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The Beatitudes: Receiving and Giving Blessing (Matthew 5:1-12)

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Happiness

I wanted to start off by saying something about happiness.

There’s been plenty of research done around what is happiness and how do we achieve it? In one recent study by Arthur Brooks he stated that scientists have proven that up to 48% of happiness has to do with genetics, 40% has to do with a “isolated events” like getting a dream job (but they unfortunately rather short-lived), leaving about 12% under our control in four key areas of life: faith, family, community and work.

Which makes me wonder: is our faith such that it is contributing to our happiness? And if not, why is that?

And are the beatitudes a formula for increasing our happiness through faith? Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Yesterday, at our elder’s retreat, we were talking about big picture visioning for the church over the next couple years and in that conversation – I’m not sure how we got on it exactly – but we talked a little about happiness. Jim Miller quoted the Dalai Lama who once said “Everyone Wants to Be Happy.”

At the root of humanity is a desire to be happy, free and experience love. And I think it’s only natural to read into the “blessed are the…” a sense of Jesus saying, true happiness consists in these things listed right here.

But if we imagine ourselves in the shoes of the disciples Jesus is speaking to and you are yourself impoverished of all: both spiritual and material. Image that as you hear Jesus utter these words for the first time, you are the one who has been covered in a shroud of mourning.

You hear Jesus say, “blessed are you…” and my guess is the first thing you think isn’t, “Wow, now I feel so much happier.”

Mystery Men

[ILL: Mystery Men] If anything, the beatitudes are a list of anti-super powers. It’s sort of like the movie Mystery Men, with Ben Stiller and William Macy. It’s a movie about the misadventures of a group of men who are trying to be superheroes – Ben Stiller’s name is “Mr. Furious” – he loses his temper and flips his lid. William Macy’s super power is using his shovel to hit people over the head, while another’s super power is throwing silverware. Not exactly, a winning combination.

And don’t we feel like this plenty? What do I have to give to God? To contribute to the community or my church? Am I even good enough to call myself a Christian, or a Quaker, or show up on Sunday?

[Our World’s Version of Happiness] When it comes to happiness, and what our world might label as “luck” or “living the good life” it has much more to do with power, wealth and lots of flash than the beatitudes can offer. We are told in order to count you have to be successful and “perfect” like we talked about last week.

If we were to write a contemporary version of this list to reflect the values of our society they might read something like:

  1. Lucky are the rich, the well to do, those who have it all and keep taking more. You will always put on a good show.

  2. Lucky are those who buck up and show no feelings at all. Emotion only shows weakness. You will remain out of touch and be unaffected by others.

  3. Lucky are those who help themselves, take what they want because they can with no thought to those below you. You will have more than you ever need.

  4. Lucky are the distracted, diverted and busy, the divided in heart. You will make the world go around.

  5. Lucky are those who bully, be little, and dehumanize. No one will fear you and your reward will be great.

  6. Lucky are the victimized, who cast blame and scapegoat others. No skin will ever come off your backs and you will never have to own up to anything.

So to be in the shoes of the disciples and hear “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and “blessed are the merciful,” feels almost like an insult. Like who wants that? And shouldn’t I feel guilty if I am not those things?

Q: So what are we to do with these beatitudes? What is at their heart? And what can we learn from them?

Blessed

If the beatitudes are not a quick scheme for happiness, and in fact, at least some of these, maybe all of them seem to be the opposite of how we construe happiness, then how are we to think of them?

First, do you remember who Jesus is talking too?

Matthew 4:23-25 tells us that Jesus has been picking disciples out of crowds of Galileans and others from around Jerusalem.

The documentary camera on Jesus goes from a close up as Jesus chooses the Galilean’s Peter, Andrew, James and John. Then it moves out a little more broadly showing Jesus working “among the people.” He going throughout Galilee rounding up sicks, paralyzed, those with diseases and he’s curing them. Then it moves out further showing a mass crowd following him that has been gathered not just from Galilee, also from Jerusalem, Decapolis, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. We can assume since the close up was on these Galileans that they are representative of the larger crowds. People who had little to no social standing.

If we were talking superheroes they were people more like the mystery men and less like Batman.

These are the people who are a part of the fellowship of the disqualified. And these are his people. He didn’t bother trying to call Caesar; he partnered with John the Baptist. He didn’t try to win King Antipas’s favor; he called some fishermen. He didn’t try to commandeer an army for himself; he called women and took time to speak with children.

And in the midst of this gathered people he said in the words of Dallas Willard:

“And so he said, “blessed are the spiritual zeros – the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’ – when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”

In other words, couldn’t it be that the beatitudes in fact are the reverse of our ideas of happiness and perfect? Are they suggesting instead that you don’t have to be perfect, or wise and spiritual, or have your act together to be welcomed and included in God’s movement?

I think it is. And this is why we watch as Jesus:

  • blesses this rag-tag fellowship.
  • blesses the vulnerable.
  • blesses the weak.
  • blesses people who don’t and won’t fit.
  • blesses the spiritual zeros.

Second, I want to say something about the word bless, which is Makarios. Jesus says it 9 times in this passage. It refers to “religious joy” “happy, blessed,” and “can depict someone who receives divine favor.

A blessing isn’t something we bestow on ourselves. It isn’t something that we declare that we have and it isn’t something we can fake or force. A blessing is a gift that is given by another, and here in Matthew it is given by the son of God himself.

I like how John O’Donohue describes a blessing:

[Slide] What is a blessing? A blessing is a circle of light drawn around to protect a person, heal, and strength. Life is a constant flow of emergence. The beauty of blessing is its belief that it can affect what unfolds….A blessing awakens future wholeness…We could say that a blessing ‘fore brightens’ the way (To Bless the Space Between Us).

So here we have Jesus rallying the people. And he says, I pick you. I welcome you to this “backward alliance.” You think you’re just ordinary and average? I bless you. I draw a circle of light around these people, invoking GOd’s favor on them, strengthening for the task that is ahead.

Jesus is building up the movement of God. Announcing that heaven has come to earth, and that he chooses the ordinary, the weak, the spiritual zeroes, to be the people who will be my co-workers and participants in this “beloved community.”

Listen to what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians:

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31 NRSV)

And in the midst of the foolish, weak, the low and the despised, Jesus says, you are blessed. You are blessed because you are my people. You are the ones for whom the Kingdom of God stands with, God is not only on your side, but God is calling you to participate in the transformation of the whole world.

Jesus is saying, “you are blessed, not because there is anything effective or desirable about poverty or meekness, but because I am present with you in the midst of this.”

The great liberation theologian, Oscar Romero, put it like this:

This is Christ’s mission, to take the good news to the poor,
to those who receive only bad news,
to those who are always trampled by the powerful, to those who watch pass by, out of their reach,
the riches that satisfy others. The Lord comes for them,
to make them happy
and to tell them: Do not covet.
Count yourselves happy and wealthy
with the great gift brought to you
by the one who being rich became poor to be with you.

Giving and Receiving

So where does all of this leave us?

I personally don’t feel particularly poor in spirit (at the moment), or meek. Maybe sometimes I am a peacemaker. I certainly hunger for justice, when I’m not too busy being selfish.

It’s very possible that the beatitudes aren’t something that we work towards, but something that we find happening to us. Life lived well over the course of a whole-life time. Maybe they are opportunities that arise. Moments of faithfulness.

And other questions arise:

Am I in the crowd receiving blessing? Am I with the people for whom Jesus comes and announces this great blessing? Do I even recognize who those people are today? And would I be willing to stand with them?

And all of this assumes the position of the one receiving blessing. But what if instead we take the other role – the ones giving blessing? If we feel like we already have so much to be grateful for or maybe we feel like we are not sure how we could ever become meek or be a peacemaker, then I would suggest we attempt being the people who grant blessing to others.

Following this, I see blessing as any act of generosity that we bestow on another that is meant to strengthen and draw that person into the fellowship of Jesus.

To bless is to honor someone who goes unrecognized, who could use a little light, a little strength. It is to say I see you. God chooses you too.

To bless is always something that is given freely, out of love and a deep generosity. It should never be done out of obligation.

To bless others is to invoke God’s favor on another.

Queries:

  • Do you recognize and honor others?
  • Do you offer blessing to those whom Jesus blesses?
  • How might blessing become the movement of your life?
  • How might practice blessing connect you to the deeper stream of living water, renewing your spirit and bringing lasting happiness?

Open Worship

Write your own blessing to someone who goes unrecognized, who needs strength, courage and a circle of light drawn around them. Give this person the blessing next time you see them.

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Wess

A papa, Quaker minister, Phd in Intercultural Studies from Fuller, & prof. Contributor to Antioch Sessions. Angelic troublemaker & #sketchnote preacher. Enjoys #remix, liberation theology, bourbon & a wool vest.
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2 thoughts on “The Beatitudes: Receiving and Giving Blessing (Matthew 5:1-12)”

  1. Wow.

    I was blessed by this entry. I actually found your blog on accident and kept reading because my pastor goes to George Fox. Thank you for challenging my ever-swaying perspective on love.

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