How many hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of school children have been asked to memorize the beatitudes? This particular mountaintop teaching of Jesus is at least familiar to most. Many times in the Scriptures a mountaintop is used to draw attention to a particular encounter with God. In this instance, Jesus saw the crowds coming toward Him and went up the mountain to teach them.
The assortment of behaviors or attitudes for living might have been surprising for listeners. Most people would not associate a sense of blessing with the categories that He taught. The blessings that are prescribed in each of the beatitudes have a futuristic sense to them, all except one: Those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness already possess the kingdom of heaven. That makes sense, when we know that we live the mystery of living, dying and rising. As we live in faith, we know that we share in persecution, as well as joy and blessing.
Each of the beatitudes draws into focus a particular experience of ordinary life. In our daily lives, we experience all kinds of invitations to be meek and merciful. Certainly, we have periods in our lives when we are invited into mourning and loss. When we listen to that inner voice, we know that we hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we seek a more peaceful life and world than presently exists. The beatitudes simply enumerate various invitations to live in certain ways with a promise that if we live that way, we will bear a certain kind of fruit for ourselves and others.
When invited to be meek, most of us think of being passive and withdrawn, instead of active and engaged. That isn’t a correct understanding of meekness, but it does change our willingness to have a meek demeanor in life. Meekness allows us to be more clearly present to others around us and to shed some of our arrogance. Meekness helps us to engage in life as equals with others, willing to share what we have with others.
When we live as peacemakers, we are living the very essence of godliness. It is the inheritance that we have been given through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The peace that Jesus asks us to seek is the peace that outlasts and overpowers any anxiety or fear.
This week might be a great time to exercise your beatitude muscle. Take some time to focus on one particular beatitude. Make sure that you have in mind the same meaning for the words the Jesus might’ve had. When you hear poor in spirit, what do you believe Jesus meant by that? Was He talking about financial poverty? Was He talking about always being at the beck and call of someone else? Was He asking us to assume a sense of poverty in our relationship with Him? Was He asking us to recognize that His wisdom is greater than ours? Is He asking us to believe that His love is more powerful than anything we can do to earn it?
You can sense that Jesus was aware of the teachings of the prophet Zephaniah, which we hear this weekend. Zephaniah asks us to seek justice and humility and to be humble and lowly. You can kind of sense that this teaching of the prophet gave a great foundation for Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes.
We are living in an “in between” time. Not only are we between our celebration of Christmas and the beginning of Lent, but we are also living between the first and second coming of Jesus. Living in between is difficult for those who are used to getting what we want or need right away. We have become a people of convenience and satisfaction, neither of which has lasting power. Might we use this in-between time to become more familiar with living with unfulfilled promises and still believing in those promises? Might this be a time that we could walk more firmly by faith, and not by sight?
Father Donald Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.