The Blessing and the Bite

By Debie Thomas

I have to say up front that I come to the Beatitudes with some ambivalence. Not because the opening words of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount are anything less than provocative and beautiful, but because I’ve experienced firsthand the ways in which they can be misread and misused. So let’s start there, by naming what the Beatitudes are NOT:

The Beatitudes are not Hallmark greeting cards. Jesus wasn’t waxing sentimental when he spoke of blessing, favor, happiness, and good fortune. He wasn’t offering us platitudes. It’s easy in our consumerist culture to allow a word like “blessing” to become bland and meaningless. (“I am so #Blessed”). It’s just as easy to equate “happiness” with material comfort and personal success. But the Beatitudes are not Bandaids. They’re not meant to settle, soothe, and lull us to sleep; they’re meant to startle us awake. Yes, they are pastoral, and yes, they can definitely give us hope. But hope is not a sedative. Hope is what gets us up and out the door.

The Beatitudes are not to-do items. They are not suggestions, instructions, commandments, or quid pro quos. There is nothing transactional about them, nothing that smacks of a “should,” a “must,” or an “ought.” It is emphatically not the case that if I try very hard to be poorer, sadder, meeker, hungrier, thirstier, purer, more peaceable, and more persecuted than I am right now, God will like, love, reward, and appreciate me more than God already does.

The Beatitudes are not inducements to shame. The point is not to read Jesus’s litany of blessings for the poor and the disenfranchised, and walk away feeling like a spoiled, over-privileged wretch. The takeaway Jesus intends for his listeners is neither shame nor self-condemnation, both of which cripple and defeat us. The last thing Jesus’s Beatitudes should do is paralyze those who hear them.

The Beatitudes are not permission slips for passivity. To use Jesus’s teachings about sorrow, meekness, poverty, and persecution to keep oppressed people oppressed is to distort his words and render them monstrous. There is nothing in the Beatitudes that excuses injustice, nothing that relativizes abuse, nothing that frees us to tell suffering people that their suffering is God-ordained and redemptive. Nothing.

The Beatitudes are not pie-in-the-sky. When Jesus promises his listeners the “kingdom of heaven,” he is not asking them to grit their teeth and wait patiently for death to come along and alleviate whatever hell they’re living in. He is not handing out the afterlife as an opiate, as if our messy, earthly, ordinary lives here and now don’t matter dearly. To possess the kingdom, to experience comfort, to inherit the earth, to be filled, to receive mercy, to see God, to be called the children of God, and to receive a reward in heaven — these are not just about life after death. They are about the kingdom that is already and not-yet, the realm of God that is present and coming, the reign of God’s perfect justice and mercy that is within us and ahead of us. The promise is not an either-or. It’s a both-and. The kingdom is coming. And the kingdom is now.

Okay, the Beatitudes are not these things. So what are they?

The Beatitudes are blessings. I know this sounds like a restating of the obvious, but it’s not. In fact, it’s something we forget over and over again. The first words Jesus offers his commissioned disciples — the first words the Gospel of Matthew records from Jesus’s inaugural sermon — are words of blessing. Are we listening? Blessing comes first. We begin with blessing. Blessing, not judgment. Blessing, not terms and conditions. Blessing, not penance. Blessing, not altar calls.

Jesus starts his ministry by telling the disciples who and what they already are: they are blessed. Blessed, fortunate, privileged, favored. Why? Because they are near and dear to God’s heart. Whatever else Jesus’s first followers go on to learn or accomplish in the future is merely the outgrowth of what is already their ground-of-being, their identity, their solid-as-a-rock foundation. God gifts their identities to them, without condition or measure. They are freely blessed, and so they’re freed to bless others.

What does this mean? It means we’re not God’s nine-to-five employees, working for blessing as our compensation. We don’t endeavor to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in order to earn God’s blessings. We do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly because we are always and already blessed.

What would happen, I wonder, if we who profess faith in Jesus actually followed his example, and made it our first priority to bless others as we have been blessed? To lead with blessing? To make blessing our most visible and foundational gift to those around us? What would happen to our hearts, to the Church, to the world, if we offered blessings to our neighbors as generously as God offers blessings to us?

I’ll be honest — I’m not good at accepting blessings from others, and I’m pretty clumsy about giving blessings away. On the accepting end, I tend to get cringy and anxious: If I accept this blessing, will God think I’m arrogant and presumptuous? Shouldn’t my posture as a Christian be more self-deprecating? Shouldn’t I deflect and cower more? What right do I have to bask in blessing?

On the giving end, my fears are similar: Who am I to offer anyone else a blessing? Little piddly me — how dare I presume so much? What do I have to offer, anyway?

Both sets of fears come from a refusal to accept the core identity God has given me — and given all of us. It’s not a matter of our deserving; it’s a matter of God’s astonishing love and generosity. Ours is an identity of blessedness. Can we accept that?

The Beatitudes are reversals. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a universe turned on its head. A world where the usual might-makes-right, survival-of-the-fittest hierarchies, rules, and priorities just plain don’t apply. In the kingdom Jesus describes, the poor are the wealthiest of all. The mourners are the ones who receive comfort. The starving sit at laden tables. Those who live meekly inherit everything. The peacemakers are God’s children. And the victims of persecution win choice rewards.

Again, it’s important not to read these stunning reversals through the scrim of shame. Shame won’t get us anywhere good. It’s important instead to allow these reversals to provoke and instruct us, because they reveal essential truths about the nature of God.

What Jesus bears witness to in the Beatitudes is God’s unwavering proximity to pain, suffering, sorrow, and loss. God is nearest to those who are lowly, oppressed, unwanted, and broken. God isn’t obsessed with the shiny and the impressive; God is too busy sticking close to what’s messy, chaotic, unruly, and unattractive.

This is important to remember, because the first thing I tend to ask when I’m hurting is, “Where is God? Why has God abandoned me?” The Beatitudes assure me that God doesn’t exit my life when I find myself in low places. If anything, God is most present in the shadows. Most attentive in the fire. God is always close to the destitute, the anguished, the lost, and the confused. God faithfully accompanies those who go days, weeks, months, and years, hungry for a sign, a word, a crumb, a drop. Our hunger is not indicative of God’s absence. Our hunger is the sign we seek. The blessing we chase resides in the darkness.

And so the Beatitudes challenge me to look carefully at my own life, and to consider where and how my privilege keeps me from seeking God. When things are going spectacularly well, do I feel much urgency about ultimate things? Not really. I can go for days without talking to God. I can go for days without thinking about God. It’s very, very easy — embarassingly easy — for all things deep and divine to become afterthoughts in my life, because God just isn’t on my 24/7 radar when I’m floating along on my own comforts.

This isn’t because I’m callous. It’s because I am already “full.” I have easy access to laughter, so I don’t wonder what lessons honest tears might yield. I am primed by my cozy life to live in the shallows, unaware of the treasures that lie waiting in the depths. Most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to me that I would be lost — utterly and wholly lost, physically and spiritually — without the “blessing” of God that sustains me.

I think what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes is that I have something to learn about discipleship that my privileged life circumstances will not teach me. Something to grasp about the beauty, glory, and freedom of the Christian life that I will never grasp until God becomes my all, my go-to, my starting place, and my ending place. Something to recognize about the radical counter-intuitiveness of God’s priorities and promises. Something to notice about the obfuscating power of plenty to blind me to my own emptiness. Something to gain from the humility that says, “Those people I think I’m superior to in every way? They have everything to teach me. Maybe it’s time to shut up and pay attention.”

If the Beatitudes have a “bite” to them, this is it. God is in the business of reversing just about everything the world values and worships. Things are about to change. Hierarchies are about to be toppled. Priorities are about to be reordered. Am I ready? Am I willing? Am I paying attention? Where am I located, vis-à-vis God’s great reversal? Do I know?

The Beatitudes are a vocation. We make a grave mistake if we separate Jesus’s words from his actions. We diminish him — and ultimately diminish ourselves — if we try to interpret his teachings through any filter other than the filter of his own life and ministry. Yes, Jesus pronounces blessings on the meek, the hungry, the impoverished, and the oppressed. But what does he do before and after this pronouncement? He empowers the meek, he feeds the hungry, he cares for the poor, and he demands justice for the oppressed.

Jesus spends every waking moment he has on earth alleviating suffering. He never valorizes misery for its own sake. He doesn’t tell the hungry to tighten their belts. He doesn’t ignore the cruelty of the religious elite and the politically powerful. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to the incarcerated, the colonized, the ostracized, and the demonized. He doesn’t leave the sick to die, he doesn’t abandon the dead to their graves, and he never, ever tells anyone to just “grin and bear” their pain because heaven’s reprieve will fix things by and by.

Which is to say, Jesus acts. He doesn’t simply speak blessing. He lives it. He embodies it. He incarnates it. Through his words, his hands, his feet, his life, he brings about the very blessings he promises. Insisting that pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, Jesus works to bring healing, abundance, liberation, and joy to everyone who crosses his path.

This is the vocation we are called to. The work of the kingdom — the work of sharing the blessings we enjoy — is not the work of a fuzzy, distant someday. It is the work — and the joy — of the here and now. The Beatitudes remind us that blessing and justice are inextricably linked. If it’s blessing we want, then it’s justice we must pursue.

Blessed are you. And you, and you, and you, and you. So now go. Become what you are, give away what you seek, bless what God blesses, and turn this world on its head. Rejoice and be glad, for you are God’s children, and the kingdom of heaven is yours. The One who blesses you is near.

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1); (2); (3) Laura James Art Shop; and (4) Vanderbilt University Library.

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