This is one of the most famous of Jesus’ teachings. So famous that they even get their own special name: the Beatitudes, which comes from the Latin word for “blessed” (beātitūdō), and that’s because the Bible used to be only really available in Latin, the Vulgate version, translated by St Jerome towards the end of the 4th Century. And you know that when the name of a thing comes from a translation over a one and a half thousand years old, you are dealing with an immense weight of history and interpretation.
So we sit and hear them and nod approvingly. That incantatory repetition of blessed, blessed, blessed is beautifully soothing. But if you listen to the words, paying careful attention to what they are actually saying, then it’s a bit jarring. Are the poor in spirit really blessed? What on earth does that actually mean? It doesn’t feel very blessed to mourn either – it might be inevitable, but it feels the very opposite of being blessed. And don’t get me started on the meek, except to say that they don’t generally seem to inherit the earth. Just look at our business, showbiz, and political elite. Love them or hate them, they certainly don’t strike me as “meek” in any meaningful way.
In fact, if I were compiling a list of advice, of ways of being which will result in success in life. I might come up with something like this:
- Blessed are the those who’ve got their lives in order, for they will achieve optimal success
- Blessed are those with good relationships, because it will improve their wellness
- Blessed are the pushy, because if you don’t beat your own drum, no-one else will do it for you
- Blessed are those who are content with the status-quo, because that makes life a whole lot easier
- Blessed are the grudge-keepers, because revenge is a dish best served cold
- Blessed are those who avoid permanent commitments, because there are a lot of possibilities in life and why should you miss out?
And so on.
So does that resolve the problem? Perhaps it’s easiest to say that the beatitudes, while they might have had traction back in the olden days, have no relevance to today.
However, this solution, neat as it is in various ways, seems to be missing something. There’s something in that paradoxical set of blessings that I can’t let go of. All those ingredients of the good life I just listed are kind of flat to me. Is that really all there is in life? Is there really nothing more to be said? Is life simply for the rich, the well, those who have their stuff together? How is that Good News?
What about the no-hopers, the down-and-outers, the needy and dependent? What about those who have no other hope but in God?
Or, to put it another way, are the poor in spirit really blessed?
There are a couple of key ideas to set up first before we can go any further. What does it mean to be “blessed”? And who actually is this Jesus guy?
I’m going to start with the second question, because I think some statements mean more, or carry more weight, from particular people. For instance, if you’re in the midst of a horrible experience, having someone outside the situation sitting in comfort giving advice like “just trust God” is profoundly unhelpful. However, someone in the situation with you can say “just trust God” and it can carry a different weight. So, who is Jesus?
Specifically, who is Jesus as presented in Matthew? Who does Matthew think Jesus is? This is a surprisingly easy question to answer.
In Matthew’s version of the story of how Jesus was born, the first thing that happens is that Mary turns out to be pregnant while she and Joseph were engaged to be married. He “planned to dismiss her quietly,” to avoid a scandal. But then he had a dream, in which an angel told him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And then Matthew explains that all this took place to fulfil God’s prophecy. And the prophecy comes with a name built in. The child in the prophecy, the child that Mary was about to bear, was to be named “Emmanuel”, which Matthew translates as God-with-us.
The thing is that, in this context, Emmanuel isn’t exactly a name. After all, it’s not like Jesus is ever addressed as Emmanuel. It’s more like a title than a name. In fact, better, it’s more like a job title. It describes what Jesus does: Jesus is the one who brings God to us. What we see Jesus do, what we hear him say, the way he lives and dies and rises again: that is what it means to be God, in God’s self. It isn’t some sort of act, some sort of performance. What Emmanuel means is that God and Jesus are intertwined so much that you can’t tell them apart.
Describing it in the language of systematic theology is hard, but the point is: What Jesus does, God does. What Jesus is like, God is like. Jesus is like a sort of refraction of God, God in human scale. And that’s what all that complex, verging on incomprehensible, language about “proceeding from the Father” and “the same substance” in the creeds is getting at.
In Matthew’s gospel: When Jesus speaks, God speaks.
So, onto the first question – or the second, depending on how we are looking at it. What does it mean to be “blessed”?
However, I’m a child of the internet age, and so when I started this sermon I jumped online to see what I could find discover. It turns out #blessed is a big thing on the social photo sharing site Instagram. Lots of selfies, lots of inspirational quotes.
So far so superficial you might think. I thought this was supposed to be a sermon! What are you doing getting your ideas from Instagram – possibly the most superficial thing in the world?
Yes, it is superficial, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing of value there. It was full of people giving thanks for the good things in life. And that’s the first level of the paradox of being blessed. And there is nothing wrong with it. If you have a safe place to sleep, food in your cupboard, and money in the bank, then you are indeed blessed. Fortunate.
Underlying the idea of blessing is the idea that it’s something done to you. For instance, Isaac gives Jacob his blessing, and it means he can’t give it to Esau, leading to no end of trouble.
So when people say they are #blessed, they are in fact expressing a base level of gratitude, and the unexamined implication is that they are grateful to something, or perhaps even someone. And that is nothing to sneeze at, in this individualistic, atomised age.
It is a central idea in Christianity: As Paul says:
…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thes. 5:18
Gratitude is not just good for our wellbeing, but it is an important spiritual discipline. It’s so easy to forget, to take the good things in our lives for granted. I have a number of practices which help me to become more consciously grateful.
This is all very well, you might say. It’s good to be grateful for the good things of life, to acknowledge how blessed we are. But this isn’t exactly what’s going on in the Beatitudes. Jesus doesn’t say “blessed are those with secure housing” and so on. He says: blessed are the poor in heart, those who mourn, those with any number of horrible things going on in their lives. These are precisely those people who don’t really feel like they’ve got much to be grateful for.
A second level at work in this passage is eschatological. That is, it’s a sort of way of thinking about what God really values, and what God will one day accomplish in the world. Those who mourn, the meek, the downtrodden and persecuted will, one day, be comforted and vindicated. Like the prophet Joel puts it, God will one day repay them for the years that the locust have eaten.
However, it won’t have escaped your notice that the promises that Jesus makes have yet to be fulfilled. There are many who mourn, many who take their hunger and thirst for righteousness to the grave. I want to draw two threads from that: a corporate thread, and a personal, existential one.
Firstly, the corporate. The church is called to be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. That is, we are called to be the place where the mourn are comforted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are indeed satisfied, and all the rest. We are called to live out of our trust in God’s promises, believing that, however unlikely it feels some days, that God will accomplish that which she sets out to do.
So that’s a challenge for us: are we that sort of place? Can you imagine what a community which the beatitudes really described would be like? What concrete steps can we take to move, even a little bit, in that direction?
The second thread is more personal. It’s not enough that the community has trust in God’s promises: we need that trust individually. This is getting into deep, paradoxical waters, and I’m not at all sure how to speak about it, except from my own personal experience.
Which is that, during the hardest time of my life, when a tree destroyed half our house and we were lucky to get out alive, when I was involved in a fatal car accident, when I was struggling to find work for months at a time, and when Anne and I were in the darkest days of our infertility journey – when, in other words, I had absolutely reached the end of my own resources, I found myself… I’m not sure of the word. Held by God perhaps. Transformed. Compelled by a whole series of difficult, traumatic experiences to live beyond myself, I found God there. And I’ve never been the same person since.
There is an academic literature around this sort of phenomenon. It is known as “post-traumatic growth”, and one of the key findings is that, more often than not, the recovery from trauma can lead to a spiritual transformation. It’s not that everything’s fine in the garden and suffering is a distant memory. Far from it. But a new awareness, an open-ness to others, a new way of being such that people don’t want to go back to how they were before. 
It’s something, finally, about trust. How do we trust in God when the world can seem so arbitrary? The beatitudes describe what it looks like, they don’t provide a description of how to get there.
At rock bottom rather than being a prescription about how to live, it’s a description of the deepest reality of life.
It can sound glib. When you’re in the midst of suffering having some comfortable idiot say “just trust God” is one of the most annoying things in the world, and used to fill me with rage. That’s why I’ve gone to such lengths to emphasise that this isn’t some tedious moralising. Rather, it is Jesus’ word directly to us.
That’s why it’s so important that Matthew names Jesus “Emmanuel”, “God-with-us.” Jesus speaks for God here, and shows us something we wouldn’t have figured out for ourselves. That God reveals godself not to the powerful and successful, the ones who have it all together, but to the poor. The suffering. The marginalised. And that, in the darkest times of life, when we are at our lowest ebb, when we are truly “spiritually poor”, we can find God waiting for us. Not to wave a magic wand and miraculously make everything alright. But wanting to transform our very selves into the sort of people who are starting to experience the blessings that Jesus promises.
Sermon preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on 29/1/20 on the passage Matthew 5:1-12
 If you’re interested you might look at Tedeschi, Richard G. and Lawrence G. Calhoun. “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004): 1-18.