The people who are blessed — or translated better, happy, fortunate, honored — aren’t at all the ones described by Jesus’s words in our gospel reading today. The happy, the fortunate, the honored in our world aren’t poor in spirit — or poor in anything else, really. They don’t mourn, or cry, or lament. They don’t hunger or thirst for righteousness.
If our world were to write a set of beatitudes, it would go something like this:
Honored are the self-sufficient who don’t need anything from anyone.
Happy are people who are content with the world exactly as it is. Happy are the happy.
Honored are the people who own lots of stuff and have money to throw away.
Fortunate are those who are prioritized by the system; those who get ahead.
Happy are the merciless, for they will always get their way.
But Jesus’s words are as plainly and definitively spoken as these truths. Some translations put Jesus’s words in the present — Jesus speaks with certainty. Although the circumstances he describes are not yet reality, he speaks as though their coming is so certain that they can be spoken of as though they already are reality. The poor in spirit possess the kingdom. The mourning obtain comfort. The meek inherit.
In his certainty of what the future holds for the suffering, Jesus is certainly his mother’s son. Mary, in the moment of receiving the child of God into her womb, lets out one of the most hopeful laments humanity has ever known. She proclaims, “God has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, And has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Mary speaks in recognition that the world is not as it should be, and she is certain that God will right it — so certain that she speaks as though it has all already happened.
The only problem with it is that it’s, you know, both Mary and Jesus seem to get it all wrong. Two thousand years later, those still aren’t real circumstances. The mighty remain on the thrones; the hungry remain hungry. The poor in spirit — the people who acknowledge they have needs; the people who can’t get by on their own, and know it — their living situation is hardly what I would call fortunate. And “happy are those who mourn?” The mournful are not happy. Come on. Happy are those who are happy.
I wanted to come up with an illustration of the world’s values of self-sufficiency and happiness, but I realized that these values are so ubiquitous that I didn’t need to. You have better examples in your life than I could bring in. That friend whose Christmas card is full of their latest good news and photos of yet another picturesque and seemingly conflict-free family vacation. The acquaintance whose Instagram is photo after photo of their beautiful, white-walled, always-clean, sunlit home. Advertisements that show smiling faces roller-skating on rooftops. Fortunate are the go-getters. Happy are the happy.
I’ve heard some people say that, since Jesus’s words don’t fit into the way the world works, he must be calling us to live this way: to be poor in spirit, mourners, persecuted.
I have a hard time believing that. Mourning and persecution are not ends unto themselves, but only when they serve a larger cause. I don’t believe that Jesus is calling us to walk around wearing black and being generally tearful just for the sake of being “one who mourns,” without any expectation of comfort.
Perhaps, instead, the traits that Jesus lists here are the natural outcomes of being a Spirit-led person, a person who dwells in God. A person who has a righteous and honorable way of seeing the world will naturally become poor in spirit, mournful — perhaps even persecuted.
The prophet Micah, from our first reading today, exhorts his listeners “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The kind of person who has framed their life around justice, kindness, and humility is probably likely to notice — in themselves, in others, and in society — the many failures of justice, kindness, and humility. Likely to notice the injustices of our systems. The meanness that people repeatedly enact on one another. The lack of humility that makes people feel confident in their assumptions, confident in delivering judgments on others. A person who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly probably very quickly also becomes a person who mourns.
Jesus’s words, then, are not calling faithful people to behave any differently or to live in a certain kind of way. Rather, his words speak to the reality of people who live in the Spirit. His words offer consolation for those who see how far we humans fall short of God’s desire for us. Jesus doesn’t burden the faithful with moral imperatives; he brings solace to the faithful with broken-open hearts.
I know that this room holds a wide variety of political stances and opinions on how the issues facing society today could best be addressed. That diversity of opinion is something I value about our community here at St. Luke’s. But I hope that wherever our personal beliefs are, we are able to acknowledge mournful laments when we see them.
And perhaps the most public laments recently have been the protests. This week, thousands gather to lament our lack of justice and kindness towards orphans, widows, and foreigners. (There’s an emergency rally at 5pm tonight in Westlake.) Last week, the Women’s March created a global lament, a global gathering of mourners. Whether or not you think their complaints were legitimate, millions of people gathered together to say: We hurt.
And I have to admit: Jesus was right to speak with such certainty. The people who gathered together to mourn the powers that be and to lament the current situation of the world — they did receive comfort in their connection to other mourners. The evening of the march I scrolled through my various social media apps, seeing friends’ photos of marches from Seattle to D.C., LA to New York City– and, perhaps even more touching, smaller groups from my hometown and others across the Midwest. Breaking from the anonymity of everyday life, these mourners found each other — simply because they mourned publicly and loudly — and there was so much comfort in that solidarity, in having another person say, “Yes, I see it, too; I feel it, too. You’re not alone in this.”
Jesus’s words, then, are absurd, yes, but they are also true, in a deeper and more subtle truth than Facebook posts or roller skating on rooftop advertisements can ever convey.
Happy are those who mourn.
Honored are those who desire righteousness and do justice.
Blessed are those who love mercy.
Fortunate are the poor in spirit, the people who know they need, the people who walk humbly.
If you are rich in spirit, Jesus words aren’t for you today.
If you are happy with the world the way it is, Jesus’s blessings aren’t for you.
If you value merciless and antagonistic behavior — Jesus’s words aren’t for you. You don’t need them. You have the entire world.
But if you know yourself to be poor in spirit;
if you are one who mourns and laments the current situation of the world;
if you are in the business of working for peace;
if you do justice, love kindness, and value mercy
— then Christ speaks to you. Christ blesses you. Christ mourns with you. Christ comforts you. Christ is with you.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A January 29, 2017