“A Pattern for Living”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NRSV)
As statements of identity and purpose, the Ten Commandments get lots of attention. They’re simple and decisive. Do this. Don’t do that. They set clear standards for the Hebrew community, and several commandments apply universally. Honoring elders and categorically denouncing murder, theft, adultery, envy, and self-serving deceit are healthy for any culture.
That simplicity also becomes a weakness. Absolutes create a sense of certainty that always gets distorted into permission to make judgments God alone can make. When that happens, the Creator becomes small enough to fit inside the understanding of a creature. That reduces God to a god, thus breaking the first two commandments.
To me, public postings of the Ten Commandments can reflect a smug self-righteousness. When anchored in stone on courthouse walls, they declare a kind of divine right for judges and jurors. And judicial proceedings, whether civil or ecclesiastical, wander into dangerous territory when human participants feel entitled to such authority.
To be honest, I even wince when the Ten Commandments appear on church lawns. They can suggest to passers-by and would-be visitors, If you come here, expect grace to have limits.
Sure, we all make evaluations, judgments even. So, given the virtual impossibility of pure objectivity when faced with the reality not simply of evil and suffering, but of diversity in the world, how can we move toward something higher and more gracious?
In Matthew 5, Jesus utters one of the most memorable teachings found in any religion or philosophy. Strikingly different from the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes lay out a geography, a path along which spiritual travelers may learn to experience, trust, and follow God. And instead of imagining God as some enormous guy conducting surveillance from the clouds to see “who’s naughty and nice,” these eight statements reveal an indwelling God whom we know through our love for the Creation, not in our thoughts about God. As the Eternal Initiative for being itself, God desires for the Creation have always been blessing and holiness. Love and creativity, justice and righteousness—these and other gifts continually pour forth from God.
In their book The Way of Blessedness, Marjorie Thompson and Stephen Bryant say that the Beatitudes offer us “a way of life [and] a pattern of commitments”1 by which we deliberately enter and experience human existence as participation in God’s eternal outpouring of blessing and holiness.
A couple of general observations about the Beatitudes:
First, it’s illuminating that Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are those who keep the Ten Commandments. When viewing the world as ultimately governed by legalism and retributive justice, a person may still claim to be blessed, but that person almost always ties blessing to worldly possessions, advantages, and victories. Such things do have appeal, but the Beatitudes ask and offer something far deeper.
The Beatitudes, say Thompson and Bryant, “direct us to attitudes of mind and habits of heart that [shape] our actual way of being in the world.”2 So, the second observation: When read as Thompson and Bryant suggest, the Beatitudes are not individual proverbs. They describe an ongoing trajectory of spiritual development through increasingly challenging and transforming stages of experience, practice, and understanding. (Open a Bible to Mt. 5:1-12)
The journey of blessedness begins with poverty of spirit—with the acknowledgement that we are incomplete creatures who need the Creator. While this does involve confession of our human sinfulness, it also involves claiming the eternal image of God within us. In the tension between our confession and the assurance of God’s redeeming grace, we feel our alienation from something innate and fundamental to us.
We then lament that separation. Spiritual mourning can reduce us to despair that cries out, What’s the point? The point of our grief, though, is to open us to the rest of the Creation, which shares our alienation. In Psalm 8, the poet looks at the entire universe and asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God.” Then he joyfully declares humankind’s ordination as steward of all that God has created. Grateful reunion with all that has God-given being empowers us to live that courageous and generous blessing called meekness.
Hardly wilting violets, the meek claim and proclaim the unfailing strength of God’s love. When Martin Luther King, now an archetype of meekness, declared freedom for “all God’s children,” one could hear in his voice the hunger and thirst to share earth-inheriting righteousness with all things.
Righteousness blesses us with the understanding that vengeance, greed, fear, and violence empty us of our God-purposed existence. The reminder that God loves and desires fullness for all things turns us outward. When we recognize that we’re all in this together, only mercy can lead us further down the path of blessedness.
Mercy sears our minds and purifies our hearts. It cleanses us of self-righteousness. Mercy asks us to seek the well-being of others with the same passion with which we seek our own well-being. And we see God only when the Christ in us sees and embraces the Christ in others and in the earth.
Through God’s eyes, we see that all things are created to live in relationship to rather than in competition with each other. The Beatitudes, then, challenge us to think long and hard about our choices, and this stretches our first-world mindsets. For example, if my pension fund includes corporations that profit from war, human exploitation, and environmental abuse, am I really living a life of blessedness? Honestly, I avoid the question, so what does that say about my willingness even to experience poverty of spirit? How, then, am I following Jesus in working toward peace? And isn’t that the fundamental call of every disciple, every church?
At the pinnacle of blessedness, God’s saints speak truth to power and find themselves blessed with the strength to endure the subsequent intimidations and attacks. And those reactions are a sure and certain burden for disciples, because nothing threatens the holders of power and privilege like those who choose to live according to Jesus’ Beatitudes.
Here comes a turn: When disciples, having been faithful to God, find themselves under duress, they discover spiritual poverty all over again. While the process repeats, each passage through strengthens them for ever-deepening lives of blessedness.
Earlier, I expressed ambivalence about public postings of the Ten Commandments. Well, what could it mean if a church posted the Beatitudes on its lawn? It could be just another empty act of conspicuous piety. Then again, it could mean that the people of that congregation truly understand what it costs them, how it blesses them, and how it blesses the Creation for people of faith to participate in God’s continuous outpouring of grace.
Sign or no sign, may we commit ourselves to living as ones who are, like Abraham and Sarah, blessed to be a blessing to themselves and to all the world.
1Marjorie J. Thompson and Stephen D. Bryant, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. p. 19. This book is one in the spiritual transformation series, Companions in Christ.
2Ibid. p. 19.