The Optimism in the Beautitudes

Matthew 5: 1-12

People enjoy living in this area of the world and move here from all over the country. Every now and then you can catch the nuance of a phrase that they say, or an accent that hasn’t been smoothed over yet by the Midwest, and then you know where they came from. For instance, we hear someone say to you “bless your heart,” you know they are probably from the South. Growing up in Alabama, I had my heart blessed many times.

When we think about the word, blessed, we may remember that famous beginning to the sermon on the Mount. Jesus began that sermon near the Sea of Galilee with a litany that has become one of the most familiar Bible passages. Our Scripture today has Jesus going up the mountain and then addressing his disciples. Mountains usually represent the place where heaven meets Earth and where God’s word can be received. Remember how Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments? In the same way, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus going up to give the word of God to the disciples.

When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he did not hold back the risk and dangers that they would face if they followed him. At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus mentions persecution. At that point one might expect the disciples to check out. What was it about what Jesus was saying that made them stay? Jesus instilled optimism into the disciples. In an active voice, Jesus instructed the disciples on how they were to establish a new way of life. When we hear the word, blessed, we might miss the power behind the optimism Jesus imparted. Charles Page of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration described how his friend Elias Chacour (an archbishop around the area of Galilee) interprets the real meaning of the beatitudes.

“In Greek the word translated as ‘blessed’ is makarios. The word literally means ‘supremely blest, fortunate, well off or happy. The word makarios is passive. So we could quite literally translate them as ’Happy are the poor in spirit,’ or “How fortunate are those who mourn,’ or ‘How well off are the meek,’ and nothing would be required of the ‘poor in spirit, those who mourn, or the meek.’ All the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the others have to do is to be that one thing and they will ‘inherit the earth,’ or ‘receive mercy,’ or ‘see God,’ etc. Chacour is an Aramaic scholar and has translated some of the New Testament from Aramaic into Arabic and English. In Aramaic there are two words which have been translated as makarios in Greek and ‘Blessed’ in English…Unlike their Greek counterpart, these words are active and not passive. Chacour says they are properly translated as ‘WAKE UP’ or ‘GET UP.’ In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the proper translation of the Beatitudes is as follows.

Get up you who are the poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Get up those who mourn, for you will be comforted.

Get up you who are the meek, for you will inherit the earth.

Get up you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.

Get up you merciful, for you will receive mercy.

Get up you pure in heart, for you will see God.

Get up you peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.

Get up you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Get up when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

“Unlike the passive makarios, the active words call us into a participatory role in our discipleship. You have to be actively involved in extending mercy to receive mercy. If you are a peacemaker, you cannot passively sit or stand by while war rages around us. You cannot be filled unless you get up and actively seek righteousness. Therefore, instead of our reading the Beatitudes as a warm and fuzzy, feel good introduction to the Sermon on the Mount we must see the Beatitudes as Jesus’ call to action. We cannot passively wait for the ‘kingdom of heaven’ to become ours. We have to be willing to risk persecution for the sake of discipleship to challenge people with God’s truth. Never, in the history of our planet, has there been a greater need for people to stand for the principles of God.”

So when Jesus gave these Beatitudes, he charged the disciples to do something more. When the disciples heard this different kind of beatitude their spirits must have soared. Besides this active voice, they also heard the attitudes that addressed the internal instead of the external. They may have expected to hear something like if you take care of the land

you will have a good harvest. But instead they heard words about their spiritual lives. Eugene Peterson has given the Bible a fresh paraphrase in his Message translation. He translates the Beatitudes as:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.

With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.

Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourself the proud owner of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.

He provides the best food and drink you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourself cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

The disciples were being taught to be active in looking for God. One of my seminary professors described how he gave a children’s message about Noah’s Ark in a church in Trenton, New Jersey. When he asked the children about seeing a rainbow, he noticed that they looked down instead of up. He discovered that because of the smog and the tall buildings, the children had only seen rainbows in the slivers of oil in puddles on the streets, an analogy of how God’s promise can be found in unlikely places. If we were standing on that hillside in Galilee listening to Jesus teach, which one of the Beatitudes hides God’s promise the most? Which one would we find most challenging? I would venture it would be the one about “the meek.” What does Jesus mean when he talks about the meek? Since Moses, the John Wayne of the Bible, is described as meek, we know that meekness does not equal weakness. Being meek means having space in your life for others, for your neighbors, for your friends, for your family, and for God. There is a popular trend of making lists in our culture today. You may have seen the recent movie Bucket List, I haven’t, but I know that it is about two men who make a list of things they want to do before they die. The movement blossomed, and now there are books of things to do, places to see, foods to eat, etc. Someone has even become rich by organizing other people’s lists onto his website. There is nothing wrong with being organized in your life and making a list, organizing daily, yearly, or even life-long goals. However, your control can get out of control. That is why people are called control freaks — they try to control everyone and everything around them but do not seem to realize that an attempt to control everything can lead to no control of anything. Some parents try to over control their children by managing every single detail of their lives. In business, a manager may try to micromanage the subordinates. Family members create a cycle of dysfunction by trying to live others’ lives for them. Being meek is not being weak, it means being secure enough, or even strong enough, to yield.

Meekness is the car driver who gives others the right of way; Meekness is the teenager who doesn’t keep his parents up all night worrying. Meekness is good table manners at home as well as eating out; Meekness is biting your tongue when you have every right to lash out.

A beatitude that moves us the other direction is the one about being a peacemaker. The Princeton seminary professor Bruce Metzger chaired the translation team for the new revised standard version. Dr. Metzger (who knows the New Testament by heart in English and in Greek) stated that the emphasis is on maker. Peace takes work and effort. Notice what Jesus didn’t say, peaceful, peaceable, or peaceloving. Jesus told the disciples that they would be going into the line of fire to make peace. They would need to enter into the conflict instead of avoiding it. It is so much easier to avoid conflict, isn’t it? But Jesus says to us, get up and intervene, take the initiative and make peace.

Peacemaking is much like thirsting and hungering for righteousness. When we see how far the world is from where it should be, we hunger and thirst for righteousness. When we see children starving, when we see violence shatter bodies and souls, when we see poverty squeeze the joy out of people’s lives, we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We hunger for things to be right in the world. We thirst for people to recognize our common humanity. Some people hunger and thirst for righteousness because they are the ones deprived of justice, fairness, and the chance to flourish, but we are the ones who have resources. So it is a real challenge to be told, get up and make peace, especially when life is comfortable.

It would be much easier to sit back like a cynic who didn’t believe in peace and say peace is only a pause that gives nations time to reload. It would be much easier to turn a blind eye like the Moscow zoo’s peaceful coexistence exhibit during the Cold War. The tourist guide said, “This is our exhibit on peaceful coexistence. Of course we put in a new lamb each day.” That’s not peace, at least not for the lambs. It would be much easier to rest on our power, like a mountain man who said his neighbors were peaceful, holding up a double barrel shotgun, “and this gun is what keeps them peaceful.” When Jesus told those disciples to make peace, he pushed them to the limit of human compassion, and then said keep going.

Jesus told them to be merciful, and in his native Aramaic that word literally means to feel what another person is feeling, to get under someone’s skin. Jesus knew the disciples would encounter difficult people. Before they wrote them off, the disciples needed to see things from the other’s perspective. Is there someone in your life who is difficult to deal with? As the Native American saying goes, what would it be like to walk a mile in their moccasins? It may be necessary to discover what is happening in another person’s life before we make a judgment. “If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” says Longfellow, “we could find in each man’s life, sorrow and suffering enough, to disarm all our hostility against them.” In the Declaration of Independence we recall the phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Beatitudes is more than just the pursuit of happiness, it is an invitation for each of us to get up, take the mantle that Jesus offers and go out into the world, meek, with courage, and making peace. Amen.