Tag Archives: Beatitudes

The Beatitudes, part 12: Luke’s Curses

Read Luke 6:24-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. (Matthew 7:13 NRSV)

theoldruggedcrossWe all have an idealistic image of Jesus in our heads, do we not? Growing up, we who grew up in the church learned about a Jesus who loves us, who welcomes us, who loves all the little children, and who came to save the world from hate and evil. We learned of a cheery, jovial man who was no ordinary human, but the Son of God; what’s more, Jesus was God in the flesh. We also learned how sinful people rejected Jesus’ message of love and crucified him to a cross, following extensive torture, and left him there to die. Of course the story doesn’t end there, as Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven after appearing to his many disciples.

This just about summarizes our Sunday School/Church understanding of Jesus. It just about sums up every movie that has been created about him, and it sums up what I believe to be wholly an American Jesus who gives us eternity but asks nothing of us in return. This, in essence, is a cheap Jesus who presents to a us a cheap grace.

Don’t get me wrong, the summary is true in that Jesus does love us, welcome us and calls us to follow him. It is true that Jesus came to save us and that people rejected his message of love. But the reason people rejected his message of love, is because it often did not feel so loving. I guess one could say that Jesus’ love was often tough, challenging, and sometimes downright impossible for people to subscribe to.

In Luke’s account of the beatitudes, we get a picture perfect example of Jesus’ tough love. Following the blessings he pronounces on the poor, Jesus hauls off on the rich, cursing them to a series of four “woes” or afflictions. He does this to drive home the message of the four beatitudes, that God stands in solidarity with the poor and will show them partiality when these eschatological (judgment day) blessings take place.

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26 NRSV). Yikes! Remember, Jesus is not speaking this to strangers, nor to his enemies; rather, Jesus is speaking this directly to his disciples!!

No doubt, there were disciples who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; 18:28); however, there were also those who had not given up everything. Jesus’ teaching of God’s blessing on the impoverished, as well as his teaching of God’s judgment upon the rich, was meant to be a warning that God’s Kingdom is the ONLY thing we should be seeking to attain. Jesus is also clear elsewhere that one cannot serve two masters, that one will either serve God or they will serve materialistic gain (Luke 16:13 NRSV).

Again, if there was a way to soften this message and remain true to what Jesus is teaching here, I would; however, softening it only serves to add more sugar coating to the idol we continue to build up and name Jesus. Jesus’ message, as hard as it was in his time for people to hear, is really hard for us to hear. A majority of us in America claim to believe in God, and a majority of those who do claim to be Christian in one form or another; however, how many of us Christians really put God/Jesus first and foremost in our lives, foresaking all else in the process? That’s a tall order and most of us, myself included, fall very short of that!

Thank God that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t have the final say on what Jesus taught and/or meant by his teachings; however, we should NOT shrug it off as being irrelevant either. Luke’s Gospel gives us the bitter truth, as hard as it is to swallow, that we are not always aligned with God. What’s more, woe to us who think we are only to find out we never were (Matthew 7:13, 23; Luke 16:19-31 NRSV).

Luke rightfully has us pause and reflect on where we are in our relationship with God, a humility we should be daily embracing. Rather than viewing these woes as personal attacks against our faith, our lifestyles, and/or our wealth, we should be humbled by them and view them as true blessings in our lives. Why, you ask? Because they point us to the way, the truth, and the life and serve as a guide to keep us on the long and narrow road that leads to the Kingdom of God. Christ is teaching us of what our priorities should be, that they should be aligning with the priorities of God. If we heed that warning, we will be the “richer” for it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace…what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us.” – Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

PRAYER
Lord, fill me with humility so that I may see how I need to change in order to truly follow you. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 11: Luke’s Blessings

Read Luke 6:20-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13 NRSV)

jesussaidwhat-webI bet you thought we were moving on from Jesus’ beatitudes, being that we just finished the last of them, right? Wrong. While we did discuss all of the beatitudes in Matthew, and we did refer to Luke’s Gospel in doing so, Luke’s account presents something unique to the beatitudes we find in Matthew.

While the differences may seem subtle, Luke’s Jesus is doing something different when it comes to who Jesus is addressing and what is exactly meant by these blessings. The most obvious difference is that the beatitudes in Luke are much more abbreviated than they are in Matthew and, what’s more, they are to be taken much more literally.

In the Matthew account, Jesus is preaching to the crowd that has gathered at the base of the mount to hear him preach. Yet, in Luke, Jesus is not teaching the crowd; rather, Luke records that “looking at his disciples”, Jesus gave them his beatitudes. What’s more, Luke’s beatitudes are seemingly addressed to them as it is written in the second person rather than the third.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This first beatitude predicates the remainder of blessings. It is upon this blessing that the others rest. More importantly, as we will see in the next devotion, it is upon this blessing that subsequent curses are ajudicated. It is in this blessing that Jesus makes very clear to his disciples, and to all of us, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor. It is also important to note that Luke does not mean the “poor in spirit”, or the poor in any other sense of the word. Luke means exactly has it reads, God’s kingdom belongs to those who are literally impoverished.

For those of us who are living with some money in the bank, whehter we are middle-class, wealthy, or the upper one percent, this teaching should shock us. It should not only be shocking, it should be scandalous and it should make us feel a bit nervous. What does Jesus mean by this? If I am NOT impoverished, does this mean that I WILL not inherit or enter God’s kingdom? How can Jesus expect us to impoverish ourselves and/or our families for some kingdom of which we have no clue will arrive in our lifetimes?

Following this, Jesus enters into blessings that are reversals of the current world order. Those who are hungry will be satisfied, those who weep will laugh and those who are hated, excluded, insulted and rejected as being evil because of their devotion to Jesus have much to rejoice over for they are actually included in a great heavenly reward. Also, they will be among a great insider’s club of people who were persecuted for doing what is right!

What makes Luke’s version of “The Beatitudes” so scandalous is that it goes against everything what we know to be true. In Jesus’ time, those who were poor, sick, hungry, etc., were so because of their sins and/or flaws. In a meritocracy such as ours, isn’t it true that those who work hard, pick themselves up by the boot straps, find success, and amass wealth are the ones who are truly blessed? Why would Jesus discourage working hard and amassing wealth? Isn’t Jesus a capitalist?

While Matthew’s version goes into more depth, and speaks to a larger audience, Luke’s version really presses us to take a long, hard look to see how we measure in God’s kingdom. Have we given up our desire for merit and fincancial gain? Luke not only takes the existential plight of the impoverished and flips it around on the wealthy but, more importantly, asks us, his disciples, to evaluate ourselves and choose which side we’re on.

I wish I could soften Luke’s message, but I cannot. Luke’s Jesus draws the line in the sand and flesh’s out what is meant in his teaching that “you cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). What I can do is invite you to reflecton how seriously you have taken Jesus’ teachings. There is a definite cost to following Christ, and that cost should make us pause and even feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet, Jesus is also trying to tell us that the reward is WORTH the cost. What’s more, as the old adage goes, if you don’t pay now you will surely pay later.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” – Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
PRAYER
Lord, help me to know the cost of discipleship and to choose discipleship regardless of the cost. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 10: Rejoice

Read Matthew 5:11-12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way.” (Luke 6:22-23 NLT)

Praise-Wheat-Field (1)Growing up, I was certainly no stranger to being picked on and/or made fun of. As a kid, particularly in elementary school, I always tried to make friends with everyone. I always tried to fit in, somewhere, anywhere I could fit in. Time and time again, I found myself failing in that endeavor. I found myself being bullied by some, ignored by others, and I couldn’t quite fit in any group I tried to belong to.

Some of that, of course, was also my perception as it developed over time. There were some, no doubt, who liked me and had nothing against me, but because of who they were friends with I perceived myself as not fitting in with them as well. My experience, no doubt, was not a isolated one. I am sure others in my grade, in my school and in other schools around the world, were feeling the same as me.

Growing up, I was also raised in the church. Though I was baptized in the Methodist church, I was raised and confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). I loved God, loved learning, and loved reading my Bible! I know, it’s hard to believe, right? One of the texts I read a lot, and I mean A LOT, was Matthew 5:1-12, also known as “The Beatitudes.” I was puzzled by Jesus’ teachings.

On the one hand, I clinged to them in faith, trusting that what Jesus taught was true. On the other hand, what could Jesus mean? Having been rejected so many times I certainly felt persecuted, and often times because while I wanted friends, I was not willing to cross moral boundaries to have them. I remember in 1st or 2nd grade, one kid I was friends with was bullying another kid on the playground and wanted me to join in. I refused because “Jesus wouldn’t want us to do that. We should treat others as we would like to be treated.” That was the reason I gave, and I stuck to it. As a result, my “friend” quickly became an enemy and started making fun of me. That particular person continued to make fun of me throughout elementary school and even in high school.

I tell this story not to evoke pity or anything like that, but to raise the question that I had as a child. How can the persecuted be blessed? How can Jesus expect us to rejoice over people hurting us and persecuting us for following him and for doing what’s right? On the one end, I hoped that Jesus was right in his beatitudes; however, that hope did not take away the pain of being hurt, mocked and made fun of. Eventually, I grew hardened toward myself and others as a result.

Yet, Jesus is telling people who are persecuted because they do what is right and/or follow him, to rejoice. This isn’t, by the way, a suggestion from Jesus. It is a command. To conlcude his beatitudes, Jesus transitions from “blessings” to an instructional command to his followers. For those who are persecuted over doing what is right, for standing up for justice, for following Jesus (who embodies all of those things), Jesus is commanding them to rejoice.

Jesus is not commanding them to be happy about being persecuted, nor is Jesus calling us to be happy “in spite” of being persecuted; rather, Jesus is calling the persecuted to rejoice (or find joy) because of the persecution itself. Jesus is not calling his followers to have some sort of masochistic “martyr complex” where they see themsleves as perpetual martyrs and get joyful pleasure from that. Instead, Jesus is calling them to recognize that persecution is a sort of badge that all “righteous” people have worn, and will continue to wear, for doing what’s right and following God.

Jesus is calling us to see it as an honor, rather than seeing it as a curse. While no one, not even Jesus, likes being persecuted, Jesus is calling us to not let persecution (or the fear of persecution) stop us from following him and doing what is right and just. Instead, like the prophets before us, we should endure to the end and continue doing what is right. Instead of letting the persecution harden us and make us spiteful (as I did as a child), we should continue on the straight and narrow pathway that leads to life, not just for us, but for all people everywhere. This is what it means to be blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Knowledge of God’s Word is a bulwark against deception, temptation, accusation, even persecution.” – Edwin Louis Cole

PRAYER
Lord, remove spite from life and give me joy in serving you, especially in the face of persecution. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 7: Pure in Heart

Read Matthew 5:8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalms 86:11 NRSV)

pure-heart-5-1Jesus, before the entire multitude, continues on in his beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This beatitude would not have shocked the average Jewish person. After all, Jesus was referencing Psalm 24:3-4, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” (Psalms 24:3-4 NLT)

But before we get into who the “pure in heart” are, let us first discuss what Jesus IS NOT referring to. While on the beach at the ocean with my family yesterday, my daughter asked me a rather direct question, “Dad, what’s debauchery.” That may sound like a strange question coming from one’s daughter; however, in context, she was reading George Orwell’s “1984”, which she was assigned as summer reading for school. It is in that book that she came across the word, which isn’t exactly a word people regularly use anymore.

After I explained what debauchery was, we left the beach and went out to eat. We were seated by our hostess in the bar section of the restaurant that we were eating at on the boardwalk. We’ve eaten there plenty of times uneventfully and we always go during “family-friendly” times to avoid any sort of wild party scene. Well, that plan was foiled by a group of rather self-absorbed adults who were clearly getting a head start on their raucus drinking and were, ironically, giving my daughters an object lesson of what “debauchery” is all about. Now, my daughters are old enough to know what’s going on and to know it’s “NOT COOL”, but there were other infants, toddlers, and children there with their families, who were equally shocked by the behavior of these debaucherous “adults.”

I am sure I need not go into detail with you as to what they were doing, but they were anything but the “cool” they thought they were being…if they were thinking at all. Let me say this, REAL ADULTS are mindful of children and innocent ones around them; these people were clearly not acting like real adults. With all of this said, when Jesus referred to the “pure in heart” he was NOT referring to purity as in the opposite of “debauchery.” He was not referring to the those who avoid impure thoughts (aka sexual fantasies), the sexually chaste and/or those who abstain from indulging the pleasures of the senses.

No doubt, it is true, that such people WOULD NOT be considered to be pure in heart, but not necessarily for the reasons our puritanically informed minds might think. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he is thinking of it in terms of monotheistic Judiam. Like in Psalm 86 (see above), Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who have an undivided heart and who devote themselves solely and entirely to God. Blessed are those who are devoted to God with all of their hearts, for they will see God.”

It is such single minded, pure-hearted, devotion that is required for the worship of the one, true God, and this is what Jesus had in mind. Conversely, those who do not devote themselves solely to God will not see God because they will be distracted by all of the things that pull them away. When one’s heart is divided between God and other things (whatever those things are), it is impossible for one to truly be devoted to God because those other things will continue to get in the way. Whether those things are our time, our possessions, our sensual desires, our greed, our hatred, our bitterness, our nationalism, our racism, our sexism, our heterosexism, our ageism, our ablism, or whatever “isms” we may harbor, those things will always take precedence over God and, as a result, we will be blinded to God.

Thus, Jesus is telling us all that the antithesis of being “pure in heart” is a divided heart. Christ is calling us to have a single-minded, whole-hearted, devotion to God. Let nothing, and Christ means nothing, stand in the way of your relationship with God. If you become “pure in heart”, you will be blessed with the sight and the knowledge of God. May your prayer, as well as mine, be that we draw ever closer to God and to Christ our redeemer.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8 NRSV)

PRAYER Lord, draw me close to you and never let me go. Help me find the way and bring me back to you. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 6: Mercy

Read Matthew 5:7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 NLT)

MercyIt’s not often I venture even remotely close to the world of politics because, most of the time, I find it to be completely fruitless and counterproductive. I have my opinions and others have theirs and, as a pastor, I am called to serve ALL people…not just those who are politically aligned with me. So I veer from getting political in terms of sharing who I do or don’t support.

With that said, as a pastor I am also called to be prophetic which means that I will speak on moral issues, even if they are political hot button topics, because that is what I am called to do. Jesus did the same thing. He didn’t lobby for this person or that, but he did address moral issues in ways that certainly had political implications and, unfortunately, ramifications.

Jesus’ beatitudes were no exception, especially when we look at the particular beatitude of mercy. As Christians, people love to claim the mercy of God as displayed through the redemptive act of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We love to hear stories on the news about acts of mercy being done. We love experiencing mercy, epsecially when we are going 60 in a 50 mph zone and the police officer lets us off with a warning. We love mercy when it makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

Yet, how many of us are challenged by it? How many of us seek to be merciful? How many of us truly hold “mercy” at the core of who we are. We like mercy, but we would rather prioritize justice over it. Just recently in his acceptance speech, Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that he is going to be the “law and order” candidate. What he meant by that was that he was going to enforce the law and those who break the laws are going to meet swift and decisive justice.

He also said in another speech that Amercia “will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.” This statement bears the marks of the common understanding of mercy and justice. They are both important, but they are distinct and different, and justice trumps (pun not intended) mercy at the end of the day.

This isn’t just Donald Trump’s understanding of justice, but the world’s understanding. Justice trumps mercy and takes precedent over it. There are people in the streets protesting for social justice, which they absolutely should do; however, some of these protests have been violent because people are not feeling heard and they are feeling like they need to take justice into their own hands. Businesses have been burned down, cars blown up, houses and stores looted and destroyed, and lives lost because people are seeking a justice that seems to just NOT be coming…at least quick enough, if at all.

Yet the world’s understanding of justice is not representative true, divine, justice at all; in fact, it often only begets more injustice. First, God has called us to LIVE JUSTLY, meaning that God has called us to do what is right. God follows that up in Micah 6:8 with LOVE MERCY. To do justice is to love mercy. To do what is right is to be merciful. Being merciful is what is right in God’s eyes. Unlike what the world puts forth, justice and mercy are not distinct and separate from each other. God’s justice IS MERCY. Hence the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

God is just and gives us JUSTICE, but not the “justice we deserve.” Rather, God’s justice for all is God’s mercy for all. We simply need to accept it and live by it. Remember, Justice is not THE LAW. Rather, the law is supposed to point us toward justice. Whether we uphold it through mercy or through force, that is it’s function. The world may tell us we need to enforce justice, God is telling us something completely different through Jesus the Christ, who unjustly died for the ones who put him on the cross…namely all of sinful humanity. God is calling us to LIVE JUSTLY, and uphold JUSTICE through acts of mercy and loving kindness. Those who do so, those who are merciful, are blessed and shall themselves receive mercy.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” – Abraham Lincoln

PRAYER
Lord, teach me your merciful justice so that I may become merciful in all that I say and do. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 5: Hungry

Read Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21a

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.” (Isaiah 58:10 NLT)

mother-teresa-feedingOne of the brilliant things that Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes brings to the table is that it provides us with a deeper and more profound understanding of the heart of Christ’s teachings. It is widely believed by scholars that the four Gospels drew the words and teachings of Jesus from the hypothetical “Q” source. It is nicknamed “Q” because it comes from the German word “Quelle”, which literally means “source.” I say that this source is “hypothetical” because there is no archaelogial proof or record of  it, however, Matthew and Luke seem to have been utilizing the same source material (both “Q” and the Gospel of Mark) for their Gospels. What’s more, they were doing so independent of one another, as each of the four Gospels were written in different places and times.

Many scholars believee that Luke’s account of what Jesus said in Luke 6:21a, is a direct quote of “Q”, as it presents the most simplified version of the Beatitude. The reasoning behind this is that typically, when humans change things, they do so by adding to something. In Luke 6:21a, Jesus says, “God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied”; however, in Matthew 5:6, Jesus is quoted as saying, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,  for they will be satisfied.” It seems, on the surface anyhow, that while both are utilizing the same source for the quote, Matthew added to the quote in a way that Luke opted not to.

Of course, this is all educated speculation and it may or may not be the way it worked out in the writing and development of the Gospels; yet, it has led some to speculate that Matthew was “spiritualizing “Q” and, therefore, altering what Jesus was actually saying. I think that this is a grave mistake and has led some people to trivialize what Matthew’s account is undertaking. In Luke, Jesus’ beatitude blesses the physically famished. Period. “God blesses those who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.”

In doing so, Luke’s Jesus is calling attention to the eschatological (aka “end of the age”) promise of God to right the wrongs of those who are poor, of those who are sorrowful, and of those who are hungry. It operates under the belief that God is working to bring justice into the world and, when that time comes, the world order as it exists today will cease to exist.

Matthew is ABSOLUTELY NOT in disagreement with Luke, and let’s not forget that Matthew wrote his Gospel prior to and separately from Luke. What’s remarkable here, in both independent accounts, is that we have what we can reasonably determine is an actual teaching of Jesus. The Gospels, despite differences in the accounts (which is a natural occurance when two different people are independently writing about the same person), truly do corroborate each other and convey the teachings of our Lord.

Matthew was not in disagreement with Luke, nor was Matthew “spiritualizing” the teaching found in “Q”. What Matthew’s Jesus is saying is that not only is Jesus calling attention to the eschatological promise of God in the Kingdom to come, but that God’s is actively working to bring that reality in the world as we speak. How, you ask? Because not only are people literally hungering and thirsting for food and drink, but people are hungering and thirsting for justice (also translated as righteousness) to be done. What’s more, it is not just the poor who hunger and thirst for such things; rather, all who truly follow Christ (and God) hunger and thirst for justice.

If one hungers and thirsts for something, they do not just it idly by and wait for some delivery truck to bring what they need. Instead, they actively seek what they need out. In other words, those who hunger and thirst for justice are actively seeking to do works of justice in the world around them. This is what Christ calls his disciples to do and this, in Matthew’s account, is the wisdom Jesus is imparting to his disciples and to those who are wishing to follow him. “Blessed are you who actively work to bring God’s justice into this injust world, for you will be satisfied in what you do and your work will not be in vain, neither now nor when God’s justice one day reigns supreme in the Kingdom to come. So the question for you to reflect on is this, are you bringing Jesus’ beatitude to life and, if not, are you willing to say, “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”?

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” – Mother Teresa
PRAYER
Lord, I hunger and thirst for justice. Use me to be a blessing for those in need of it. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 4: The Meek

Read Matthew 5:5

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land…But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” (Psalms 37:9, 11 NRSV)

theteacherJust when one thought Jesus’ teaching couldn’t be anymore in left field then they already were, he took it up a notch. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Most people today, when they read or hear that, have to be puzzled as Jesus’ message here. The meek will inherit the earth? Really…the meek? As in the gentle? As in the mild? As in the nonviolent? They will inherit the earth? Really?

Surely that is not our common experience is it? In an age where meglomania seems to be the key quality to be a world-dominating leader, in a time when groups are beheading and burning people in order to take over land, in a world where violence seems to be the only repsonse to everyone’s problems, it is very hard to picture the meek getting anywhere but six-feet under and long forgotten.

Yet, Jesus gave the multitude surrounding him the beatitude, or blessing, for the meek. Surely, this crowd must have thought Jesus to be completely outside of  his head. While there are many differences between Jesus’ world and ours, there is absolutely zero difference when it comes to the meek and what they inherit. The meek inherit subjugation and, if they’re lucky, death under oppressive and tyrannical rulers.

While it is true that this was the reality for the meek in Jesus’ day, just as it is in ours, Jesus’ audience had a contextual advantage to understanding Jesus’ message in a way that mostly eludes us. Any of Jesus’ Jewish audience would have automatically recognized that Jesus was not making this beatitude up out of thin air, but was turning what was a quote from the thirty-seventh Psalm into a blessing for the meek.

In order to understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to have a better understanding of what is being said in the Psalm 37. Though it is claimed as a Psalm of David, it was more likely written to people who were captive in Babylon, following the Babylonian exile. In verse one, the Psalmist tells his readers to not fret over the wicked. They may have won the battle, but not the war. The Psalmist’s advice to the reader is to trust in the Lord and do good. Those who do will inherit the land. What’s more, “refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it only leads to evil” (Psalm 37:8 NRSV).

This of course leads us to the extra verses quoted in the “Also in Scripture” section above. Fretting leads to anger, which leads to wrath. Wrath is often violent and evil. The wicked (aka “evildoers”) shall be cut off from the land, but those who wait upon the Lord, those who are meek, will inherit the land. In this context, of course, the land is Judah. The people exiled in Babylon long to go back to it, but the Psalmist says that will only happen through trusting and waiting on God to deliver them.

Jesus, as mentioned above, is specifically quoting this Psalm; however, the “land” he is promising is no longer Judah, itself, but a renewed Earth that will come along with the Kingdom of God. The meek will inherit, in essence, the Kingdom of God. Of course, the word “meek” doesn’t just mean gentle, kind, soft-spoken, and peaceful. The word “meek” also implies humility and/or the knowing of one’s place in respect to God and neighbor. More importantly, “meek” implies a submission to God’s reign. It is through such humble submission that one will inherit the earth.

While the world dictates that violent, brute force is the only way to inherit the Earth; Jesus taught that, in fact, that only secures one’s demise in the end. The only way to inherit the earth is to submit to God’s reign and be transformed by the Kingdom of God within. Once one submits to God’s reign over one’s own life, they have inherited the Kingdom of God within them and will live there lives as embodiments of the Kingdom of God in the world. Eventually that Kingdom of God will triumph over the evil, and the evildoers, and the meek will truly inherit that renewed and heavenly Earth. The question for us all is this: are you meek? Do you submit to God’s rule over your life, or do you submit to the rule and the ways of the world? I pray for God’s guidance for all of us as we begin to truly examine ourselves in spirit and in truth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
God has two dwellings; one in heaven, and the other in a meek and thankful heart.” – Izaak Walton
PRAYER
Lord, I submit to your reign in my life. In my meekness, I seek your ways and not the worlds. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 3: Mourners

Read Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21b

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” (Psalms 34:18 NLT)

black-and-blue-lament-e1468181738718Jesus continued his bestowal of blessings, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The words rang out and filled the ears and souls of the multitude of people gathered around Jesus that day. There was much to mourn in their day and age, there had been much to be grieved over. Under the weight of such suffering, there wasn’t a single soul among Jesus’ followers who hadn’t been in some state of mourning or another.

Whether rich or poor, whether powerful or weak, whether a person of status or a peasant, all were in a state of grief over the travesty of being subjegated to the Roman Empire. Sure, there were some who had much to gain from Rome’s presence. The High Priest, Caiaphas, and his whole priestly family benefited from Rome. According to Flavius Josephus, Annas (the same Annas who took part in Jesus’ mock trial) was appointed High Priest in 6 CE by the Roman Governor Quirinius as the first High Priest of the new Roman Province of Iudaea (aka Judea). He served in that role until he was deposed by the Roman Governor Gratus in 15 CE and was replaced by his son, Eleazar, in 16 CE. In 17 CE, Gratus deposed Eleazar and appointed Annas’ son-in-law, Joseph son of Caiaphas (aka Caiaphas) as the high priest.

There were others who also had much to gain. Herod, an Idumaean Jew, and his family gained power under Rome, as did those who supported Herod’s agenda of Hellenizing Judea (aka the Herodians). Yet, even they were not without their mourning for, under the Roman boot, no one was truly free to do as they pleased, not even Herod. Following Herod’s death, Caesar Augustus refused to give any of his children the title of king, but appointed three of his sons as governors. Herod’s son Archelaus, though willed by his father to be king, was eventually deposed by Augustus and the regions he ruled (Samaria, Judah, and Idumaea) were consolodated into a new Roman province of Iudaea (aka Judea) and placed directly under Roman Rule. Antipas and Phillip both kept governorship of their regions, but the tension between them and Rome was thick.

So, yes, many had much to mourn over in the days and years Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, and no doubt, everyone has something to mourn about in our day and age as well; however, Jesus was not merely speaking to those who mourned in the physical sense, as it is often misunderstood. Jesus was, in actuality, speaking to those who mourn in both the physical and spiritual senses.

Without doubt, by using the phrase “those who mourn”, Jesus is referring to the poor. This can be evidenced in Luke’s literal interpretation of this famous beatitude (Luke 6:21b). With that said, I would once again caution anyone from rushing to the judgment that Matthew is “spiritualizing” Jesus’ words. First, it is more than likely that Luke was written after Matthew, not beforehand. Thus, chronologically speaking, it would be more likely that Luke “literalized” the words of Jesus found in Matthew, and even that’s just as unlikely. Second, since the mysterious Q source of Jesus’ sayings has never been found, only speculative (and not empirical) claims can be made regarding what Jesus was actually recorded as saying. Without empirical evidence, there’s no reason to believe that either Matthew or Luke are detracting from what Jesus said, but more or less expounding upon it.

Lastly and most importantly, Matthew’s text (regardless of the points above) does not exclude the literal poor, but most certainly includes them when mentioning those who mourn. Blessed are they who mourn because of the greed, the corruption, the power, and oppression of the wicked, for they will be comforted. Also included in this group of blessed people are those who mourn and lament because of how far wayward God’s people had gone as a result of greed, corruption and abuse of power. Blessed are those mourners for they, too, will be comforted when God’s Kingdom finally and fully reigns on the earth.

What’s more, as will be seen later in the beatitudes, the mourners are not merely those who are helpless and voiceless against injustice, but those who stand up against it and face the consequences of doing so. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The question for you is, which one of these are you? Are you one of the poor and helpless who mourn? Are you one of those who mourn and lament over injustice and stand up against it, or are you one of those who our Lord (Matthew 23; Luke 6:24-26) declares a series of woes against? Challenge yourself to earnestly reflect on this, not only this week, but always.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Good God, if our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days it’d die of remorse on the third.” – Malcom Lowry
PRAYER
Lord, as I mourn the way this world is, empower me to follow you and change it. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 2: Poor in Spirit

Read Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon Me, for the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” (Isaiah 61:1 NLT)

wealth-gapIn the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus, with his disciples gathered around him, stood up before a crowd of people and began to teach them. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” he began, projecting his voice for the multitude to hear, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The crowd was in shock as Jesus uttered these words and, no doubt, the sounds of gasps and whispers could be heard moving from mouths to ears throughout the crowd.

It’s not that the crowd was unaware that God takes the side of the poor. Surely, there is Scripture throughout the Old Testament that shows God favoring the poor. In Isaiah 61:1, the prophet writes that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in order that he might bring the good news of God’s favor to the poor. Also, the wise, sagely, author of Proverbs wrote that God’s justice will fall swift and hard on anyone who tries to take advantage of the poor, for God is their defender (Proverbs 22:22-23).

What was most shocking to the crowd was that Jesus proclaimed, with authority, that God was not merely the defender of the poor, which ultimately defends the status quo; rather, God is their liberator. It’s one thing for God to “defend the poor” against people who try to “take advantage” of them, but it is something entirely different for them to be the heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven, as this suggests that God rejects the place the poor have been put in, despite the fact that the world wishes to keep them in that place. This puts the world at odds with God.

Some have mistakenly taken Matthew’s use of the phrase “poor in spirit” to be a “spiritualization” of Jesus’ proclamation of blessing upon the literal poor found in Luke. However, phrase “poor in spirit” does not exclude literal poverty from the equation; rather, it shifts the emphasis to what it means to be the people of God. What Jesus is doing is pointing to a quality within the poor that sets them a part from the rich and, in Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase similarly to how it was used in the War Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll, written about 80 or so years prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, utilizes the phrase “poor in spirit” (1 QM 14:7) to denote God’s true people in contrast to the rich and powerful heirarchy of Jerusalem.

The poor, therefore, are people who are not in a position to be proud and independent. By virtue of their poverty, they are humble and their spirit has been crushed. They have to daily rely on their faith and hope in God’s promise to bring them justice and liberation from their plight. It is such people who, in their humility, recognize their need for God, while the rich and proud look to their own power, status and capabilities to attain what they believe they need. Jesus’ use of the phrase “the poor in spirit” both points us to God’s solidarity with the impoverished and to the kind of spirit they possess as a result of their poverty.

If we wish to inherit God’s Kingdom, we need to stand in solidarity with our Lord, who stands in solidarity with the poor. The only way to do so is to let go of our pride, to stop seeing ourselves as being “independent” and above those who are not, and begin to embody a spirit of humility. It is in such humility that we will recognize our need for God, and it is in such humility that we will trust our Lord enough to follow him. While the world scoffs and criticizes the poor, while the world mocks their need for help and assistance, the challenge for us is to embrace the poor, as well as their humble spirit. In doing so we will certainly be embracing our lowly Lord himself.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. “ – Nelson Mandela
PRAYER
Lord, empty me of my pride and fill me with humility so that I may be counted among the poor in spirit. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 1: Intro

Read Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 6:20-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:18 CEB)

417679427823_417679427823_SermonMountWe’ve all heard them, even those who are not “religious” or have never opened a Bible are familiar with them,  and most people hold them up as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings. But the question remains, how many people truly understand what Jesus is teaching in the Beatitudes? In order to shed light on them, I have decided to write a series on the beatitudes, which will precede an even larger series on Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as a whole.

When we think of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” we often think first of “the Beatitudes”, which are a collection of blessings proclaimed on specific groupings of people. While they sound like pleasant and idealistic platitudes given by a lofty and well-intentioned teacher, we often pass them off as being “the mark of perfection” and/or wholly unattainable. In other words, we either dismiss ourselves from centering our lives on them because we are not “the Christ” and, therefore, will fall short of them, and/or we think of them to be unrealistic and/or unattainable in this broken and fallen world.

Yet, both of the above fall into a general misunderstandings of what Jesus is doing in them. The word beatitude comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of Matthew 5:1-11, where Jesus proclaims “Beati”, which means “happy,” and is from the root Latin word of “beātitūdō,” meaning happiness. Yet, the Latin does not quite capture what Jesus is doing in this set of proclamations. In Greek, the language in which the Gospel According to Matthew was written, the word Jesus uses is, “makarios” (μακάριος) meaning, supremely or divinely “blessed” and, by extension, privileged, fortunate and/or well-off. This better fits what Jesus is doing as he is proclaiming an objective reality that is a result of an act of God (being blessed), and not about a subjective feeling (being happy).

Drawing on a tradition that is found both in ancient Jewish and ancient pagan writings, Jesus uses these beatitudes to teach people the heart of God as well as the center of God’s coming Kingdom. The beatitudes are not objective truths that are a reality in this present world order; rather, they seem to go against what we humans commonly value and they seem to go against our common human experience.

Surely, the poor are not blessed. Surely the meek do not inherit the earth. Surely, the hungry are not blessed, nor are those who being persecuted for any reason. How can Jesus claim these things, which are so clearly and evidently NOT true, and still maintain credibility? How can we follow a Jesus who seems so clearly aloof and disconnected with reality?

What’s important to note here is that the beatitudes are not true in and of themselves, nor is Jesus proclaiming them to be. To read them that way is to, ultimately, miss what Jesus is doing here. He is not declaring these things to be present realities within the world order; rather, Jesus is declaring them to be realities in the divine order. In other words, by virtue of Jesus’ authority as the as the Son of God and Lord of the Church, these nine “blessings” are true and to be held as such by all who submit to Jesus’ authority.

As we prepare to study the Beatitudes, prepare yourself by reading them carefully, more than once, and by opening yourself to what Jesus is proclaiming. Ask yourself, why is Jesus proclaiming these groupings of people to be divinely blessed? Why are they the ones who are privileged, fortunate, and well-off and what does Jesus’ proclamation say about our current world order and those who, by the world’s measure, are privileged, fortunate and/or well-off? Finally, ask yourself this: do you accept the authority of Jesus as Lord and, by extension, do you embrace Jesus’ proclamation on the basis of his authority? I pray that, as we move forward, the wisdom of the Beatitudes will ever transform you.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The Beatitudes are no spiritual ‘to do list’ to be attempted by eager, rule-keeping disciples. It is a spiritual ‘done’ list of the qualities God brings to bear in the people who follow Jesus.” – Ronnie McBrayer

PRAYER
Lord, prepare my heart and open it up to your wisdom and the authority of your Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Amen.