Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beatitudes: descriptive or prescriptive?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for 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 sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so also they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I never know whose idea to take on this, Bonhoeffer’s or Willard’s. Or maybe neither, who knows. Is this passage prescriptive or descriptive? Willard says descriptive; in the kingdom of heaven, even those of you who are mourning will be blessed, those of you who are meek shall get a large portion, you poor people who are cursed with a hunger and thirst for righteousness will finally be filled, etc. Bonhoeffer says prescriptive I believe; you disciples should be a people who mourn, because only then can you be comforted. You must make sure to be meek, because only the meek will inherit the earth. The question is a good one; are we to try to fulfill the beatitudes, do they call for some action on our part? Or are they said as a comfort, in describing the kingdom of heaven?

So, Jesus goes up on the mountain and his disciples come after him, and to this self-selected group he begins to teach. What does he want them to learn? And, although I think I’ve heard that this is kind of a collection of Jesus’ major sayings rather than a cohesive sermon, why does he choose to talk about this first, or why does Matthew present this first? The way I have always understood the Sermon on the Mount is sort of the manifesto or description of the Kingdom which has drawn near. And this is how he decides to introduce it. But again, is it “this is the type of people the kingdom will be made up of” or “even these people will be welcome and find consolation in the kingdom, (but all you who don’t mourn and aren’t that meek, don’t worry). “ I’m not sure it fits into either of those categories, or maybe some of both. Let’s see how this works… it describes the kingdom of heaven, by describing our response to it? In the kingdom of heaven, every wrong is made right and so you will actually bless all the times that you mourned, because each is comforted and each was an opportunity to experience God’s mercy. (This is empirically true, for me). You will bless every opportunity you had to be a peacemaker, because you will see how God was working through you and how you reflected his image and character and were able to act like his son in that sense. You will treasure each time you were persecuted, because when Jesus’ army wins each wound you received is another evidence that you were on the winning side and makes the triumph more your own. Poor in spirit, I am not sure what that means. The one who gets sat on, who doesn’t fight? That sounds a lot like meek. The ones who don’t have a lot of religious feeling? That’s hard to see too. Anyhow, if this interpretation is correct, what does it mean for the disciple hearing it?

I’m not sure that the things mentioned are necessarily to be sought, but when they come they are certainly not to be avoided, because the correct understanding of the true order of things shows them to be gifts and blessings, making us insiders and marking us firmly “of” the kingdom. I think this also makes sense of the “woes” that I think are in Luke… those are not things to be actively sought, because seeking them is NOT seeking the kingdom and distracts you from it. We are to seek blessings, but as citizens of the kingdom I think Jesus is asking us to redefine what we mean by blessings. As citizens of a different country, his disciples will start earning a different currency, and if they are working for the world’s currency it will become valueless. I think this framework allows for both rather negative things (mourning, being persecuted) and positive things (being pure in heart)on the same list of blessings. These are all things that (to use my favorite phrase) enlarge your capacity to enjoy the kingdom of heaven, whether directly or by giving you an opportunity to experience God’s mercy and know it more.

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