Get a new Beatitude: when Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he gave us a gift--not another "to do" list.
The Mount of the Beatitudes is a long, gentle slope, sweeping down to the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, forming a natural amphitheater. On calm days, the sea--actually a large lake--barely ripples and the sound travels clearly over the water. It is not hard to imagine Jesus sitting on the top of that slope, with people gathered on the hillside and others sitting in fishing boats a short way from shore.
He would have looked out over people who were poor, people who were sad with the losses in their lives, people struggling with the injustices of the Roman regime--gentle, good people, desperately wanting to know that God cared for them. His heart was moved with compassion. He was not telling them what they needed to do to be perfect. He was telling them who they were and why that was beautiful. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) are Jesus' love song.
Down through the ages, we have memorized them, ignored them, examined our consciences by them, used them as our cry for social justice, but never have we paused long enough to simply celebrate them. I do not think Jesus was beginning a diatribe against materialism when he said, "Blessed are you poor." I do not think it was political satire, sarcasm over the sorry state of Israel, as it has been played in some contemporary movies. And I do not think it was another list of commands.
I believe Jesus simply looked out over the people, recognized their beauty, and invited them to bless God with him in thanksgiving and praise. That is, after all, what it means to bless. He recognized in their gifts the true beginnings of the reign of God, the possibility. He was inviting them to recognize those same gifts and allow them to become the guiding principles for their lives.
There is a growing movement among psychologists today that focuses on humanity's strengths rather than its weaknesses, on helping people achieve joy in their lives, not simply overcome depression and anxiety. Martin Seligman, who is credited with naming the movement "positive psychology," defines happiness as "the emotion that arises when we do something out of our strengths and our virtues."
What if we understood the Beatitudes as gifts we have been given, instead of actions we are called to perform? Those gifts undoubtedly lead to actions, but actions that flow from our strengths and become a source of our happiness.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. His name was Lazarus. He was poor and sick, and he lay outside the gates of a rich man who would not even give him the scraps off his table. He died and went to heaven, and the rich man went to "eternal perdition."
Lazarus has become the symbol of the Third World, a tool for castigating the rich and warning of the evil that awaits those who ignore the poor on their doorstep. While I do not doubt the gospel mandate for the poor, this interpretation of the parable is a little short on theology.
There is nothing intrinsically good about being poor. Nor is there anything intrinsically evil about being rich. Many of us, I suspect, would be far more inclined to bring Lazarus inside, dress his wounds, clean him up, and enroll him in a job training program than to feed him the scraps that fell from our tables. We are not evil, just middle class!
No one merits eternal salvation; it is a free gift. None of us is entitled to it; we need to ask. The real difference between Lazarus and the rich man was that Lazarus knew how to beg. The rich man was accustomed to being in control of his own fate and simply did not know how to ask God for what he needed until it was too late.
The poor in spirit are those who do not feel entitled, in control. They recognize all they have as gift and hold it with open hands. They are not the ones who "give until it hurts." They are the ones for whom it never hurts to give. Being able to give what they have, no matter how little or how much, is the source of their greatest joy.
Theirs is a blessing of gratefulness.
Blessed are those who mourn. When Jesus died, the disciples went into hiding. They barricaded the doors, locking themselves in, just as surely as they locked others out. In John's gospel, it is Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb, who is willing to simply sit by the grave and weep. She would have been there on Saturday if the Sabbath law had not forbidden it. And because she is not afraid to mourn, she becomes the first witness to the Resurrection.
We are a nation that does not know how to mourn. We responded to one of the greatest tragedies in our history with a paroxysm of patriotism. It was as if we did not know how to gather and weep for our dead without proclaiming our own greatness.
But there were those among us who knew better. The firefighters who created a silent honor guard for the remains of every body carried from the ruins, the families who left candles and pictures at Ground Zero, the people who prayed and wept at the crash site of Flight 93 have all witnessed to us the value of standing by the tomb and weeping. Some whose loss was greatest have been able to rise from those ashes to reach out to others in comfort and hope, in books, in scholarship funds, in personal assistance. Far from focusing on destroying the enemy (the goal of much of our patriotism), their attention is directed at comforting those who mourn.
The blessing of mourning is compassion.
Blessed are the meek. This has to be the most misunderstood of the Beatitudes. When I went to a thesaurus to find synonyms for "meek," all the words I found were pejorative: passive, weak, wishy-washy. Who would want to be meek? How could Jesus think it was a blessing?
There was a woman who came to Jesus, when he was in the district of Tyre and Sidon. She was a Canaanite, both a pagan and a foreigner. But she had heard of the miracles of the man from Galilee, of the special connection he seemed to have with God, and her daughter was very ill.
She had come to ask the Lord to heal her child. His response to her was one of the harshest passages in the gospels: "Woman, it is not right to take the food from the children and feed it to the dogs." Most of us could not tolerate being belittled in that manner in front of a crowd of people and would slink away in embarrassed silence. But this woman had no self-importance, no status to defend. We might have attacked this man who was reputed to be so kind and suddenly appeared to be such a fraud. She knew better. This was a good man, one who believed with all his heart that he was doing what God had sent him to do.
And so she challenged his authority on his own ground, his sense of mission. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain. "Yes, Lord, (you are wrong!) for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table." And Jesus changed his mind. Jesus was willing to consider that she might have understood his mission even better than he did. She was rewarded both with what she asked and with one of the strongest compliments in scripture: "I have not found faith like this in all of Israel."
Meekness, more than anything else, is a particular brand of courage. The meek are the ones who are not afraid to challenge authority--even holy, religious authorities--when they believe they have right on their side. They have no status to defend, and they will risk being publicly humiliated when the cause is as important as a sick child, a sick church, a sick nation. Sister Theresa Kane in her address to John Paul II, and Martin Luther King in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial showed all of us what it is to live and speak from a position of meekness.
The blessing of meekness is freedom to be courageous.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice. Justice is often associated with anger: anger at government, anger at the system, anger at society as a whole. But justice has to stem from more than anger, or it will burn itself out.
John is the only evangelist who tells us the story of a little boy with a thirst for justice. The thousands gathered on the hillside to listen to Jesus had grown hungry. The boy had two fish and five loaves. He was not stupid. He knew so little food could never fill so many. But he was devoured by the kind of justice that would not allow him to eat while others went hungry. He was compelled to share what he had, even knowing it could never be enough.
Those who hunger for justice are so deeply aware of the needs of others they cannot live with themselves if they fail to address those needs. My middle child is a social worker who deals with drug-addicted teens. Many "fall off the wagon" as soon as they get back on the street. I once asked her how she could continue to minister to them in the face of such a failure rate. Her only response was, "How could I not?"
For those whose blessing is justice, that is the first response--not anger, but action. The five loaves and two fish will never be enough, but while they work to change a system that causes hunger, how could they not share what they have?
The blessing of the fourth Beatitude is profound awareness.
Blessed are the merciful. Jesus does not say, "Blessed are the forgiving." Sometimes we can't forgive. The hurt is too great, the injustice too overwhelming. At this point God does not condemn us; God calls us to act with mercy.
The merciful are the elder brothers in Luke's tale of the prodigal son. When the younger son left the farm, it was the elder son who picked up the slack, laboring late completing the tasks his brother's absence left undone. When the grieving father lost interest in the farm and started wandering the road watching for his son, it was the elder brother who took on the father's work. The elder brother listened to his mother weeping at night for her lost son; he watched his parents grow old with grief. Single-handedly he tried to hold it all together. The prodigal had destroyed both his own innocence and his elder brother's youth.
And so the elder son was out working late in the fields when his brother returned and the party began. His cry is the cry of lost youth: "What about my party?"
The father does not ask him to forgive. He understands the injustice may simply be too great, the task too hard. He tells him, "All that I have is yours." He was not just talking about the farm; he was talking about his forgiveness. It was all right if the elder son could not forgive; the father had enough forgiveness for both of them. All the son needed to do was to come to the party, to treat his sibling with mercy.
The story doesn't tell us if the brother actually listened and accepted the father's offer. But the story remains not just as a symbol of God's forgiveness of our sins but God's forgiveness for and with us when we cannot forgive. It is Jesus' call to mercy.
The merciful are those who have been deeply wronged and who still choose to act, not with justice but with more than justice, with a kindness far greater than the offender deserves.
The blessing of the merciful is kindness.
Blessed are the pure of heart. Simeon and Anna had both grown old waiting for the Messiah. How many thousands of babies had they seen brought to the temple by their parents for this rite of purification? There would have been nothing different about Mary and Joseph, another poor young couple with still another infant. Yet they both looked at this baby and saw God.
Most of us see things, not as they are, but as we are. The pure of heart see things truly as they are, and consequently, the pure of heart, like Anna and Simeon, always see God.
I suspect this is my youngest child's Beatitude. When she speaks of other people, it is never about age, social status, or skin color. We are left guessing all those attributes as she tells of the wonderful "essence" she has found.
One of her first new friends at college was a man who taught her to play chess. She relayed the conversations that were filled with wisdom, insightfulness, and humor, a gentle encouraging friend for a homesick 17-year-old. Although I had begun to wonder if the relationship had future possibilities, I was only mildly surprised when I discovered he was an elderly homeless man who played chess every day in Washington Square. My daughter sees straight to the heart and finds God.
The blessing of the pure of heart is vision.
Blessed are the peacemakers. There is a difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. Peacekeepers, U.N. style, "enforce" peace, a strange idea at best. They ensure the laws that govern a peace settlement are kept. Peacekeepers in family life are usually those who try to smooth things over, often giving in on what is important to themselves for the "sake of peace."
Peacemaking is a far more active enterprise. Peacemakers are the ones who are not so convinced they are right that they are afraid to hear the truth of another. A peacemaker does not have to prove the other wrong in order to be right because they recognize other truth exists beyond the truth that they know. They are willing to broaden the scope of what they know, in the hope of including the other in that knowledge. True peace only comes out of understanding.
Nicodemus was a man of position and influence among the Pharisees. He was also a man of truth, a peacemaker. He had heard this itinerant rabbi speak, had heard him proclaim positions contrary to the ones his own class upheld. But he recognized in the words of Jesus a truth bigger than his own. And so he went in secret, by night, questioning, challenging, confronting Jesus, as he tried to expand his own truth to include what Jesus is teaching.
Peacemakers are those willing to keep learning until their own truth intersects with the very different truth of others.
The blessing of the peacemaker is openness.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice's sake. The Beatitudes don't offer a multiple choice test, a word preference list, or a diagram to help you discover your own particular blessing, but the eighth Beatitude is definitely a hint.
The last of the Beatitudes seems more like a proclamation than a blessing. Anyone who lives his or her gift to the extent that it is truly a blessing will be persecuted for it. Oh, you probably won't be thrown to the lions or even tossed out of the churches, but living your blessing completely definitely opens you to ridicule. If you are unsure of what your blessing is, you might want to check out your persecutors. Often they see us more truly than our friends.
If people tell you you are a "soft touch," that you let others take advantage of you, it could be simply that you are poor in spirit. Holding all you own with open hands, giving freely of what has been given to you will be an affront to those whose primary concern is for their own future. For you, there is no other way to live happily in your own skin, and so you will "suffer persecution," perhaps from your own friends and family.
If you are "too sensitive" and "allow things to get to you," you are probably a blessed mourner. If you are meek, you may have been called a "fool" for the risks you take, for "banging your head against that wall." If you are pure of heart, you are "naive, merciful, a sap." And if you are a peacemaker, you have long since been labeled a "heretic."
These persecutors don't deprive us of life or freedom, but they eat away at our self-confidence, our belief in the gifts we have been given. If, for only a moment, we could simply believe that God wants our happiness, just as surely as we want our own children's happiness, that God's greatest joy is in watching us take pleasure in using the gifts we have been given, perhaps we could begin to see that we are the blessing.
KATHLEEN O. CHESTO is a consultant on family spirituality and religious education and author of Exploring the New Family: Parents and Their Young Adults in Transition (St. Mary's Press, 2001).
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|Title Annotation:||on Christianity|
|Author:||Chesto, Kathleen O.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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