A permanent deacon who worked for me at a previous parish assignment had a son who was an avid runner. The son participated regularly in short races as well as marathon races. As a consequence, of course, the son trained daily in order to remain competitive.
Very often, the son encouraged his father to join him on his daily run. The dad had an unique perspective on exercise in general, and on running in particular. Whenever his son would invite him to go running the dad would reply, “I’ll go running with you on the day that you come back from your training with a smile on your face.”
Any serious athlete has to train vigorously in order to remain competitive. Vigorous exercise rarely produces smiles or a joyful demeanor. The runner’s dad didn’t have anything to worry about; there would be no day on which his son was smiling after a long run. There are many things in life that are similar to the consequences of strenuous physical exertion – to the extent that they are not the sort of things that would appear to have joyful effects.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus made some startling statements. He told the crowds, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek,” etc. (Matthew 5:3-5) The word “blessed” doesn’t really fit well with experiences like poverty of spirit, mourning or meekness. The contradiction between those experiences and the experience of being blessed is very similar to the contradiction between exhausting physical activity and happiness. Was Jesus being ironical or sarcastic? Was he talking nonsense?
In American culture, we tend to equate blessedness or happiness with an easy lifestyle, the possession of wealth, the esteem of friends and family, notoriety or enviable accomplishments. In our culture, a person is considered honorable if they win, get what they want, overcome adversity, or rise above the crowd. Power, possessions and public image are what we consider honorable. (*)
Our society’s notion of honor is very much at odds with Jesus’ notion of honor. The beatitudes seem to praise the kinds of things that are dishonorable and detestable to us. Should we feel offended that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount affirms the opposite of our firmly held beliefs? I’d like to suggest that the beatitudes are a reflection of the fact that Jesus was willing to acknowledge what most of us spend our lives trying to avoid.
The Beatitudes are prophetic utterances that describe how God will grant honor to those whom the faithless dishonor. Jesus was speaking to people dishonored by foreign occupiers and colluding sympathizers. It might be difficult for us to identify with the experience of a subjugated people. How can we, with all the advantages we enjoy, understand the experience of faithful people who are persecuted by the faithless? Perhaps we need to look within ourselves, and identify the parts of our lives that struggle with weakness and failure.
The truth about human life is that we mourn, struggle, are meek, are needy for justice and peace, are hungry for God and thirsty for solace. We should never underestimate the good things in life, but neither should we underestimate the burdens of life. Jesus knew this better than anyone; he practiced it daily, and embraced it fully in his death.
Why is humility the path to God? Why is justice (that is, giving others the compassion you owe them), necessary in order to know God? Wouldn’t it make more sense if respectability was the path to God? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if moral rectitude was necessary in order to know God? These latter two are certainly the kinds of messages we get from the society in which we live.
The beatitudes are a promise that everyone who lives a normal human life, while being a disciple of Jesus, will find redress for all the insults and deprivations that are unavoidable in this world. This promise is made only to Jesus’ disciples, and not to everyone equally. Jesus was not trying limit access to lasting happiness. Rather, he was merely acknowledging a basic truth about human existence; the things we value most are the things that determine the outcome of our lives. Those who look for honor from the world get the sorts of rewards that the world can offer; those who seek God’s esteem find the sort of reward that God can offer.
If humility, meekness, peace-making and justice-seeking seem unlikely virtues, it is because our society preaches the opposite message. Society’s message, however, makes a lot less sense than it claims to make. How much sense does it make to live a life so shallow that the value of one’s life depends on circumstances and opinions that can change with no warning? Doesn’t it make a lot more sense to live in a manner that God esteems highly? Lasting happiness can result only from seeking the esteem of the One who remains always trustworthy.
The beatitudes don’t intend to denigrate the goodness of life in this world. Rather, the beatitudes point to a truth that is not self-evident about life in this world. The beatitudes proclaim the saving message that: blessed are those who seek what the world cannot give.
A note on the Scriptures:
In the beatitudes the word translated as “blessed” by the New American Bible’s editors has a meaning that is closer to “honorable.” The blessedness promised in the beatitudes is not a state of spiritual privilege or giftedness; rather, it is a state of being highly esteemed (in this case, by God).
The highest value in Jesus’ culture was honor, that is, to be highly regarded by one’s neighbors. The obligation to establish and maintain honor for one’s family was the primary objective of every adult male. The quest for honor dictated how one interacted with relatives, neighbors and even enemies. In Jesus’ culture honor was a public value, defended in public and attributed to one’s family or social group.
Our cultural experience is fundamentally different from Jesus’ in that honor for us is an individual virtue. We don’t necessarily use the word honor, but our highest cultural value is to be esteemed as individuals. Despite the differences between a group-oriented culture like Jesus’ and an individually-oriented culture like our own, it is easy enough to grasp the intended meaning of the beatitudes.
Jesus described what he knew would earn a person the high esteem of God. The NAB’s translation of the beatitudes, then, is a little misleading. Jesus did not described behaviors that would merit some particular gift or acknowledgment from God. Rather, he described a way of living. It might seem trifling to make a distinction between “blessing” as a thing received and “honor” as a quality of a relationship, but the distinction is central to the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus rejected the notion that authentic religion could be reduced to a finite number of rules and practices. He preached about religion as a lifelong, growing relationship with God. The many conflicts he had with some of the religious authorities in Jerusalem were the result of his perspective on religion. Those religious leaders wanted a religion that was manageable; Jesus knew that “managing” religion was the equivalent to trying to manage God, a sin against the first commandment.
Jesus did not encourage his disciples to pursue winning a few accolades or favors from God. For Jesus, faith is a life’s work, a relationship that grows and changes, a relationship that requires constant repentance and change on our part, but a relationship that God finds worthy of high esteem.