Friday, January 05, 2007

You lucky bums...

That's one preacher's paraphrase of "Blessed are those," a phrase that appears several times in today's New Testament reading. When I see "blessed are..." I'm not sure exactly what to think, but the paraphrase "you lucky bums" connects to me; it says that true happiness, the gift of God's fellowship, the kingdom of heaven (and so on) are all coming my way -- though I don't deserve any of them.

Anyway, the passage begins by saying that Jesus "sat down," which any reader of the time would understand to mean that he was about to say something important. Here's how he began:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’s sake
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5.3-10
There are two things I want to mention about this passage. First, the idea of "poor in spirit" -- what does that mean? Here's something I heard that makes sense to me; maybe it'll be helpful for you.

Imagine that you're a hot tennis player. You've won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and so on. You'd be "rich in tennis." But if you play tennis like I do -- if you can barely hit the ball, let alone hit it over the net -- then you'd be poor in tennis. Someone who's poor in tennis knows that he's in big trouble without a coach or helper; someone who's rich in tennis thinks he's OK on his own -- in the tennis world, anyway.

Similarly, when I'm poor in spirit, I realize that I'm in deep trouble without Jesus. I'm self-centered, intolerant, impatient, and apathetic; without the transforming power of God I'd be in real trouble, and everybody who has to live or work with me would be miserable, embarrassed, or both.

Someone who's rich in spirit, on the other hand, might believe himself to be OK as he is, that he doesn't need spiritual direction, doesn't need help, or is spiritually superior than others. He may believe that he's beyond certain kinds of sins, or that God loves him more than others. Not the kind of guy I'd like to meet.

The other thing I wanted to mention about this passage is that I used to think of it as a set of eight separate sentences. If you're meek, for example, you might inherit the earth (whatever that means); if you're merciful, you'll be shown mercy -- and so on. But I learned a few years ago that the structure of the passage carries a message: "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is present in both the first and the last verses; it functions as a pair of bookends.

The whole passage, in other words, is all about for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and gives us a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the characteristics of its citizens. So those in the kingdom of heaven are poor in spirit, they mourn (because the world is not as it's supposed to be), they're meek because they know it's not all about them (rather, it's all about the King), they hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.

And that I can (and should) consider myself lucky (OK, "blessed") when by God's help any of these descriptions fit me. That's something to remember, I guess, when I feel discouraged about my own spiritual growth, when I'm vexed about the condition of this sorry, dark world, and so on. Then I'm lucky.

It feels backwards, but this truth is the Real Thing. You lucky bums!

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