Some of you know that I keep working on my Spanish, skyping lessons every week with my teacher in Antigua. At the moment, I am knee-deep in grammar, since we’ve been working for months on the subjunctive verb tense, a very complex subject. I keep studying partly because of St. John’s trips to Guatemala, and partly because I just love learning for its own sake. (Ivy has called me a “school junkie”.)
At any rate, all this has an interesting application to the reading of this morning’s gospel lesson on the Beatitudes. There is a great tendency to hear these statements in the imperative tense – as a set of commands. To be acceptable to God, you must be meek, merciful, poor in spirit, a peacemaker.
That is an intimidating set of requirements, one we could never fulfill; so we listen politely and then file it in our minds under the category of ‘Later if Ever’. But when we hear these teachings in this way, we’ve got our grammar all wrong. The Beatitudes are not in the imperative, but the indicative tense. This means they are not telling us how to act in order to be acceptable, but are describing the way things have been, are and will be in God’s order.
Jesus began his ministry by calling out to the crowds: “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near.” Now, in the Beatitudes, he goes further to describe this world he is proclaiming. Make no mistake, these are far from being harmless sayings, meant merely to become nicely embroidered wall decorations. They were originally, and are today, a daring act of protest against the accepted order, turning things upside down.
For surely if we were to describe what we actually see around us today we would have to say:
Blessed are those who have graduated from Harvard, for they shall get the best jobs.
Blessed are those with great wealth, for they shall have power and influence.
Blessed are those who are noisily sure of their own importance, for all shall give them recognition.
But the Beatitudes point us away from these values. Perhaps we can make clearer what they mean if we look at the original Greek of the gospel. The word makarios is the one usually translated as ‘blessed’ or sometimes ‘happy’. But we might consider instead the translation of K.C. Hanson, Professor of Old Testament, who writes that makarios means ‘honored’. God honors those who show mercy rather than striking back, those whose longing for God is so intense that they can just taste it, those who speak peace when all others clamor for war.
When Jesus talked of ‘the meek’ he was not referring to those who are easily humiliated. The Hebrew word for this group is probably anawim, which refers to the nobodies of the land. They were the impoverished, the vulnerable, the marginalized. These are honored in the Heavenly Kingdom, for God has been their only hope and reliance.
Since Matthew’s gospel was written after the Romans had conquered Jerusalem, utterly destroying the Temple and killing or enslaving hundreds of thousands, grief and mourning were profound in the Christian community. And God honors those whose mourning bears witness to the evil that has occurred. The survivors of that catastrophe were objects of persecution, hunted for their allegiance to the Lord of creation rather than to the emperor of Rome. They are honored in their suffering for righteous truth.
None of those called ‘honored’ by the Beatitudes would ever be considered the winners in our society, where recognition goes to those with power, wealth and status. But the honored peacemakers, and mourners, and merciful ones are those recognized as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Every week we pray, as Jesus preached and taught, “Thy Kingdom come.” Now, you and I know that the world in which we live has not risen to the fullness of God’s loving shalom. So we refer to the Kingdom as ‘already, not yet’ –our journey begun, but not completed. What if the Beatitudes serve as markers on the way for us who live in a culture where God’s desires are not those in which we are immersed?
Surely this question is more urgent now than ever before. Since the beginning of November, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been increased incidents of anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBT violence, threats and intimidation. Swastika vandalism has risen. More hate-groups are recruiting, with the proclamation that, “now we can again be proud to white.”
Our government has begun a war of threats with our largest southern neighbor, Mexico. As of yesterday, there is a ban on entry into our country by those from predominately Muslim countries, even those who are permanent residents here. Access to health care is threatened, and could again become a perk of the well-to-do. How will the church respond to the overwhelming changes that are upon us?
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written, “The greatest public influence that can be exercised by Christian disciples in a complex modern democracy is contained in behaviors that embody radical respect: showing that a human person is worth extravagant and lasting commitment; insisting that I cannot be what God designs me to be without the life of others also developing according to God’s plan. Voluntary activity that conveys this message will have the potential, over time, to shift what society takes for granted.”
So while last weekend’s marches were a wonderful and uplifting way to begin the next stage of the journey, they are insufficient going forward to carry the church’s message of the will of God for our life together. For the long-haul we need to look to the Beatitudes, remembering that they are not imperative, but indicative.
When we mourn for the lives lost to violence in north Minneapolis, we join ourselves to the grieving whose witness is honored. When we don’t just make charitable donations, but actually form relationships with the marginalized, impoverished and powerless of our city God honors us with them. When we lift up all who are seeking peace, we become part of their work and are honored.
As Professor Lance Pape of Brite Divinity School puts it, “The current regime sweeps aside those Jesus declares blessed of God, but we are invited to look again and discern a new reality that is coming into being.”
When we live into the mind of the Beatitudes, we are living into the Kingdom already begun and yearning for fulfillment. At a time when people dare to say that such a thing as “alternate facts” exist, we are given a foundation of truth on which we can stand. We are given a new vision of what is fundamentally real. The life of the Beatitudes, the life which God honors, will hold us up, lead us forward, and finally bring us to our true home.