Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

What a serene and simple Gospel reading we have had this morning. We have heard these words often. There is always an assuring calm in the words of the eight states of blessedness to others and the one to us via the disciples as well as from the closing coda – “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven”. Reading them, we may be led to feel that, with such certain statements, God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world. Only it’s not, is it? All is not right with the world. Indeed a more than cursory consideration of these seemingly serene words themselves reminds us that there are people who are poor in spirit, mourning, hungry and thirsting for righteousness just to pick up a few of the nine beatitudes. A truly divine, serene world would surely not have people in such states.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words that day on the Mount overlooking Capernaum and Lake Galilee?

We could start with the word ‘blessed’ – it turns out, in English, to be a somewhat ambivalent word. I recall reading a short story by Dylan Thomas many years ago when I was in high school –and that is many years ago!

The story was about a family’s day at the beach on a Bank Holiday and starts with the exasperating and frenetic preparations of a much awaited day of fun and frolic on a British beach. At one stage in the chaos of preparation, if memory serves me correctly, one person said something like:

Will somebody get that blessed dog out from under the table!

Now whatever else may have been Jesus’ intent in using a word that we have translated as ‘blessed’, we can be certain that he wasn’t echoing this exasperated sense of the word.

As I was starting to prepare this sermon, I actually ended up chasing down a distraction as I had forgotten that our English words ‘blessed’ and ‘blessing’ translate two quite distinctive words from Hebrew and Greek. My first thought had been of the Hebrew word ‘brk’ for ‘blessing’; and in thinking of it, I recalled that that word is itself very ambivalent – at least as used in Judaism. Consider these two blessings:

Birchat ha-motsi – a blessing for bringing out – the Jewish blessing before a meal

Birchat ha-mason – a blessing for nourishment – the Jewish blessing recited after a meal

And then compare them with this discordant blessing:

Birchat ha-minim – a blessing on heretics

This third is certainly not a blessing like the first two, for this blessing was intended as a curse. It was a curse first invoked about 80AD and was used by orthodox Jews who wished to see Jews who had come to believe in the divinity of Christ expelled from the synagogues. The date of its introduction was within ten years of the presumed date for the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel, thus both reflected a time of growing internal discord within Judaism following the sacking in 70AD of the Temple in Jerusalem. This led me down a dead-end street of enquiry as I reflected whether Matthew, in writing about the Sermon on the Mount, was tackling this ambivalence of the meaning of ‘brk’.

However, that line of enquiry turned out to be ‘fake news’; for the word ‘blessed’ used in the Beatitudes had nothing to do with ‘brk’ but came instead from the Greek ‘makarioi’ which itself came from the Hebrew ‘ashrei’ which more reasonably could be translated as ‘happy ’.

Does replacing the word ‘blessed’ in each of the nine beatitudes with the word ‘happy’ help in our understanding of Jesus’ intent? Let’s try it:

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy

Happy are the pure in heart for they will see God

Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God

Happy are you when people revile you and persecute and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

While the insertion of the word ‘happy’ may seem to work for some of the beatitudes, there remains a distinctly odd feel about some others, for example: the happiness of those who are poor in spirit and those who mourn.

Was Jesus intending a message of ‘be happy with your lot’ for it is all going to be okay in the end? Be happy in your despair for the kingdom of heaven will eventually come to you, even if that seems improbable from where you currently find yourself. Or aren’t you lucky that you are mourning for you will, in God’s good timing, be comforted?  It sort of begs the question: well why did I have to mourn in the first place? It also invites the ludicrous corollary: feel sorry for those who aren’t mourning, for they don’t know what they are missing out on.

JoHanna Reardon, in her article “What does it mean to be blessed?”  toys with the complex place where we may feel we find ourselves in reflecting upon the Beatitudes:

One of my favourite Scripture passages is the Beatitudes in Matthew, where Jesus lists what it means to be blessed. It is certainly not what comes to my mind when I think of being blessed or when I pray for others to be blessed. Remember all those childhood prayers, ‘Bless Mommy, Daddy and Auntie Sue’? We had no idea what we were saying! We were actually saying, ‘Let them be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure, peacemakers and persecuted.”

And linking ‘blessed’ to ‘happy’ she continues:

So how could such things lead to happiness? It seems like they lead more to the opposite of happiness.

Thomas Cahill, in his book ‘Desire of the Everlasting Hills’ puts it this way about the Beatitudes’ recipients of blessedness:

Well, with one or two possible exceptions, this doesn’t seem a happy lot … ‘Happy the unhappy’ we might say in summary.

There is a tension that we feel in terms of a decidedly unhappy state in the present being balanced with a future prospect of happiness.

As we seek to reconcile this tension, we would do well to consider the perspective of the sixth century patriarch John Chrysostom when he commented on the third beatitude and its promise of the contemporary meek inheriting some future earth:

Tell me, what kind of earth is referred to here? Some say it is a figurative earth, but that is not what Jesus is talking about. For nowhere in Scripture do we find any mention of an earth that is merely figurative. But what can this beatitude mean? Jesus holds out a prize perceptible to the senses … Jesus himself says … to the thief, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise.’ Today! In this way he does not speak only of future blessings but also of present ones.

So Chrysostom suggested that we are to take the beatitudes as statements of present possibility not future promise. In other words, regardless of worldly circumstance, our ever present, eternal God, firstly through His Son and then through His Holy Spirit, offers us an antidote to worldly woes. In other words it is, for example, possible for the poor in spirit to encounter the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, without having to wait for it. For those in mourning to be comforted in the depths of their grief; and for the meek to feel that a world of meaning is indeed theirs now … and so on.

But that only partly answers the question. For the danger in this is that those of us who may not feel ourselves in such dark places might consider Jesus’ words as sufficient solution for the problems of the afflicted. That Jesus has covered the backs of the unfortunate; and so we can celebrate that fact but need do no more. It ought to remind us of the comment in James’ epistle:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food; if one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? [James 2:15-16].

Thomas Cahill suggests that the Beatitudes need to be taken into account not just as a self-contained piece of Jesus’ ministry but as part of a larger complete message that tied together the beginning and the end of his pre-passion ministry.

The Beatitudes are the opening lines to the first recorded speech or sermon by Jesus. Cahill links this sermon with the Inasmuch sermon recorded in Matthew 25. He writes of these two sermons in this way:

The answer lies in Matthew’s Gospel, which shows the public life of Jesus as getting under way with the Sermon on the Mount (and the articulation of the Beatitudes) and closes the narration of this trajectory with a scene no less memorable, Jesus’ final sermon before his passion.

The next verse after that final sermon in Matthew 25 is the first verse of chapter 26 which the Revised Standard Version of the Bible gives as:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things.

But Cahill uses the Jerusalem Bible version of the verse:

Jesus had now finished all he wanted to say.

Can what Jesus wanted to say be simply encapsulated? Well we know from our regular liturgy about Jesus’ statement of the two greatest commandments – Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourselves. But Thomas Cahill puts it in this way:

The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict comfortable.

Taken in this way, the Beatitudes are not a commentary but a call.

This call has two aspects – first a reach out to ourselves when we are afflicted but then also a call for us to reach out to others when they are afflicted.

Each and every one of us will have times in our lives when we are poor in spirit or are mourning. We might not feel too meek most of the time nor, counterwise, pure in heart; yet we can know what it is to hunger for righteousness. So it is that some of the beatitudes may offer spiritual nourishment to each of us. And that nourishment can make us happy in the faith that all might not be right with our world but God is still in His Kingdom and from there, through His Holy Spirit, he reaches out to comfort each of us in such times of affliction.

And it was whilst reflecting on this point, that I found myself thinking back to the distraction I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the birchat al minim – the blessing of the heretics – is relevant after all. For Matthew, writing at a time of persecution by fellow Jews, had recalled Jesus injunction to be happy in the face of such persecution. Later in the Sermon on the Mount (verse 44), he reported Jesus saying:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

This is not the ‘those blessed heretics’ of the birchat al minim, inviting a ‘those blessed persecutors’ in retort; it is a reaching out to the persecutor, just as the risen Jesus would later do to Saul, who would become Paul.

Finally the other aspect of the call – for us to reach out to the afflicted. A few verses after the section of our Gospel reading this morning, we read of Jesus saying to the disciples:

You are the light of the world.

This is a truly amazing call – that the Son of God, Himself the Light of the World, should invite us, fallen as we are, to be so too. And in calling us to be a light, He calls us to reflect His light and that can only be done when we seek to reach out to the afflicted – to those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek in the face of the world, those who thirst for righteousness. And if we do that, we ourselves may more fully see the pure Light of Jesus as we become purer in heart, peacemakers who feel ourselves truly becoming the children of God.

And so, as in the reading from Micah this morning we may respond to God’s call:

To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.