealthy country, they also challenge me to resist aligning with ruling class attitudes and complacency. The "woes" in Luke raise a certain level of discomfort, and remind me that God--rather than money or the opinions of the world--confers blessings and sides with the poor.

Because of my location in a highly individualist culture, I tend to look at the Beatitudes through the eyes of "me," rather than "us," and see them as a "personal conscience inventory" for assessing my own journey. My challenge is to interpret them as communal values and shared goals in which I can participate. They encourage me to find out where God is already at work in the world and to join that effort.

Do the Beatitudes mean anything to you? If so, what? Do you have any ideas how we can we enact them in more communal ways?

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

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

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blesses are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.

Source: Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition of the Bible (in the public domain)

Beatitudes ( Luke 6:20-26)
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. "Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.


Bill Samuel said...

Dallas Willard says the blesseds in the Beatitudes aren't meant to show the way we should be. Rather, they show that God blesses everyone, even the least likely in the mind of society.

Diane said...

HI Bill.

I like Dallas's comments as far as they go, but I can see too where they might lead to complacency. (Of course, I haven't recovered yet from Willard's pro-war stance at the Renovare conference we attended 6 or so years ago. :))

I do think *we* are God's chief agency of blessing as we do God's will, and that this will has consistently called for compassion to those who suffer.

Bill, I hope you are well.

Anonymous said...

'and see them as a "personal conscience inventory" for assessing my own journey.'

i like taking inventory...lovely :)


Steven Davison said...

I've been studying what I call the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God for a while, looking at Jesus' teachings about the kingdom of God in the light of contemporary Jewish/Hebrew property, inheritance and economic law. In this light, virtually all the Beatitudes, especially as they are given to us in Luke, read as midrashim on inheritance law and they lay out a platform for radical economic and especially land reform. My favorite example is "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

"Meek" here is a technical legal term in Hebrew scripture for those who have been judicially disenfranchised; that is, people who have lost their family farm to foreclosure and therefore can no longer represent themselves legally in the council of elders of the town/village. As a result, they must find some landholder to be their paraclete, their advocate, either as a witness, or as an 'attorney', if they need to press a claim for payment or defend themselves against a suit.

"Earth" here is the Hebrew 'eratz,' meaning land, as well as the more universal, even cosmic 'earth.' Legally, it specifically refers to one's 'portion', one's legal inheritance: one's farm, one's land.

So this is what Jesus' listeners heard when he spoke this blessing: Blessed are those who have lost their land and therefore can no longer even represent themselves in court, for they shall re-inherit their ancestral portion.

To unpack all the others in this way would make a very long posting, but they are all full of this kind of legal language, all of which is virtually invisible to folks who haven't studied torah and its provisions for debt management in some detail. They tend to be spiritualized in modern Christian circles, but for Jesus and his listeners, they could not have been more concrete or more radical.

Steven Davison

forrest said...

I am very much interested in that last comment; how about 'a long posting' back at your own blog? (& any chance I could get you to do something with the fairly defunct Quakerish Bible study blog I inherited?... my interest has run down for now, for some reason.)

Reina said...

I agree with Forrest 100%! It was fascinating to read your analysis based on your knowledge of Hebrew and Torah. I hope you do blog on the subject as you, Steven, seem to have a lot to offer.

What really strikes me about the Beatitudes is that they seem to be intended to teach looking beyond the obvious to find hidden blessings in painful situations and hidden burdens in seemingly joyous times. Also, they seem to speak to the age old wisdom put concisely as, "This too shall pass."

kevin roberts said...

A Hebrew legal interpretation of the Beatitudes is interesting. Yet the Scripture wasn't recorded in Hebrew, but rather in Greek, and so reverse-engineering Hebrew or Aramaic renditions seems problematic to me.

How far can one go with etymology here without knowing what the original words actually were? Are the Beatitudes sufficiently parallel to Midrash so that we can make that leap? I'm interested to know.