We will spend the next four weeks looking at the beatitudes, the declarations of blessing which mark the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the longest sections of teaching in any of the gospels, found in Matthew chapters five to seven. You may remember that last year we had a single service focused on the beatitudes, in which rather than preaching on the text, I simply offered three different versions of it. Sometimes the scripture can get lost in the commentary, and so it seemed good to simply hear the words and some interpretations of or reflections on them, and leave space for our own responses.
Now though I want to come back to the beatitudes and dig a little deeper into each of them. I can’t remember where or when, but I’m sure I once heard the Sermon on the Mount described as the greatest lesson never learned, and I have wondered what would happen if the church simply taught those three chapters of Matthew on a loop until we finally understood them. Of course there’s more to the sermon than just the beatitudes, but they are an excellent place to start. There are eight of these sayings, if you take “blessed are you when people insult you” to be an elaboration of “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness”, rather than a separate beatitude in its own right, and so we will take them two at a time. Each week we will hear the three versions of the relevant beatitudes that we heard last year, and then I will offer some thoughts on them.
But before we hear our reading for this morning, it might be helpful to set a bit of context, beginning with why this passage is called the beatitudes, because it's not an expression you are likely to come across anywhere else. The phrase comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word that begins each phrase, a word which we translate into English as ‘blessed’. The beatitudes are then blessings, or at least descriptions of a state of blessedness. That helps us in terms of understanding the history of the term, but it also leads us to ask what it means to be blessed. Look the word up in a dictionary and you will be told that it means to be favoured or happy, although standard definitions don't always hold up when Jesus is the one talking, so be prepared to have that challenged.
I said that the beatitudes mark the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, so let’s also take a look at where that phrase came from. Quite simply, it is a sermon delivered on a mountain. We are told that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” The interesting thing is that there is a parallel although considerably shorter passage in Luke chapter six, except that it is known as the Sermon on the Plain, because it begins by telling us that Jesus “went down [from the mountainside] with [the disciples] and stood on a level place.”
It seems likely that both writers brought together multiple sermons to help the flow and clarity of their writing, and were then faced with a choice as to where to set this combined scene. Perhaps they simply picked the location of one of the sermons without giving it much thought, but I wonder if the settings tell us something about what the writers thought was important. Mountains were significant in scripture as a place of divine revelation, and so perhaps Luke wanted a definite sense of that revelation now being down among the people, and perhaps Matthew wanted to emphasise the disciples going to seek that revelation for themselves. Either way, divine revelation is there for those who will attend to it.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (The Message)
Remember the woman who had spent all her money on doctors to try and cure her bleeding. She must have felt almost without hope, but she placed what she had left in Jesus and it made her well. Because God can do a lot with a little, and our mustard seed of faith may grow a tree big enough that birds find shade in its branches, so that even in our poverty we may find God's riches.
One of the first things I notice about the beatitudes is how subversive they are. "Blessed are the poor in spirit...blessed are those who mourn." Really? Is Jesus sure about that? Because this isn't just a promise that things will be okay in the end, but a declaration that the poor in spirit and those who mourn are already blessed. How can that possibly be true? Are we really meant to accept that these are happy or favoured states? This is where we come back to what I said about standard definitions not always holding up, because I think what we find in the dictionary is too thin an understanding for what Jesus is saying here. And I certainly don't believe these beatitudes mean we should accept suffering or ignore the plight of others, because we believe we should be happy with it or see it as a sign of favour.
To try and thicken our understanding of what it means to be blessed, I want to take us back to the Greek for a moment. We have to be careful not to put too much weight on this kind of word study, because Jesus was likely speaking Aramaic and so the Greek is already a translation, but it's the closest we can get to his original words, so it may offer something. The root of the Greek word used here is 'made large'. This is generally interpreted as God extending favour or expanding happiness, hence our concept of blessing, but what if we are the ones who are made bigger? I was reminded again of the Richard Coles quote I shared a couple of weeks ago. Reflecting on his grief after the death of his husband, he said this: "We get life in its fullness. Not serenity or fulfilment or happiness, but life in its fullness, which is what Jesus actually promised." And the priest and writer Richard Rohr said of the beatitudes that they "offer us a more spacious world, a world where I do not have to explain everything, fix everything, or control anything beyond myself, a world where we can allow a larger mystery to work itself out through us and in us.” When we feel poor in spirit and when we mourn, we experience more of the fullness and complexity of life, we discover that the world is wider and wilder than we know. That is not an entirely happy experience and it is not itself a sign of God's favour, but the crucial thing is that it does not put us outside of God's goodness. Perhaps above all else, these beatitudes assure us that whatever our circumstance, we are always held within God’s grace.
We come now to the first of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." There is much disagreement between theologians and preachers over whether the poverty here is economic or spiritual. "In spirit" seems to suggest that Matthew leans towards the latter, but Luke seems to have had the former in mind as his version simply has "the poor", and destitute does seem to be the most common meaning of the word that is used in both gospels. So what are we to make of it? Warren Carter, a biblical scholar specialising in the Gospel of Matthew, proposes that “this beatitude is actually an intensification of poverty rather than a spiritualisation. The poor in spirit are those who are literally poor and facing the devastating impact of poverty, not just externally but in their very being.” In other words, Jesus is speaking of material poverty but acknowledging that it has emotional effects too. The Message translation errs in the other direction, with the brilliant phrase "you’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope", which conveys a sense of desperation which can be entirely unconnected from financial circumstances.
Maybe it can be either or even both, as in the story of the bleeding woman, who had spent all she had and was worn down by her suffering, and so may be seen as both economically and spiritually poor. I confess I've reworded that bit of the reflection since last time we heard it, as I said then that all we need is a little faith, but that comes dangerously close to sounding like the prosperity gospel which says that faith will bring health and wealth, and that if you don't have those things it is your fault for not having enough faith. That is utter nonsense and it is not the gospel of Jesus, and I am sorry if that is what came across. What I was actually trying to say was that when it comes to faith, even a little is a good thing, because that little keeps us seeking and hoping and keeps open a way for God to work in us, and so we must hold onto and nurture every seed of faith that survives the famine of our poverty. The truth is that faith will not cure every sickness or pay every bill - Jesus told us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and clothe the naked and care for the sick because there are some things society needs to fix, and we ought to consider the possibility that they are the ways in which the poor in spirit are blessed - but faith can soothe us in our distress and ease us in our hardship, and even the tiniest seeds can grow.
And what are we to make of the promise that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven"? Perhaps we might recall Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”. Perhaps there is something in the Message interpretation, that “when there is less of you there is more of God”. It is so easy for God and the kingdom to get crowded out by the stuff we fill our lives with, and so while we should never romanticise the grinding poverty that leaves people struggling to survive, and we should always be working for a society in which the needs of all are met, perhaps sometimes we need to strip things back and let things go, until there is nothing to distract us and we recognise our deepest and truest needs. Perhaps we need to make more room in our lives for God, and that may make us seem poor in the eyes of the world. I'm going to hit pause here though, as we find that same phrase about the kingdom of heaven at the end of the beatitudes, so we will consider it further then.
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. (The Message)
Remember Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died. Even before Jesus raised him to life, he comforted them and they trusted him. Although we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the good shepherd is with us and cares for us, and resurrection is promised to all who trust in God, so we are never far from comfort.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This one feels a little more straightforward, as we instinctively know who “those who mourn” are. They are everyone who grieves for what has passed, everyone who laments at the way things are, everyone who feels deep sorrow over what might have been. They are all of us at some time. If that is you right now, I hope these words are part of what brings you comfort. If you’re not ready to hear them yet, I hope you put them away somewhere until you are. One thing I want to say clearly is that suffering is not redemptive in itself, by which it is not necessary in order for us to receive God’s grace and goodness. I also think we have to be honest that not all suffering will be redeemed as swiftly and as completely as Mary and Martha's was, although I trust that it will be redeemed in the end, that everything sad will one day come untrue, to borrow a line from JRR Tolkien.
The question of how we reconcile the pain of the world with the goodness of God is a complex one, and a thousand theologians will give you a thousand and one answers. For the moment I can only offer mine, but if this is something you would like to explore further, it is an area of study known as theodicy, and I am more than happy to point you to some resources. In short, I believe that God does not wish for us to suffer, but that God cannot prevent suffering without controlling the world in a way that would make us little more than puppets, and so God is with us our suffering to comfort us and to help us find what goodness there is to be found. I have spoken of my experiences around mental health before, but they are so important to my understanding here. God did not cause or want my depression, that was down to circumstance and brain chemistry, but God did hold me through it and show me how I might use it for the good of others.
That leads me to my final thought, which is about the nature of the comfort that is promised in this second beatitude. Certainly it comes from God, but I think it also comes from community. I want to be clear that the stories of the bleeding woman and Mary and Martha are not referenced in the beatitudes themselves, those reflections come from a Godly Play retelling which creatively engaged with and expanded on the text, but I do think the story of Mary and Martha is a brilliant way into this beatitude. Because even before Jesus comforted the sisters, they were surrounded by their community, who “had come to comfort them in the loss of their brother” and were “also weeping”. If you break the word comfort down, it literally means ‘strong with’. There is a sense of lending our strength to others so that we may be strong together. But I think it must be accompanied by compassion, which means ‘suffering with’. We are called to mourn with those who mourn. It is a heavy thing to take on the suffering of the world, and we have to understand how to set appropriate boundaries and practice self care within that, but there is an invitation here to take part in the blessing of the world.
We’ve covered just twenty three words of Matthew this morning, but they are words of great depth, and words that I hope will continue to echo in our minds long after this morning. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. May we recognise God’s grace and goodness in every circumstance as we experience life in all its fullness. May we work for a world in which everyone has enough and be willing to give things up when we have too much. May we mourn with those who mourn and be vulnerable enough to allow others to mourn with us. And may we nurture every seed of faith until everything sad has come untrue. Amen.