Our Gospel today is one of the “teachings” of Jesus. Not a parable, not a story, not an event from which to draw conclusions. No hidden agenda, just guidelines for how to be in touch with God in this hurting world. This lesson, often called the Sermon on the Mount, varies slightly with Luke’s version known as the Sermon on the Plain. Here Matthew is addressing his Jewish Christian audience and wants to offer them a clear teaching on the pursuit of happiness, its costs, and the spiritual journey it engages. Ways of being… Scholars have called them ”Be attitudes….” from beatus which is Latin for happy.
Since I did not attend church as a child, in Montreal, I can only imagine that I encountered these teachings at school. In my scrambled state of mind, I kept calling them the Beseeches not the Beatitudes. How I arrived at that is a mystery, but there is a certain quality of desire and entreaty for help within the sermon itself.
Matthew wanted his hearers to understand that their spiritual life was their most important asset and it held an implicit cost of danger and distress. However God would reward those who were diligent. If we could emulate these qualities in our own lives, qualities that Jesus manifested so wonderfully, if we can be like that, we will be blessed.
These “be attitudes” offered by Jesus reflect actual possibilities or pitfalls, descriptions of ways of life that would have been real and understandable to those who listened. These Jews who were also Christian, still adhered to the law and guidelines of Torah. Jesus, Matthew suggests, is offering them specifically a way to live spiritually within that structure and at the same time be aware of the need for humility, generosity, peaceful living and compassion. Being a witness to God as a Christian, to offer the world that model is the key to a happy life. The beatitudes start to describe what the reign of God will look like as God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, an eventuality that is at hand. They offer encouragement in a time of need, and the understanding that whoever believes, is already happy.
C.S. Lewis says this of the Beatitudes “ Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to”. Another writer, Larry Broding, sums them up this way:
The Beatitudes lie at the heart of Christ’s teaching, for they describe our relationship to the Kingdom in three ways. First, these simple rules address our highest desire: happiness with God. For, only God can satisfy the heart. Second, they describe the path to God for us as individuals and together as a Church. Through the Beatitudes, we share God’s very life (sanctifying grace) because we enter into his Kingdom. Finally, they challenge us to live moral lives by putting God first. If we want to know what it truly means to be a Christian, read the Beatitudes in Matthew.
We also notice that the first four declare freedom from despair (blessed are the poor in spirit), grief (blessed are those who mourn), want (blessed are the meek) and injustice (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness). The second four declare freedom for healing (blessed are the merciful), integrity (blessed are the pure in heart), peace (blessed are the peacemakers) and faithfulness (blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake).
Our task is to live out these teachings every day with the hope of attaining happiness through God’s grace even in the light of hardship. Strike these attitudes of being, of living, knowing we will be blessed by God’s grace.
Easier said than done.
When I first started attending church regularly with Dwight and his family, I was struck by the compassion and genuine kindness of those around me in that sacred space. They weren’t just being nice to get ahead, or look good, ( my motivation for sure) no, they honestly felt the way they acted ,even if it made them seem unusual by other standards. I thought, well maybe, I can do that too. Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s try not gossiping, let’s try being thoughtful instead of impetuous and willful. Let’s try being second in line instead of first. Let’s try on humility for a change. Let’s take a chance on forgiving someone for something they might not even be aware of doing.
Well, let me tell you that was hard work at times, even not much fun. Being a fully committed Christian was not easy, left me out of some loops that would have been attractive in the past and I could not see the benefits, at least not at the moment.
This truly was a journey for the long haul. Not for the faint hearted, but for those who were strong enough to admit that without God there could be nothing worthwhile. I wish I could say that I have mastered the technique and have it down. I am still learning how to put God first. In fact I would worry if I ever stopped doing that, somehow became assured of my own merit apart from God. That would be scary and sad.
I think that the difficult thing about these Be Attitudes, is that they fly in the face of what the world tells us to do to be successful. Try going to an audition or a job interview and being humble and meek and see where that gets you. Try making peace with a bully in the schoolyard and watch the fallout. It just doesn’t add up by the world’s standards.
And isn’t that what we have come to expect from Jesus. Disturbed and overturned universes every time. Challenges to turn away from the order of the world and our racing culture, and be forgiving, kind, patient, forbearing and you will be rewarded. And since Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, we can step into that grace now, as we adopt these ways of being, we will be rewarded with the peace of God, NOW.. Again, the reward will not be the conventional normal reward. It will be full of grace and love and carved out just for you and your needs.
Just as in any discipline of exercise or education- yoga, diving, golf, piano scales, Sudoku, – every day is a renewed commitment to the task and diligence it will take to be successful. What Jesus reminds us is that it will be worth the effort.
So take the time to strike your pose, live into your attitude, work on one at a time, just the way Fr Tom suggested the kids work on one Commandment at a time. Live into that attitude, Be it. Love it, nurture it and see what happens. As it will be of God and for God, I think you will be successful. And anyway what is there to lose??