Beyond “Do This/Don’t Do That”
Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSVUE)
I’m willing to bet that many of you have heard all or part of today’s scripture reading before. We call these verses in Matthew the Beatitudes. These are the verses that begin with that amazing word, “blessed.” They’re powerful. They’re beautiful. They’re hopeful. And, sadly, they are too often misread or misused.
Debie Thomas’ essay on the Beatitudes helps me understand what the Beatitudes are not, so let’s start there for a moment.
The Beatitudes are not Hallmark greeting cards. Jesus wasn’t waxing sentimental when he spoke of blessing, favor, happiness, and good fortune. He wasn't offering us platitudes, and the Beatitudes are not Bandaids. They're not meant to settle, soothe, and lull us to sleep; they're meant to startle us awake. Yes, they are pastoral, and yes, they can definitely give us hope. “But hope,” as Debie Thomas describes it, “is not a sedative. Hope is what gets us up and out the door.”
The Beatitudes are not to-do items. They are not suggestions, instructions, commandments, or quid pro quos. There is nothing transactional about them, nothing that smacks of a “should,” a “must,” or an “ought.” It is absolutely not the case that if I try very hard to be poorer, sadder, meeker, hungrier, thirstier, purer, more peaceable, and more persecuted than I am right now, God will like, love, reward, and appreciate me more than God already does.
The Beatitudes are not inducements to shame. The point is not to read Jesus’s litany of blessings for the poor and the disenfranchised, and walk away feeling like a spoiled, over-privileged wretch. The takeaway Jesus intends for his listeners is neither shame nor self-condemnation, both of which cripple and defeat us. The last thing Jesus’s Beatitudes should do is paralyze those who hear them.
The Beatitudes are not permission slips for passivity. To use Jesus’s teachings about sorrow, meekness, poverty, and persecution to keep oppressed people oppressed is to distort his words and render them monstrous. There is nothing in the Beatitudes that excuses injustice, nothing that normalizes abuse, nothing that allows us to tell suffering people that their suffering is God-ordained. Nothing.
The Beatitudes are not pie-in-the-sky. When Jesus promises his listeners the “kingdom of heaven,” he is not asking them to grit their teeth and wait patiently for death to come along and alleviate whatever hell they're living in. He is not handing out the afterlife as an “opiate, as if our messy, earthly, ordinary lives here and now don’t matter dearly. To possess the kingdom, to experience comfort, to inherit the earth, to be filled, to receive mercy, to see God, to be called the children of God, and to receive a reward in heaven — these are not just about life after death. They are about the kingdom that is already and not-yet, the realm of God that is present and coming.” The promise is not an either-or. It’s a both-and. The kingdom is coming. And the kingdom is now.
Okay, the Beatitudes are not these things. So, what do we need to know about what they are? We need to know this:
The Beatitudes are blessings. This may seem obvious, but it's something we forget over and over again. The first words Jesus offers his disciples—the first words the Gospel of Matthew records from Jesus’s first sermon—are words of blessing. Are you hearing that? Blessing comes first. We begin with blessing. Blessing, not judgment. Blessing, not terms and conditions. Blessing, not penance. Blessing, not altar calls.
What does this mean? It means we’re not God’s nine-to-five employees, working for blessing as our compensation. We don’t endeavor to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in order to earn God’s blessings. We do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly because we are always and already blessed.
This can be a tough reminder for me. I can get stuck in thinking that IF I JUST work harder and pray better, whatever troubles me will vanish. But I want you to notice that there is no “if/then” construction here. It’s not “IF you are a peacemaker, THEN God will bless you.” We don’t read, “BE pure in heart.” Jesus doesn’t say, “IF you are merciful, THEN God will be merciful to you.” He simply said, “Blessed are the merciful,” then a promise: “for they shall receive mercy.”
Jesus isn’t telling anyone to make this into a “to do” list…which happen to be a list I’m quite fond of. Instead, he is blessing those who are these things—the poor in spirit, those who grieve, the merciful, the meek. And as Anthony Robinson, a UCC minister writes, “Since the world is emphatically not about these things, Jesus is blessing those who swim against the stream and often get beat up for it.”
For the most part, what the world around us—and sometimes the church—tells us is “you have to do better.” “You have to try harder.” “You have to make better choices.” But the beauty of the Beatitudes is that the message of Jesus was grace, mercy, and forgiveness. The message of the Beatitudes is that Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Tony Robinson tells us the Beatitudes go well beyond the “do this/don’t do that” we all carry in our brains. The Beatitudes speak to the radical grace of Jesus Christ for people in need of mercy, hope, and healing. “I did not come for the righteous,” Jesus said, “but for sinners.” It’s like AA. Everyone there has stuff. Everyone there needs help. And that is true not just of those with an addiction, but all of us. We are all broken people in need of Grace.
What would happen, I wonder, if we who profess faith in Jesus actually followed his example, and made it our first priority to bless others as we have been blessed? To lead with blessing? To make blessing our most visible and foundational gift to those around us? What would happen to our hearts, to the Church, to the world, if we offered blessings to our neighbors as generously as God offers blessings to us?
Blessed are you. And you, and you, and you, and you. So become what you are, give away what you seek, bless what God blesses, and turn this world on its head!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, January 29, 2023