St. Mary’s Regina
I have been to the Holy Land. Six years ago, the clergy of the Diocese of Saskatoon went together on a pilgrimage to see the land where Jesus lived and taught. I saw for myself how much of Jerusalem can be seen from the Mount of Olives and whether the Jordan is a rushing river or a flowing stream. I saw the physical land around Tiberias where tradition holds that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (according to Matthew) or the Sermon on the Plain (according to Luke). It is the same sermon recorded in three of the gospels and in my mind there is a difference between a mountain and a plain.
I have read enough to know that each of the gospel writers chose his geography for a reason. By putting Jesus on a mountain, Matthew wanted us to think of Moses on Mount Sinai. As Moses gave the law to Israel from on high, so Jesus give the gospel from on high too. By putting Jesus on a plain, Luke wanted us to see how accessible Jesus was….not above but among the people to whom he spoke. So I was curious about how the land itself reflects these two accounts.
We followed a course of study called In the Footsteps of Jesus and saw and experienced the landscapes in which Jesus lived and taught. Honestly it was an amazing and holy experience to follow in our Lord’s footsteps as recorded in scripture. I now carry within me, the memories of the places…sights and sounds…and flavours of His life.
In Tiberias, the Chapel of the Beatitudes is located on top of a high hill. There is a long sloping side which goes down to the sea. The hollow of that hill makes a natural amphitheater…..a flat place with hills all around to bounce the sound back. It is a mount and a plain all rolled into one.
According to Luke, Jesus had just spent all night on the mountain praying. Then he came down and stood on the flat part, surrounded by people from all over. Some of them had already heard him and others were trying to figure him out, but they all wanted something from him.
Luke tells us the crowd was full of sick people….people who had heard about Jesus’ power….about all you had to do was get near him and you could be healed. Evidently all you had to do was just manage to get his attention. Health and wholeness would be yours for the asking.
We can imagine the crush of people trying to get close enough to him so it’s pretty remarkable to me that he stayed on the Plain where they could all get to him….touching him, talking to him, maybe even grabbing him. Today, under those circumstances, there would be body guards and line ups….everyone would get a turn but in a neat and orderly fashion. But Jesus doesn’t seem to mind….or if he did, he didn’t let that stop him from offering himself to all those people. Some of them were really hurting and some of them were just curious, but Jesus did not discriminate among them. He stood among them preaching a silent sermon to them with his presence before he ever opened his mouth to say a word.
But when he did open his mouth, what came out were the beatitudes…a series of blessings he pronounced on those who were there. The form of speech he used was a common one and therefore familiar. We heard something similar from the prophet Jeremiah a few moments ago. Beatitudes are short, two-part affirmations that sum up common knowledge about the good life. “Blessed are they who have good retirement plans, for their old age shall be comfortable.” “Blessed are they who floss, for they shall keep their teeth.” That sort of thing.
So the form was familiar to his hearers. He said, “Blessed are…” and they all got ready for some nuggets of wisdom. But the content was totally unexpected. “Blessed are you who are poor….who are hungry…who weep now? Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man…?”
This was a shocking substitution of bad things for good things, in which blessedness was equated with the very things people did their best to avoid…poverty, hunger, grief, hatred. In every case, Jesus made those equations even stronger by adding a reversal of fortune onto them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
In Matthew’s gospel, there are nine of these beatitudes. In Luke’s gospel there are only four, plus four “woeitudes” that only Luke seemed to know about. These were mirror images of the beatitudes, in which woe was equated with things that people did their best to achieve…wealth, food, laughter, esteem. In the same way that Jesus made the bad things, sound good, he made the good things sound bad. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
I suspect that because we are so familiar with the beatitudes that it is hard for us to imagine how shocking they were that day. Perhaps if I said, “Blessed are you who suffer from cancer, for you shall be made whole,” or “Blessed are you whose prayers are not answered, for you shall see God face to face. Maybe if I said, “Woe to you who have nice houses, for you shall be homeless,” or “Woe to you with steady employment, for you shall be jobless.”
As we may be able to tell from our reactions to these statements, the impact of the beatitudes has everything to do with who we are. If we happen to be one of the hungry people, then Jesus’ words bring hope and sound pretty good to us. If we happen to be part of the wellfed crowd, then it sounds like pretty bad news. The words themselves do not change but they sound different depending on who happens to be hearing them.
I think it is fair to say that most of us hear them from the well-fed end of the spectrum. Most of us are rich, by global standards. Many of us have worked hard in hopes that people would speak well of us, and when they do not, we take it as a sign that we still have more work to do.
What this means for us, is that when we hear the beatitudes, we feel guilty because not many of us sell all that we have and give it to the poor. I suspect that we have learned to ignore this passage by putting it into the same file with all the other good Christian advice that no one we personally know has ever followed.
The catch is, the beatitudes are not advice. There is nothing about them that remotely suggests Jesus was telling anyone what he thought they should do. When Jesus IS giving advice, it’s hard to miss. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Now THAT’S advice….love, do, bless, pray….one imperative after the other, with no distinction between rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. It is the same list for everyone and Jesus is not telling anyone what to do. Instead, he describes different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another and then he makes the same promise to all of them: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. It’s like a Ferris wheel…..sometimes we’re on the top of the world and sometimes at the bottom. It’s not advice at all. It’s not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work….what goes around, comes around and it is pronounced by someone who loves everyone who’s along for the ride.
We get tripped up by the language….the blessing and woe language because when we hear words such as “blessing” and “woe,” we think “reward” and “punishment.” We think the blessing things must be what Jesus wants us to do and the woe things must be what Jesus doesn’t want us to do, right. But where does that leave us exactly? Do we sit down and sob in hopes that we can move from one list to the other? Do we do our best to ruin our reputation so no one will speak well of us? Blessings and woes cannot be manipulated like that. God cannot be manipulated like that. The beatitudes do not tell us what to do. They tell us who WE are and more importantly they tell us who JESUS is.
When Jesus first said them out loud, everyone heard them in a different way, depending on who they were. Jesus never said who was who. He let them sort themselves out, but after they had done that, there was no mistaking what Jesus was good for and what he was not.
Anyone who was there that day to grab whatever they could from him went home disappointed because even if they managed to grab a little bit of his power, it would not help them get on top and stay on top. Jesus was not any good for that kind of stuff. In fact, people who were attached to that kind of stuff were in for some woes, because the way things are is not the way they will always be, and no one gets to stay at the top of the wheel for ever. What goes round, comes round. That’s not advice or even judgment. It is God’s own truth. It is also pure blessedness for those on the bottom, who never really expect to get off the ground.
I also believe that it’s pure blessedness for those on top, because there are some very important things about human life the we simply cannot see with our feet so far off the ground. To get a good look at them we have to come down, as Jesus did, from the mountain to the plain. Things may not look as pretty from down there. We may see some things that make us cry, but our grief may teach us more about the kingdom than our good fortune ever did.
Neither the going up nor the coming down is under our control, as far as I can tell, but wherever we happen to be, the promise is the same. Blessed are you who loosen your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the way things shall be. AMEN.