A sermon given February 13, 2022 at New Creation (Anglican) in Hagerstown, MD. A parish of the community of Hagerstown, MD and a mission of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.
How do we understand the blessings given in the Beatitudes? For example, do they mean that only those who are physically poor or hungry or weeping are blessed by these things?
You know I’ve been leaning on Ken Bailey’s work, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which is very helpful here. He writes this:
“[The Beatitudes] affirm a quality of spirituality that is already present. …When saying, “Ms. So-and-so is a bless-ed person in our church,” one is not asking for something bur rather affirming a quality in Ms. So-and-so that already exists. … [T]he Beatitudes do not mean “Blessed are the people who do X because they will receive Y.” … Put into concrete terms, we could say, “Bless-ed is the happy daughter of Mr. Jones because she will inherit the Jones’s farm.” The woman in question is already the happy daughter of Mr. Jones. She is not working to own the farm. Everyone knows that a key element in her happy and secure life is that she and the community around her know that the farm will one day be hers.” (Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 68)
To summarize: Christians are not blessed because they do such-and-such a thing, rather believers are blessed in them (in their poverty, mourning, hunger, and rejection). Jesus is pronouncing a blessing upon his people. An announcement of blessedness. This is for disciples. This is for you this morning.
First Blessing & Woe (vs. 20 & 24)
Blessed are the poor [in spirit], for yours is the kingdom of God. … Woe to you who are rich, for have received your consolation.
Matthew clarifies Jesus’ meaning here by adding poor “in spirit.” The disciples have become materially poor in leaving everything to follow Jesus, but primary meaning here is spiritual poverty. The Old Testament prophets frequently spoke of God’s love and care for the godly poor. Isaiah 66:2 is typical here. God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble (read: poor) and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
The first beatitude is the most essential: knowing yourself to be spiritually poor is the only entrance by which you will come to Jesus and be made part of his Kingdom. That’s who it’s for (in fact, the word translated as “poor” means literally “to crouch” as a beggar would). In Luke particularly, this is part of the Great Reversal that runs through his Gospel. Up is down and down is up in the Messiah’s Kingdom. The spiritually poor who come to Jesus receive his mighty blessings. In Ephesians 1, Paul has an entire chapter devoted to this theme of the blessings we receive in Christ. It starts out, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” That means blessing untold! Blessings in Christ you haven’t even discovered yet! It is the poor who received no less than the kingdom of God.
But Jesus says woe to the rich, for you have received all you will get – you have received your consolation. And that consolation will fail you. Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus speaks to us here not only of wealth, but treasure. He asks us where our treasure lies. That goes beyond just money. We can be full, for example, on pride, on our selfishness, the opinion of others, on our appearance, on appearances in such a way that it keeps us from God. Friends, the older I get, the more I realize how easy it is to waste an entire life on the pursuit of treasure in the blink of an eye. In no time at all.
Second Blessing & Woe (vs. 21 & 25)
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. … Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
The life of the Christian is a hope-deferred, pilgrim-style life. As Lewis put it, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” And the Christian is constantly aware of that. We are never quite at home. It is an against the grain life. It is a life where absence and longing is keenly felt, and yet we are even now satisfied as we wait for the hope that has been promised to us – Christ in you, the hope of glory, as Paul put it. With and in Jesus, we have a continual feast – all the way to the Marriage Super of the Lamb.
Hunger is contrasted with being full. Food is readily available for most in our society, but for a people who are so full, do we not live in a land of great and dire hunger? Our plates may be full, but they do not satisfy. The sadness here is that those who are full miss out on real food! Real sustenance. Come empty, come hungry to Jesus, and you’ll be filled, come full and you’ll be disappointed.
Third Blessing & Woe (vs. 21 & 25)
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. … Woe to you laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Jesus says it is better to know sorrow now in this life than it is to seek a life and glibly and superficially free from it. Better to know godly sorrow over sin, that we may also know and be blessed with Jesus’ word of forgiveness. Better to know sorrow now over the brokenness of our world, living in the hope and joy that God will make it right, than it is pretend all is well, or try to explain it away. Better to continue in the joyful fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ though all is not well, than it is to live in isolation, pretending everything is okay.
Listen to these words from the book of Ecclesiastes:
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)
There is a sense in which Christians can be made unafraid of sorrow and suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “sorrow cannot tire them or wear them down, it cannot embitter them or cause them to break down under the strain; far from it, for they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pg. 109).
Christians are not taught to pray for suffering, but we are to acknowledge that suffering and sorrow are, by God’s providence, deeply instructive in our lives in a way that they are not for those who do not yet know Christ.
Fourth Blessing & Woe (vs. 22-23 & 26)
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets… Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Blessed and better, Jesus says, to endure rent relationships and exclusion for Jesus’ sake than it is to deny him. Better to have your “name” scorned (and here Luke is thinking of the name “Christian”) and to receive the Messiah who is scorned as well. It’s certainly not that we want to be hated. There are people who think like that, but Jesus did not say, blessed are you for being an obnoxious jerk on account of my name! But, the nature of Gospel is such that it does not come without creating some kind of division – personal or otherwise.
And yet, look at the joy in this last beatitude! Why? Because of the treasure stored up for you in Jesus. For all the disciples have lost, they gained Jesus. Compared with these blessings, the balance in Elon Musk’s current bank accounts is as pocket change.
In the midst of poverty, in the midst of hunger, in the midst of sorrow, in the midst of rent relationship, Jesus calls his disciples to rejoice and skip for joy! Because although there is a cost associated with the Christian life, all that we receive through Jesus makes it impossible to even consider comparing the two.
Paul says it best: “16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
The good news of the beatitudes is that nothing we undergo in this life as disciples of Jesus can ever separate us from the love of God or the treasure we have in Christ.
Therefore, to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be all the praise, honor, and glory now and forevermore. Amen.