Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Today’s gospel reading is that old familiar teaching of Jesus we call The Sermon on the Mount. Over and over again, Jesus uses the word “blessed.”
As I was reading it this past week I thought of Velma Mullen. Sometimes I say, “How are you doing today, Velma?” and before she says anything I’m pretty sure I know how she’ll answer. Velma often says, “Blessed. I’m blessed.”
What does she mean by that? I don’t usually ask but when she answers “I’m blessed” I’m inspired! How about you? What does it mean to be blessed?
When we speak of blessings we speak of what we’re grateful for, don’t we: health, comfort, security, family, friends, freedom, unexpected opportunities—the list goes on. So we might expect Jesus to teach something like: Blessed are those who are rich and powerful, blessed are those who are secure, blessed are those who are popular and well liked. Blessed are those who are joyful. Blessed are those who are successful. With that in mind, listen again to today’s reading:
3. Blessed are the poor in spirit… 4. Blessed are those who mourn… 5. Blessed are the meek… 10. Blessed are those who are persecuted…
What do you think? Would you add these to your list of blessings? In each case Jesus mentions what in the eyes of the world would represent weakness or powerlessness or loss or pain. Who of us would seek powerlessness? Who of us welcomes loss? Who of us embraces pain?
Jesus lists other qualities that sound like something we might seek. Blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers. But think about it. Isn’t it a lot easier to seek justice than it is to be merciful? Isn’t it easier to hold a grudge than it is to forgive? Isn’t it sometimes almost impossible to forgive? Or, isn’t it easier to take sides and demonize others and point the finger and blame than to make peace? Making peace with others is often very hard work and not very fun.
Well, I can’t speak for you but I can speak for myself. If blessings are things we’re grateful for, Jesus’ list just doesn’t make any sense.
On the other hand, maybe our list doesn’t make much sense, either. Think about it. If what I call “blessings” are health, and wealth, and joyful relationships, and freedom, and power, and success, and security—what if these things disappear? If my physical or mental health deteriorates, does that mean I’m no longer blessed? If all my money disappears as it did for many during the Great Depression, am I no longer blessed? If I’ve been thrown into prison unjustly or all my freedoms are stripped away, am I no longer blessed?
This is an important question because these are the circumstances of many—maybe most–of the world’s people. Does that mean I’m blessed and they’re not? Does it mean that God has chosen to favor me and not them?
Jesus’ list of blessings is a problem. But maybe our list of blessings is a bigger problem.
Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude is good! A grateful heart can be a sign of God’s presence and a powerful force for good in our world. You’ll never hear me say, “Don’t be grateful!” But if we count ourselves blessed only when our lives are going smoothly and we’re feeling good and in control, we’re missing the very heart of Christian teaching.
Jesus was considered a radical by religious people in his day. The Sermon on the Mount is a good example of that. People in those days believed that material wealth and health and power were all signs of God’s favor. Not to have these things indicated signs of God’s disfavor. We may not be so bold as to admit it to others–maybe we wouldn’t even admit it to ourselves–but there’s something deeply embedded in Christian thinking that still believes our happiness and well-being are tied to God’s favor and that our attitudes and behavior have some influence on God’s favor.
So imagine yourself two thousand years ago, seated on that hillside and hearing Jesus’ words. Imagine yourself as an ordinary person who had no wealth or power, whose country had been occupied and oppressed for a very long time by a foreign empire that showed no signs of leaving. What Jesus describes—persecution, loss, weakness, pain—these things would have been part of your daily existence. And yet here’s this rabbi, this teacher, who says, “Blessed are you” when you experience these things.
You know what, though? If Jesus had said, “Blessed are you who are rich—who are comfortable, powerful, secure, happy, confident—if he’d said these things it would’ve been just as true! The difference is that none of those who felt “blessed” would be surprised. Nor would they hear his teaching as “good news” because, of course, everyone already believes it!
But if you were poor, in pain, powerless, alone—if you felt like a nobody—to hear these words of Jesus would be very good news!
When I ask Velma how she’s doing, she often answers “Blessed”– even those times when I know she’s hurting, even when maybe she’s not feeling very blessed. Velma probably doesn’t know how deeply true her answer is. Because as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaches us, we are blessed even when life gets rough, even when we don’t feel blessed, even when we don’t feel grateful—even then, still, we are blessed.
We are blessed because we are loved. We are blessed because we are forgiven. We are blessed for reasons that have nothing to do with good behavior or good intentions or church attendance or pure thoughts or right beliefs. I cannot change God’s love for me, no matter how well I behave or how hard I try. I cannot change God’s love for me no matter how selfish or even evil I become. I don’t have that power over God. Neither do you.
As Jesus uses the word, any “blessing” we have is pure gift. Any blessing we have is pure grace. Any blessing we have has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God. To be blessed is to be loved without condition and without end by the God who created us. To be blessed is to be forgiven without condition and without end by our Creator. This is as true for the unbeliever as for the believer. This is true for good and bad, young and old, rich and poor, and for every person in every nation in every time. The blessing that Jesus speaks of is for all people—all creation—in equal measure.
I will continue to speak of being blessed when things are going well in my life. Like many people, I will count my blessings! But I hope always to remember that any of these things can disappear in a flash. And if they do, may God grant me the grace to remember those blessings that cannot be taken away no matter what: the grace, mercy, love and forgiveness of God– for me…and all people!