“You really shouldn’t ask for too much. God loves meekness.”
“I know it seems hard, but Jesus said the poor are blessed so you should be grateful you’re poor.”
“It may be hard here, but your reward will be great in heaven.”
I hear things like this often, usually with bitter sarcasm or spat out from tightly clenched jaws. The words that have been spoken to folks in my community who are food or housing insecure, who are living with substance use disorder; the humiliating power play they endure in order to get a minimum of services from local organizations. The words of the Gospel have been turned from good news into humiliation; into a way of maintaining human power structures, rather than the way to God’s realm.
A couple of weeks ago, the Beatitudes came up in the Lectionary: the blessings that turn the world upside down. But I struggled to hear their joy this time. Jesus’ vision of an entirely new way of being was mired in the anger and pain of how these blessings have been weaponized. Words that we should hear as a call to care for one another have become excuses for ignoring and maintaining the plights of our neighbors. “Blessing” has become the rhetorical counterbalance to “privilege,” the way that those of us with means justify keeping what we have to ourselves. The poor may not have money, or food, or healthcare, but they’re blessed – Jesus said so. They shouldn’t complain.
Humans can be very good at hearing what we want to hear. It is always tempting to believe that the good things we have are marks of God’s favor; that wealth and power and status are our rewards for good behavior. We believe that the mark of God’s love is our happiness, and we contort ourselves to hear that assurance. Deep within us, we want to deserve what we have. So yes, blessed are the meek and all that… they’re earning blessings they’ll get in heaven, so I can enjoy my earned blessings now. Jesus’ radical words shift from egalitarian to hierarchical; we create a “them” where Jesus is trying to put and “us.”
There’s a meme that makes its way around social media periodically: every time we build barriers between people, we find that Jesus is on the other side. Every time we create a “them,” Jesus looks back at us from across the divide to ask why we aren’t part of his “us.”
When we use the scriptures to build ourselves up, we put another brick in the barrier between ourselves and the Gospel. When we use the words of Jesus to justify the world as it is, rather than the world God dreams for us, we widen the chasm between ourselves and the kin-dom. When we accept the easy, privileged reading of these blessings, we refuse the challenge of the way that Jesus calls us to, even now.
God blesses the poor in spirit. Do we?
God blesses those who mourn. Do we?
God blesses the meek. Do we?
God stands on the side of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Do we?
God stands on the side of the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Do we?
God stands on the side of those who are persecuted, and reviled, and slandered, for standing on the side of God. Do we?
Rejoice and be glad, for when you stand on the side of God, you stand in the realm of heaven.
As tempting as it is to read our scriptures as reassurance that our brokenness is okay, the challenge of this text grants a much more grace-filled way. For when we acknowledge that, despite temptations, our privileges in this world are just as undeserved as the hardships that others experience, perhaps we can find a clearer vision of God’s blessings in our lives. When we acknowledge that our own desire to be reassured creates the very barriers that separate us from them, perhaps we can begin to break down our walls, and find that we are standing firmly on the side of Jesus, blessing and blessed.
God of grace, help me to seek the realm that you hope for us, rather than living in the one that I can imagine on my own. Amen.
Rev. Eliza Tweedy is the Senior Pastor of First Church Congregational in Rochester, NH. She blogs at sermonizing.wordpress.com.
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