The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘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 will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
—Matthew 5:1-12

Having walked us through his introduction to the life of discipleship, we move with Bonhoeffer—this week—to begin an exploration of the substance of the life of discipleship. To provide some focus to this exploration, Bonhoeffer uses Jesus’ famous teaching of his disciples and those others who had followed them up the mountain, a teaching by Jesus we have come to call the Beatitudes.

Now, the word “beatitudes” is interesting by itself, telling us a little about what Bonhoeffer wants this section of his reflection on discipleship to convey.

The word “beatitudes” is a vestige of Latin loitering in our theological language. The term comes from a Latin word that means “blessed” or “happy.” Early Latin theologians often used that term to summarize this scriptural section of Jesus’ teaching. Significantly, the fact that Bonhoeffer turns to this passage of text and this rather elevating term to frame his initial foray into the deeper meaning of discipleship seems instructive. The uplifting energy emerging from the text and the ebullient attitude and perception it creates suggests that, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, the substance of discipleship is captured in the positive tenor of these passages as much as the actual teachings themselves.

To understand how discipleship is furthered through this consideration of the Beatitudes, we need to look at the context in which Jesus’ words are spoken.

Recall that in this passage, we are still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and just after he has called these specific people, called disciples, to follow him. Having been identified from amongst the many in a crowd who were following, Jesus pauses specifically to instruct these twelve and others who find themselves within earshot. The fact that 12 individuals were called to make this initial cohort of disciples is significant as it suggests that Jesus is looking to identify a group to serve as a representative body for the entirety of Israel, a nation composed of 12 tribes. In so doing, Jesus’ selection of the 12 disciples repeats the earlier selection of Israel as a representative people, a people we learned from the book of Genesis who were representative of all peoples. In other words, Jesus calls a group of disciples to serve as a reminder that a larger community of people was called to represent all people called into existence and relationship with the Creator of all peoples. This means that what makes the disciples (and all people) “blessed” is not this specific event but the simple fact that they have been called into existence at all and that such a calling includes a connection with the God of existence. It is this call into existing-connection that produces a blessed or happy state, a state belonging to everyone.

This state of blessedness that belongs to all people by virtue of existence means that what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes is not so much an offering of specific benefits to a specific group of people that will be available should they take him up his offer. Rather, what Jesus is doing through his issuing of these statements is reminding the disciples (and us) what is already theirs (and ours) as the condition of connection to the Creator. They (and we) simply are blessed. The Beatitudes are meant to remind us of what is and not to suggest what might be. (Note how the verb tense used throughout the Beatitudes is in the present tense, not the future.)

Using a rhetorical rhythm, each of Jesus’ eight declarations of blessing is meant to act like the hammer on the bell of our theological alarm clocks, awakening us from the drowsy slumber of our distracted lives and, one by one, systematically removing the layers of night from our eyes. This awakening removal opens our eyes to our real existence, more a calling to a new consciousness of our already real existence with God and not the formation of some new, previously nonexistent connection. Said another way, it seems that Jesus’ call in the Beatitudes is an awakening to life as it is and not into life as it will or could be.

Such an interpretation of the text seems consistent with that opening of sight that accompanies a life of discipleship. In the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians, the writer connects being with Christ and the coming of something new. The Greek text carries that lovely ambiguity of suggesting both or either that the person connected to God through Christ is a new creation or that the person sees creation anew. If this reading of this passage from Matthew’s gospel and from Paul’s letter is plausible, then we may conclude that we come to see differently because of our relationship with God, a new sight granting insight into how we are. Such an insight is (1) a claim to the truth of who we are rather than (2) a claim as to what we must become. The first interpretation demands an ownership of who we are while the second suggests an abandonment of who we are to become someone new. As is often the case, both traditions of interpretation and theology exist in scripture.

I am inclined to follow Bonhoeffer in his reading of the passage from Matthew, placing me in a theological tradition more interested in affirming the essential and insoluble image of God and the inherent “goodness” of God’s good creation in us all. The alternative interpretation represents a theology more interested in naming our brokenness and alienation, a brokenness and alienation that requires complete rejection of one life to obtain another. The first interpretation seems fundamentally optimistic while the second seems more pessimistic. (I tend to be a glass half-full kind of person, anyway. And, as I often say, our theology is rarely systematic but more autobiographic.)

Yet my commitment to seeing our existence in inherently positive terms and our call to discipleship more an abandonment of old expectations and vision of the world and ourselves has practical and fundamental consequences for how we see the world, others, and ourselves. For instance, if my understanding of discipleship means an abandoning of the world in favor of a new one, then I am less inclined to work on making this one better because such work would be futile and possibly unfaithful. Such a mindset of material abandonment would lead me to see the world as a place to be avoided, carrying in it potential contagions that might infect my new life with the same disease endemic to the old. On the other hand, if my understanding of discipleship means an abandoning of how I see the world in favor of seeing the world anew, then I am less inclined to detach from the world because it is the only world for me, making me more inclined to engage the world in transformative and awakening love. Such a mindset of imaginative transformation of me and my vision to see the world as God sees it leads me to see the world as a place filled with hope and supplies a passion to discover, highlight, and strengthen the latent image of God permeating this good creation.

To me (and it seem to Bonhoeffer, too) if the call of discipleship carries any sort of consequential choice, that call is a call to choose between how we see the world and ourselves and, resultantly, how we choose to embrace that world and accept ourselves.

In a world where the prevailing rhetoric seems to teach our children to hate their gender or another’s because it belongs to an inferior or essentially different state rather than an equal one . . . where we see others as fundamentally alien and foreign rather than children of the same Father . . . where we see resources as scarce and to be horded more than abundant and to be shared . . . where the past seems more golden than the promise of the future . . . and where we tell some that they have been created just as God wants them to be while we tell others that they are created by God as an abomination . . . in such a world it seems that we—or many of us—have chosen abandonment rather than embrace, the negative over the positive, pessimism over optimism.

Such a choice might be a legitimate theological way forward, faithful to one strain of our tradition.

Yet, for me, such a choice moves against the grain of “good news” lying at the heart of the gospel. For, how can news be classified as “good” that assumes that the default state of God is rejection and abandonment rather than love and embrace? Given the choice between that trajectory of our tradition that leads away from the world and who we are or one that leads toward the world and who we are, I choose to follow the one that walks in paths leading to material, real, and incarnational embrace and connection with the world, God’s properly created people, and the lingering image of God waiting to be found and celebrated.

That sounds like not just good news but great news to me. And, that sounds like a world worth loving, not one worth leaving.

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