One of my favorite lines in Monty Python’s movie “Life with Brian” has a scene from the Sermon on the Mount among people in the back of the crowd struggling to hear. They are arguing and bickering with each other while Jesus is speaking and one man asks what Jesus is saying. “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.”
“The cheese makers, what’s so blessed about the cheese makers?” a woman asks.
Her husband responds with exasperation, “Its not meant to be taken literally. He is referring to the manufacture of diary products in general.”
There is a great deal in the entire Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew, which will guide us for a few weeks) that we may wonder if we are supposed to take it literally. How about these well known passages:
“Turn the other cheek.”
“If your eye causes you to sin pluck it out.”
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven.”
We may read these and wonder if Jesus really meant for us to take this literally. We might be more comfortable with blessing cheese makers than dealing with these difficult teachings. Theologians have struggled with the Sermon on the Mount for ages. During the Reformation, Martin Luther thought these teachings were impossible ideals that God wanted us to strive for even though we could never reach them. The Mennonites, on the other hand, saw these teachings as the core of Christianity and based their philosophy of nonviolence on the Sermon on the Mount.
Here is a case where I think it is more important to look at the style of Jesus rather than a solely philosophical look. Jesus is a master at delivering unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom wants to uphold the status quo and keep order. That is what makes it conventional, right? Jesus delivers unconventional wisdom, because he aims to challenge the status quo of all types. So he says things that at first seem to be impossible, shocking, upside down or crazy – until you really think about and realize he might just be on to something.
Think for a minute about the conventional wisdom in our society and you will notice that it is completely opposite from what Jesus has to say in the Beatitudes. Instead of blessed are the poor in spirit, conventional wisdom says, “Put on a happy face.” There are hundreds of books out there telling us to be positive, that there are laws of attraction in the universe that will bring positive things to us when we think positively. Only a small handful of books council us to pay attention when we feel poor in spirit. These times could be invitations to explore our inner world and face into the existential crisis of life.
Conventional wisdom does not tell us to take time to mourn our losses. Move on get over it! We pay lip service to stages of grief, but they are often presented as a nice line up of hurdles that we jump over in logical progression so we can get back to normal. Sure you should grieve a little bit, but if it goes on to long it is treated as a pathology.
The meek and merciful are not lifted up as the ideals of society. Instead we are told things like, “Nice guys finish last.” How could we possibly think the meek will inherit the earth? We all know the race goes to the swift, you have to seize the day. Don’t retreat, reload. Don’t get too caught up in mercy, because what goes around comes around. People get what they deserve.
Peacemakers may get holidays named after them…after they are shot down. Many inner cities have a Martin Luther King Boulevard, too often dotted with pawn shops, liquor stores, abandoned buildings and crack houses. But if you want to know who is blessed, take a look at the Defense budget, not the school budget.
So what is so blessed about the Beatitudes? Blessings come when we are close to God. We think we are closest to God when everything is going well, when we are happy, successful and in charge of life. But Jesus says that we are more likely to be closer to God when we experience human vulnerability – when are spirits are poor, when we mourn, feel powerless, when we really hunger and thirst for meaning, when we try to be pure in heart, but find out how impure we really can be, when we take on the difficult work of peacemaking, or get persecuted. Truly in these difficult moments we come closer to knowing the real presence of God.
I have found this to be true in my life. I have many successes. I set school records in track in high school, was president of many clubs (including Future Farmers of America), had academic honors including a 4.0 for my recent Masters degree in psychology at Marist. It may help my self-esteem, but none of this brought me closer to God. In fact it might lead me to think I can manage pretty well on my own.
I have come to know God through my struggles, through tragic losses and economic hardship. I learned of God’s love for me while undergoing several surgeries and the pain of divorce. God became more real to me as I learned that I cannot control things and I have to let go. Working with people who are homeless and trying to help people struggling with addiction teach me patience, mercy and compassion. I have come to know God in my trials, failures, tragedies and hubris.
So when is it that I am truly blessed? Paul is right again (darn him) that it is good to give thanks in all things, because we never know which moments will truly bring us closer to God. Through the Beatitudes Jesus reminds us to keep our eyes open at the most unlikely times, because that is when we might find the true reality of God’s love.