Monday, February 04, 2008

Introduction to the Beatitudes: The Simple Life

I read a story going back to the late 1940s in America. A family from a remote part of the country was making their first visit to a big city. They checked in to a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen a elevator before, and just stared at it, quite unable to work out what it was for. An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside and the door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman. The dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, "Go get your mother, son."

In the season of Lent, the sermons from First-Centenary will focus on the beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel. As the dad in the story wanted his wife to change, I believe a study of the beatitudes could be life changing as well. Only, we are seeking to change our character, not our looks.

In each of the messages, we will read all of the beatitudes together and I will use a different translation each time.

3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.[i]

John Wesley says that the Sermon on the Mount, in which the beatitudes introduces, “Jesus is teaching us the true way to life everlasting, the royal road that leads to his kingdom and the only true way to live.”[ii] Harvey Cox calls Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount his Mona Lisa.[iii] It is quite clear that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount may be the most important piece of literature in the entire Bible, maybe even the most important piece of literature in the world.

As I have said, The Beatitudes are the beginning of a much larger section of literature, in the Gospel of Matthew, called the Sermon on the Mount. Each of the Beatitudes is said to present us with both a challenge and a blessing. The Beatitudes are the gateway into the Sermon on the Mount. The best way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is to know that the message of the Beatitudes are foundational and are interwoven throughout the entire Sermon and the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. We may see these themes in larger sections or in individual verses.

Some people think the beatitudes represent rules that we must follow to be a part of God’s kingdom while others see them as things that are given to us as a result of being a child of God. I think it is a combination of both. I believe Jesus wants to challenge us to be like the Beatitudes, but I also think these things are given to us as a result of having a relationship with God.

It seems as if the Beatitudes take the things that are valued on earth, like wealth, power, etc, and turn them upside down. I think Jesus is trying to tell us that the things the world values and the things that God values are not the same. The things that are valued to Jesus in the Beatitudes are things like being poor in spirit, making peace, being meek, etc. Maybe living for God is not as easy as it appears!

Be Blessed

The Beatitudes derive its name from the Latin word beatitude, which means “blessed” or “happy.” The Greek word that is translated “blessed” is makarios. The meaning of makarios can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus he makaria ( the feminine form of the adjective), which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never have to go beyond its coastland to find the perfect happy life.[iv]

In other words, when we think of happiness, we think of being happy because something good happens to us. We get good grades in school, we get a new vehicle, we get a raise at work, or we find the perfect date. To be “happy” or “blessed” in the beatitudes means that we are happy no matter what our circumstance. It is a happiness that is self-contained. True happiness is not contained in things we obtain.

The problem we have with happiness is that our culture tells us that our happiness is directly related to our status, our wealth, our possessions, and our lifestyle. We generally believe the person with the most toys in life wins the game. With this in mind, we do seem quite perplexed at what Jesus tells us leads to a “blessed life.” Look at this list of things Jesus tells us leads to “happiness”: Being poor, or at least living as if you are, mourning, humility, hungering and thirsting, being merciful, have a pure heart, being a peacemaker, and being persecuted for what you believe in. Notice what does not make the list: Being wealthy, have a good time, being self-assured, being able to climb the corporate ladder, being cleaver to get ahead of your opponent, engaging in activities that make you “feel good.” The list could go on and on.

At first glance, it seems Jesus may not quite be in touch with reality. After all, he lived in an “honor-shame society.” The idea of this society was to “gain honor in whatever way one could.” Honor was something you ascribed to yourself and was acknowledged by your peers. Some people in Jesus’ day would do anything to gain honor, even if it meant shaming someone else. Jesus’ list of beatitudes would not have done much better in his day than it would in ours. Being poor was not way to gain honor. We often see humility as a virtue, but not so in Jesus’ day. If honor came from claiming it and having it confirmed, being humble was defiantly out.

While Jesus is certainly counter-cultural, he may have been on to something. The other day I was in the grocery store buying stuff for a Super Bowl party when the guy in front of me read a headline from a tabloid out loud. I did not catch the name of the magazine or the person it was talking about, but the headline mentioned that another Hollywood star was pregnant. He said, “I hope it is with her husband, but who knows with those people.” He then said, “Man, they have way too much drama in their lives for me. If having that much money and fame brings all that drama, they can keep their money and their fame.”

The more I thought about his guy’s comment, the more I understood Jesus’ opening for the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was saying something like, “I understand what you think brings happiness, but I tell you happiness comes when you stop striving for all that stuff and let god take care of you.”

Some time back, there was a show on TV called The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie, who is very wealthy, goes from town to town and lives the simple life. Most of the show is about how “backwards” the folks are compared to Paris and Nichole. Normally the pair shock their host families and creates lots of tension in the family. As painful as it is watching the dynamic due (no sarcasm at all) the show has left me with one impression. It makes me wonder if Paris and Nichole would have actually been happier and healthier people if they had lived more of the “simple life.” I cannot help but feel sorry for them because, while they have more money than I will ever see in a lifetime they seem so sad and lonely. It makes me sad that the thing they value the most may be the thing that keeps them from experiencing all that God has for them.

[i] KJV Matthew 5:3-12
[ii] John Wesley, “Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discource 1” John Welsey on the Sermon on the Mount: The Standard Sermons in Modern English vol. II, 21-33. Ed. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn (Abington Press:Nashville, 2002) 37.
[iii] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston 2004) 121
[iv] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 The Daily Bible Study Series)

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