Those compelling, befuddling, counterintuitive bombshells. Nine bullet points spoken by Jesus, now respected by millions in every nation and religion the world over.
It seems impossible to properly get a handle on them, but they themselves have gripped so many people. It seems impossible to understand them abstracted from lived experience, but as we start to read and live them those few words provide a comfort that’s not pat, a wisdom that confounds and a pattern for a new kind of society. Those few words have fomented many movements that are doing their bit to redeem the trajectory of humanity.
At a recent church event one of our senior pastors taught on the beatitudes as a model for our life together. Inspired by this message I thought it would be worth spending sixteen days going through the eight (or nine, depends how you count it) beatitudes in Matthew, taking two days to focus on each one.
The aim was to explore truth through practice, seeking to actively become poorer in spirit, meeker etc each day as we went, as well as praying and considering each beatitude in turn.
I texted and emailed a few friends and surprisingly soon had a list of thirty people “in the loop”. Over the coming fortnight, I pulled together two to four quotes, scriptures, personal thoughts, questions or prayers each day to help the group explore our daily beatitudes, and texted them at intervals throughout the day.
It ended up being a kind of long-duration dispersed bible study.
I’ve made all the material from the sixteen days available here: Sixteen day study on the Beatitudes.
I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes on the beatitudes:
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
This one’s from Philip Yancey’s excellent book ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’:
When time came to teach the Beatitudes to my class at LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, I followed my regular routine of previewing the movies about Jesus. Since I drew from fifteen different movies, the task of locating and viewing all the right portions consumed several hours of my time each week, much of it spent waiting for the VCR to fast-forward or reverse to the appropriate scenes. To relieve boredom while the VCR whirred and clicked its way to the right places, I had CNN playing on the TV monitor in the foreground. As the machine sped, say, to the eight-minute-twenty-second mark of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, I caught up on news from around the world. Then I hit the “play” button and was transported back into first-century Palestine.
A lot was happening in the world in 1991 the week I taught the Beatitudes. In a ground campaign that lasted a scant one hundred hours, allied forces had achieved a stunning victory over Iraq in the Gulf War. Like most Americans, I could hardly believe the long-feared war had ended so quickly, with so few American casualties. As my VCR searched through the celluloid frames of Jesus in the background, various commentators on-screen were illustrating with charts and maps exactly what had transpired in Kuwait. Then came General Norman Schwarzkopf.
CNN announced an interruption in scheduled programming: they would shift to live coverage of the morning-after press conference by the commander of allied forces. For a time I tried to continue preparing for my class. I watched five minutes of Pasolini’s version of Jesus delivering the Beatitudes, then several minutes of General Schwarzkopf’s version of allied troops bearing down on Kuwait City. Soon I abandoned the VCR altogether- Stormin’ Norman proved entirely too engaging. He told of the “end run” around Iraq’s elite Republican Guard, of a decoy invasion by sea, of the allied capability of marching all the way to Baghdad unopposed. He credited the Kuwaitis, the British, the Saudis, and every other participant in the multinational force. A general confident in his mission and immensely proud of the soldiers who had carried it out, Schwarzkopf gave a bravura performance. I remember thinking, That’s exactly the person you want to lead a war.
The briefing ended, CNN switched to commercials, and I returned to the VCR tapes. Max von Sydow, a blond, pasty Jesus, was giving an improbable rendition of the Sermon on the Mount in The Greatest Story Ever Told. “Blessed … are … the … poor … in spirit,” he intoned in a slow, thick Scandinavian accent, “for … theirs … is … the … kingdom … of … heaven.” I had to adjust to the languid pace of the movie compared to General Schwarzkopf’s briefing, and it took a few seconds for the irony to sink in: I had just been watching the Beatitudes in reverse!
Blessed are the strong, was the general’s message. Blessed are the triumphant. Blessed are the armies wealthy enough to possess smart bombs and Patriot missiles. Blessed are the liberators, the conquering soldiers.
The bizarre juxtaposition of two speeches gave me a feeling for the shockwaves the Sermon on the Mount must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine. Instead of General Schwarzkopf, they had Jesus, and to a downtrodden people yearning for emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice. If an enemy soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek. Rejoice in persecution. Be grateful for your poverty.
The Iraqis, chastened on the battlefield, got a nasty measure of revenge by setting fire to Kuwait’s oil fields; Jesus enjoined not revenge but love for one’s enemies. How long would a kingdom founded on such principles survive against Rome?
“Happy are the bombed-out and the homeless,” Jesus might as well have said. “Blessed are the losers and those grieving for fallen comrades. Blessed are the Kurds still suffering under Iraqi rule.” Any Greek scholar will tell you the word “blessed” is far too sedate and beatific to carry the percussive force Jesus intended. The Greek word conveys something like a short cry of joy, “Oh, you lucky person!”
“How lucky are the unlucky!” Jesus said in effect.