I remember hearing a joke which went, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but how long are they going to keep it?” In the “real” world, not long. It the more real world, for eternity. What do all these blessed, or beatitudes, really mean to us? There are two sets of them, today’s reading from Matthew 5:1-12, part of the Sermon on the Mount, which goes on for three chapters (5-7), and the shorter and slightly different Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6:17-26, which was a week ago Sunday’s Gospel, which goes on to the end of the chapter. Let me first clear up “meek” (πρᾷος/prâios), which also means gentle, mild, and most importantly, humble. And humble is the cornerstone to listening to the voice of the Holy One. So, if God’s kingdom is the desire of the end of time, humble/meek/gentle/mild is the needful beat of our hearts.
Scholars will argue back and forth if these teachings are from one sermon, or two, or a completion of what was remembered after the Resurrection and the beginnings of the Church in that vital and desperate rush to get down every word that Jesus said before those who heard it died, forgot, or they got changed in the retelling generation upon generation. In any case, these two sermons are a distillation of a lot of Jesus seminal teaching to his disciples.
In Luke, Jesus is in the midst of the people who have come to him for his teaching and his healing. It is on a level place where teacher and students stand together in solidarity. It is sometimes considered the Peace and Justice Sermon. Jesus teaches giving up worldly desires so that all might have a share in the Kingdom. Implied is that the wealth of the Kingdom is not of this world. To paraphrase a quote, all else is vanity, that is, pride, self-glory, selfishness, material possessions, and a lot of other sins. And the woes are not just to castigate the wicked, but a warning for each of us that spiritual pride, self-glory, selfishness, and all the rest are ready to turn us away from the good we desire.
The author of Matthew was speaking to the Jewish community, those who had come to follow Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and those who were either not so sure, or were downright hostile to the notion of a fundamental change between the People of God and the One Holy of Israel. And so Jesus is described as was Moses, going up the mountain to receive the Law. Jesus goes up the mountain and the people come to him. And Jesus sits down. Not just a friendly circle, a kind of kumbaya with his students, but a significant gesture, and an unusual one. We stand before God. God sits before us. (Yes, they probably sat to eat the bread and fish, but that was dinner.) Moses and not Abraham, because sacramentally Abraham is the father of the covenant of male circumcision, but Moses is the father of the Law, and more to the point the freedom and sovereignty of the Jewish people under the protection of God. And Jesus is teaching the new Law, a new freedom and sovereignty under the protection of God, given to all called up the mountain.
Blessed, what does that mean? Μακάριοι/makarios, yes, blessed, to be envied, but also the root word Mak means to make large. God’s largess blesses us. I looked at meek and then went back to inherit. This is a legal term, an inheritance by lot or proportion. Like reading a will with the anxious relatives all hanging on the lawyer’s every word. It is the distribution of God’s portion to us. And then I went on to poor in spirit. Poor, πτωχοὶ/ptochoi, crouching, but also humble. So we have humble again.
There is so much more meaning imbedded in these familiar words, and if these are a true memorialization of what Jesus said, perhaps they can reveal more about Jesus meant. I love language, and could do this all day. Maybe one or two more. Righteousness, δικαιοσύνη/dikaiosuné, comes from a legal term meaning justice, and here specifically as God’s approval. And who seeks this? Those who suffer from thirst, and groan with hunger. Scripture teaches that Jesus gives water that will quench thirst for all times. And his body and blood are the food and drink of unending life in him. While those on the mountain didn’t know all this yet, those who heard Matthew’s Gospel already knew, as we know. Maybe one or two more? Pure, διψῶντες/katharoi, like the English cathartic, means purged, ritually clean. Ritual cleanliness was imbedded deep in the Jewish Law. But Jesus is saying that God’s purging of our hearts, which they understood as the center of our being, will open the way to see God.
And finally, and a thought for Lent which is almost upon us, verses 10 and 11, those who persecute you and reproach you foretells of the suffering which the incarnate Jesus endures for his Father to enact the new covenant of Salvation. And the language is rough. Persecute has its root in hunting down game or a fugitive. Reproach has its root in mock, accuse, and even show one’s teeth like a snarling animal.
How often we hear this familiar passage, and sometimes it passes us by. Oh, here we go again, all the promises to the poor. Like they will be happy thinking of heaven while they starve! But what Jesus is teaching and will die for, and rise for, is the foundation of how we live as Christians. The teaching goes on about forgiveness, mercy, loving your enemy. Think of how we negotiate our daily lives, especially in the Christian community of our parishes. Some of the most fulfilling moments in my life have been in community. And some of the most devastating, heartbreaking, terrible moments were those when somebody forgot that these words are meant to be lived. Jesus can reach us and banish discord and evil, but we have to be open to Scripture and to the breath of the Holy Spirit. We need to practice Jesus’ teaching. We need to live in faith and trust each other, to turn our lives around, to open our hearts, to renew ourselves in these teachings, and offer what we learn with each other.
That is a good introduction to Lent. Ash Wednesday could pass us by. The secular world has pretty much forgotten that Easter came after the worst time in all of human history. This is our holiest time, and one we can embrace to find newness in ourselves, in our flawed difficult human lives, but lives where we are loved by our Shepherd who knows our name, our Father who will wipe away every tear. Think on humility and how it grows as faith and trust in God’s love and mercy grows in our hearts. We can make room to see and hear God by getting out of our own way. Pray on how being poor in our spirit gives God’s spirit room to feed our hunger and relieve our thirst. The Holy One desires nothing more than to forgive our imperfections and to grant us his approval as our inheritance. That Resurrection is ours every Easter, and every day. Practice humility, generosity, mercy this Lent. I will, with God’s help.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.