Contributed by David Delaney, Salem, VA
If we move away from the word “blessed” for a minute and think of the word “happy” instead, what kinds of things come to mind when you imagine yourself as happy? Think about experiences right now rather than a definition of the word. Are you more likely to think of something you already occasionally do or experience or are you more likely to think of your future, a vision or goal for the good life? If you and your group write all of these things down, do you see things in common or are you all over the map? Do they tend to be things that give you immediate pleasure, recreation, and thrill, or things that turn you outward, relate to deeper meanings, or reorient your attitudes in a way that have longer value? Do any of your experiences sound like anything in Matthew 5:1-12?
As we start to build an understanding of the meaning of the word “blessing” or “blessed,” what other words besides “happiness” and “happy” can you associate with those ideas?
More Than Happy
In mid-January an elderly couple won more than 300 million dollars in the Mega-Millions lottery, which they took in a lump sum rather than annual payments. In an interview, they said they are determined not to go the way of so many other large lottery winners who have ended up on welfare after a few years because of reckless spending. In spite of the plans they’ve announced to give a lot of their winnings away to charities and other major gifts, they have still already been inundated with hundreds requests for money and the simple task of responding to those requests has required a huge amount of time.
Not too many days after that lottery win, a woman in Tucson named Patricia Maisch probably saved more than a dozen lives by grabbing the extra gun clip from deranged killer Jared Lee Loughner in the middle of his January 8th shooting spree. She has since been interviewed by more than two dozen news organizations from around the world, including live television interviews. She insists that she is not a hero, but this event has allowed her to speak out about gun violence, extreme political rhetoric, and the courage of those around her during the shooting.
- Do you think that any of these people would describe themselves as “blessed”?
- One couple had a dream come true – a huge amount of money dropped in their lap. The other woman was unhurt in an incident in which 19 were shot and helped prevent the shooting of many others. How does that help our emerging understanding of the being “blessed”?
- What other examples can we think of where something that looks at first like a “blessing” might have another side to it, or on the other hand, something that sounds difficult and disruptive ends up providing a blessing we didn’t expect?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 30, 2011 (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Even though verse one of Matthew 5 suggests that Jesus is to be seen as the new Moses, the content of this set of teachings does not really parallel Exodus 19 and 20 very closely. The commandment words in this chapter consist of things like “Rejoice and be glad!” and “Let your light so shine!” As these chapters progress through what is called “the Sermon on the Mount,” they are more *descriptive* of what life following Jesus is like rather than *prescriptive* in the sense of dictating a set of do’s and don’t’s. The call in 5:20 that the Christian’s righteousness must exceed that of the hyper-law-keeping Scribes and Pharisees is a strong clue that this righteousness of which Jesus speaks can only come as a gift from God and not from one’s own hard work and good behavior.
This attitude of receptivity and dependence on God’s grace that serves as the key to the entire Sermon on the Mount points back to our passage, where one wonders how it could ever be possible that the “poor in spirit” would be the very ones destined for heaven, or the meek would inherit the earth. We are naturally suspicious of claims that showing mercy will elicit mercy from others, because our world does not appear to work that way.
This is what makes being a follower of Christ both the joy and the challenge that is described here. To trust God for the fulfillment all of these promises is both our greatest unburdening (because it doesn’t depend on us!) and our greatest test (because such trust is an enormous risk!).
- In verse one, Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach and invite his followers to a new kind of “law” for life. Who does this remind us of from the Old Testament (answer = Moses) and what do we think the gospel writer wants us to understand about Jesus from this connection?
- What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Does our understanding of this phrase change if we paraphrase it as “those who know they need the spirit of God”?
- What are some synonyms for “meek” ? Some possibilities are “humble,” “gentle.”
- It is possible to make two lists from the characteristics of the blessed in this passage: one list contains the things that are more like life-experiences that happen *to* us – mournful, persecuted, slandered; the other list contains things that have more to do with our attitudes and actions – meekness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking. Some, like “poor in spirit” and “hungry for righteousness” could be both, because they can come from a natural humility or the experience of being deflated from our pride or self-righteousness. What do we learn about following Jesus from this? Is the blessed life an active and willful life, or passive and receptive, or both?
- Return to the question of what “blessed” means. Many translations of Matthew 5 actually use the word “happy,” which is one perfectly correct rendering of the Greek word makarios which appears here. It may be, however, that “blessed” is still a better choice because it suggests that this condition of well-being is something that happens to a person or comes as a gift rather than something that someone does to attain happiness or blessedness. Which of these is the better way of describing the result of following Christ, trusting the gospel, and obeying Christ’s commands?
- Some have noted that Matthew’s version of these “Beatitudes” differs from the list in Luke 6:20-31 particularly in that the Lukan list seems more deeply based in the actual experience of physical poverty, hunger, and persecution. As if to emphasize the point, Luke also contains a list of warnings to those who have all of their needs currently met. How literally should we take these descriptions of human conditions in Matthew 5 and Luke 6? Can blessedness come from spiritual hunger just as much as physical hunger?
- How do we imagine that these blessings become real in the lives of people who experience the hardships Jesus describes? Is it simply a direct line from God to the individual? Or do we who have experienced these things before or who are already equipped with the good news of the gospel and the means to relieve suffering play a role on God’s behalf in bringing blessing to others?
- Some have been critical of these promises in Matthew because they can be seen as self-centered or unrelated to a community of relationships. Yet if we take the example of verse 12, the blessing experienced by the prophets of Israel even while they were being persecuted or killed was not simply a personal heavenly reward, but that the nation and the people heard the word of God, which – as the scriptures promise – is effective whether we see it or not! Is it possible that the blessedness that is promised to *you* as someone who experiences these things really becomes a fuller blessing in the experience of those around you who share in it also?
On a sheet of paper that you will fold up and carry with you this week as a reminder, list the names of actual people you know to whom you can relate in a new way according to this list of promises from Jesus. Is there someone in your life for whom you only have contempt or conflict? How can you be “poor in spirit” in your conversations with them? Do you know someone who is consumed by a lifestyle of destructive behavior or shallow thrill? Can your “hunger and thirst for righteousness” provide a suggestion of another way to live? Is there someone in your life who needs mercy and forgiveness from you or others? Can you show mercy and forgiveness to that person, knowing that it may not be received or returned? Are you afraid of the consequences of representing the love of God in Christ Jesus to others in word and/or deed? Recall that the promise of verses 11 and 12 are not just that you have a heavenly consolation for your courage and trouble, but that there may be others nearby who have desperately needed to hear and see the witness of someone who believes that God’s grace can really make a difference. Who in your life could benefit from that witness?
Let this list of people be your personal prayer list for the week and also your reminder that God’s promises for following Christ as described here in Matthew 5 are true!
Lord Jesus, giver of every blessing, we rejoice that the wisdom and promises you first shared with your disciples has come down to us and still remains true today. Help us to come to you as your followers did in those days and to welcome your word with gladness, even as it calls us to repentance and service. We lift before you for your blessings all those whose spirits call out for relief and righteousness, all who mourn the loss of loved ones, who feel disenfranchised and isolated, and whose fondest desire is that they could feel strong enough to show mercy and forgiveness in the face of persecution and hatred. Give us, along with all your people, joy and gladness for the reward that is ours in your kingdom.