A New Definition of Blessed
Scriptures: Matthew 5:1-12; Isaiah 61:1-4
To show the strangeness of Jesus’ beatitudes, I want to take the first four and compare them to their opposite [Slide 1]. Sometimes the best way to understand what Jesus calls blessed is to imagine the reverse. Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” [Click 1] The Greek word Jesus uses means not just economically disadvantaged but utterly destitute. It’s the Greek word for beggars, people who have no possible means of support except panhandling. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he means, “Blessed are spiritual beggars; blessed are people totally dependent on God’s help.” So what is the opposite? The opposite of “poor in spirit” is self-reliant, [Click 2] to be dependent on no one but yourself.
Next Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” [Click 3] Jesus is not just talking about those who grieve the death of a loved one. He is talking about those who grieve the pain and sadness of a broken world, people who watch the news and weep, or at least wince. So what is the opposite? The opposite are those who are upbeat and positive, [Click 4] people undaunted and unaffected by the pain and tragedy around them.
Then Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” [Click 5] The meek are the lowly, the unassuming. So the opposite of the meek are those who are powerful and know it—the self-confident, [Click 6] those who are self-assured.
Finally, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” [Click 7] This is the positive side of the second beatitude. Those who mourn for the world as it is will hunger and thirst for a better one. They yearn for God’s kingdom. So what is the opposite? Those who feel fulfilled [Click 8] with the world as it is, those who feel satisfied and content.
Now look at this list. If you were hiring someone, or even just looking for someone to hang out with, whom would you pick? Would you be drawn to someone poor, sad, meek, and dissatisfied? Or someone who is self-reliant, upbeat, self-confident, and fulfilled?
Jesus’ definition of blessed makes no sense, until you realize one thing: this world as it is will not last. So the things we usually consider blessed in this world are not the most important things.
Jesus makes that point repeatedly. His very first sermon in the gospel of Matthew consists of one line: [Slide 2, click 1] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Later in chapter 4, right before the beatitudes, Matthew says, [Click 2] “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God 50 times—50 times in 28 chapters! Jesus came to inaugurate a new reign of God, not just in Israel but throughout the world. Admittedly at present this new kingdom is a hidden kingdom. It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground, Jesus says. Or like yeast mixed into bread dough. You may not see it yet, but the seed of a new world has been planted by Jesus. This world as it is will not last; it is destined for a complete transformation—the very thing we pray for when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So why are the poor in spirit blessed? [Slide 3, Click 1] Precisely because they are not self-reliant. They are not counting on themselves to set everything right in the world; they are counting on God. And they will not be disappointed, Jesus says. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And why are they blessed who mourn and grieve over the world as it is? [Click 2] Because a new world is coming—the very world for which they yearn. And why are the meek blessed? [Click 3] Because this world that leaves them feeling so discouraged and depressed is passing away. The bullies and oppressors of this world are headed for the trash heap of history. Which is why they are blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness? [Click 4] Their hunger will be satisfied. Those who mourn the injustice and suffering of the world, those who feel depressed by it, those who yearn for a world of peace and blessing for all people—you are blessed Jesus says, because you will not be disappointed. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
So if that is the kind of world that is coming, if that is what we pray for when we say the Lord’s Prayer, then how do we get ready for it? The first four beatitudes describe the attitudes of people yearning for a new kingdom, and the last four describe the practices of people getting ready for it. So Jesus says, [Slide 4, Click 1] “Blessed are the merciful.” Being merciful to others helps us get ready for a kingdom built on mercy; not on conquest, not on vengeance, not punishment, but on mercy. [Click 2] “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Being pure heart helps us get ready for a kingdom based on love rather than lust, on giving rather than greed, on serving rather than dominating. [Click 3] “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Being peacemakers helps us get ready for a kingdom built on peace rather than power, on love rather than domination.
And sometimes that may mean suffering for righteousness’ sake, being persecuted for doing what’s right. [Click 4] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says. I know that sounds counterintuitive. Can you really make the world better by doing what’s right and suffering for it? Well, look at Jesus. That’s what Jesus showed on the cross. The kingdom comes not to the powerful, not to the vengeful, not to the controlling or manipulative, but to the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who would rather love their enemies than destroy them. [Slide 5: Blank]
A while back Presbyterians Today magazine had a story about Jacky Dorleans, the principal of a mission school in Haiti, serving 600 children in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. Her husband, Pastor Leon Dorleans, founded the school in 1998 with support from U. S. Presbyterians. Some of our church offerings go through Witness in Action to support Presbyterian World Mission, including mission schools in places like Haiti.
One morning on her way to the school Jacky was stopped by two gunmen, forced into their car, blindfolded, and driven to an unknown site. There they told her she would be held captive until a half-million dollar ransom was paid. The kidnappers knew that Jacky and her husband did not have that kind of money, but they were hoping to extort it from the churches in America who were funding the school. Now I am quoting from the story:
Clutching her only possession, the worn backpack she used as a combination purse and briefcase, she rode in darkness and silence. But when the kidnappers attempted to throw her backpack away, she broke the silence. She quietly told them they would be discarding children’s report cards. “Do you have children that you love?” she asked them. “Children must have their report cards. Please don’t take them.”
Actually, I have known children who would have been glad to lose their report cards, but apparently this touched a soft spot in her captors. They let her keep the backpack. Continuing with the story:
As the day wore on, Jacky’s guard brought her the lunch and bottled water that had been tucked in her backpack. At the end of the day, he acknowledged another need. “I’m going to get you a towel, some soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste,” he said.
But Jacky remembered that her school had just received health care kits from a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, like the hygiene packs we assembled for the Dominican Republic: Ziploc bags containing towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Jacky had one of them in her backpack. So smiling, she told her guard that he would not need to get those things for her; God had already provided them. “God knew that I was to come to you on this day,” she said. “Look in my backpack.” When the guard dug through the report cards, there in in the bottom of the backpack was a plastic bag with a towel, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste. “God knew and prepared me for this time with you,” Jacky told the guard.
The guard was totally unnerved. He began talking to Jacky and told her that he hated this business of kidnapping people and demanding ransom, but he said it was the only way he knew to feed his family. Jacky listened and then said to him, “May I pray with you?” He nodded, and she prayed with him for a way out of the life he was leading. When she finished, the guard said to her, “Please give me your address. I do not know how, but I am going to get myself out of this work. I want to be able to write to you and tell you when I have done that.”
Later the guard allowed Jacky to phone her husband. On the phone she told her husband, “Do not worry about me. God is with me, and the man who is guarding me is like my own brother.” The guard, who was listening to this conversation, wept.
Later the man who had ordered the kidnapping came to Jacky and said, “I have made an investigation and now understand that your husband is not one that we should target. I must apologize to you, as I did to him.”
Jacky was released that evening, and when her husband picked her up at the drop point, his cell phone rang with a message from her captor. The kidnapper said, “Make sure you take your wife to church tomorrow morning. … I would like her to pray for us in church” (Presbyterians Today, May 2005, pp. 25-26).
Is it possible to be poor, grieving, fearful, hungering for freedom, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and still be blessed? Yes, because God is going to win, and when we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, all the other things in our lives will become more manageable, including our anger, hurt, helplessness, grief, and despair.