The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most well-known of Jesus’ sermons. The opening phrases even more so. The Beatitudes, or blessings, as they are called. Our familiarity with these present a challenge, as familiar parts in scripture often do, since we read them assuming that we already know what it says. When reflecting on this text in the days to come, it might be good to attempt to strip ourselves from years and decades of hearing these words.
There is however an even more difficult challenge when reading these words. Whatever word we use to translate this blessedness or happiness (and here I already had to translate) immediately calls forth a whole world of meaning from our own times. “Blessers” have become a trendy topic in South Africa in recent times. Typically described as a rich, usually older, man, often married or in multiple “blessing” relationships, providing financial resources to younger women in exchange for, among other things, sexual availability. The structures of ownership over the body of another that comes with such a financial transaction is never far from the surface.
But our turning to the language of the beatitudes when naming such a phenomenon as “blessers” should caution us when we read the beatitudes. What do we hear when we read that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”?
Perhaps it is too easy to tell others that they will be blessed. Perhaps we are too quick to think of ourselves as blessing another. We might not repeat the brutality of what was named as “blessers”, but too often our talk of blessing and being blessed move far from Jesus’ claim that the gathering crowd, Galilean peasants under Roman occupation, are the ones blessed in the kingdom of God.
In spite of Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit” (as opposed to Luke who writes that Jesus words was “blessed are the poor”), Matthew should not be spiritualized. Indeed, reading through the gospels, we cannot get away from concrete changes in the lives of those named in the beatitudes. But the blessing is not the gift given which binds me to my “blesser”. When Jesus name these blessings, he is reminding us where we start when thinking about the household of God, who it is that God will draw to the center of the story.
Maybe the word “blessing” has been distorted in a way which prohibits us from recovering what Jesus meant when he started this most famous of sermons. Perhaps we should hear that what Jesus is saying is that, contrary to the Roman empire of his day, contrary to the temple religion of his day, contrary to social convention through the centuries, and contrary to the economic system of our day, those who are central to the household of God, to the kingdom of God, are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
To think about: Who would Jesus place at the center of the household of God in our day?