Today's Gospel reading from the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany comes from Jesus's famous sermon known as the Sermon on the Mount, in which he recites the Beatitudes. And if you looked in the bulletin you saw that I titled my homily, today, the BE-attitudes, because these are the attitudes for how to be.
Now the word beatitude comes from a Latin word beatus, which means happy, fortunate, blessed. And that may seem very confusing for us. Because in the Beatitudes, Jesus is talking about the poor, and the hungry, and the sorrowful, and the persecuted – people we don't normally associate with being happy, fortunate or blessed. Do we?
So what are these Beatitudes all about? Well, that's what we're going to explore today. The Beatitudes Jesus gives to us from a mountain. It's called the Sermon on the Mount. I've shared with you many times before that mountains appear a lot in the Bible, and they're always symbolic. They symbolize a place of higher consciousness.
So Jesus is in that place of higher consciousness when the Beatitudes are revealed to him. And he goes down the mountain and shares them with his students, very much like when Moses was atop Mount Sinai, and the 10 commandments were revealed to him, and he brought them to the people.
Theologians for centuries have said that Jesus's Beatitudes are his greatest teachings. In fact, our friend, the Christian writer, Father Richard Rohr says that he believes that the Beatitudes are the greatest Wisdom Teachings of Jesus.
Now, yes, these teachings are great, and they're wise, but they're also really dangerous. Father Rohr goes on to say, Jesus was not killed by evil men. Jesus was killed, he says, because he dared to challenge the conventional wisdom of his day. The Beatitudes challenge the conventional wisdom of Jesus's day –so much so that they needed to silence Jesus for saying them.
Now more recent truth tellers, more recent prophets –20th century prophets, Mahatma Gandhi, and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King – were silenced for daring to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day. And not surprisingly, both of those great prophets, said that it was Jesus's Beatitudes that inspired their activism.
In fact, Dr. King said that Jesus's Beatitudes were the motivating force of the entire civil rights movement.
So what was Jesus doing here? We heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance, the Beatitudes were meant to shock people. And I know that these words that I just read, maybe don't sound very shocking to you. But here's what Jesus was doing. He was taking long-held beliefs that had been passed on for generations by our ancestors and teachers and rabbis, beliefs that society held in general, conventional thinking, and he was telling people, that's got to change.
And people don't like to hear that. So for example, in Jesus's day, it was believed that if you were rich and you were powerful, if you had a nice house and nice clothes, well, that meant that God was rewarding you, you must be living life, right, because look how wonderful your life is.
Conversely, they believed that if you were sick, if you were poor, if you were hungry, well, then God was punishing you. Because either you or your ancestors had sinned.
That was the conventional wisdom. That's what was taught to them, by their parents and by their religious leaders.
Then Jesus comes along with the Beatitudes and says, “No.”
Jesus actually flips these beliefs on their head. He says, ‘No, the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, they're God's favorite ones. The kingdom belongs to them.’
And that's why Jesus needed to be silenced, for leading that movement in support of the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed.
So what does it mean for us today in 2023, when Pope Francis recently said, ‘We must build up a world in light of the Beatitudes, walking towards the kingdom with the least of these.” That's our call.
If the Beatitudes are Jesus's greatest teachings, and we call ourselves Christians, followers of his way, then we have to follow this way, which means we've got to welcome the foreigner and the stranger. We've got to heal the sick. We've got to feed the hungry. We've got to lift up the lowly. And we have to make the least of these the most important people in our world.
Can you imagine if we actually did that? We we could bring about the Kingdom of Heaven! We could! Now in our Words of Integration and Guidance, this morning, we heard about the Jesus Seminar. And I've told you about the Jesus Seminar before. Back in the 1980s, and 90s, a group of about 150 theologians from all over the world, the world's greatest biblical scholars, got together to look at the facts of Jesus in His ministry, not the long-held, conventional doctrine and dogma of the churches about Jesus. But to actually get to the core of who Jesus was and what his teachings were about.
They discovered many things. And one of the things they discovered is, all of the Aramaic Bibles were destroyed by the church in the sixth century. We know Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic. So what the Jesus Seminar attempted to do was translate the teachings of Jesus back to their original Aramaic.
And one of the things they discovered was that when Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven, it wasn't the place we go to after we die.
And that totally changes the understanding most of us have about the Beatitudes. I don't know about you, but when I was a little boy growing up in church, and I heard the Beatitudes, and Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you when you're persecuted and poor and hungry, your reward will be great, in Heaven.’ I thought, ‘Oh, the people that are poor and hungry and persecuted. When they die, and they get into heaven, their rewards going to be there.’
That's not what Jesus was saying.
The kingdom of heaven he's talking about is here and now. It's the heaven on earth that he was bringing about, that he is calling us to bring about. That's why he says that the the people here – the hungry, the poor, the persecuted – will inherit the Earth.
It's about this new world order here on earth that he's bringing about. That's the kingdom.
And then the other thing that the Jesus Seminar discovered, which we heard about this morning, is that the word Jesus used in Aramaic, which was translated into blessing. ‘Blessed are the poor blessing are the hungry,’ actually meant congratulations. That's really what he was saying, ‘Hey, if you're poor right now, congratulations! If you're hungry, congratulations! If you're persecuted, congratulations! Because you see in the kingdom that I'm bringing about – this new world order – you're going to be first you're going to be at the top.
And again, those words are dangerous to people who are in power and people who have privilege. They're scared by that. And that's why they needed to silence people like Jesus and Gandhi and Dr. King.
Now, later on, Jesus, in his sermon, would give four woes to the rich, to those who held power and privilege. And to those who are laughing. He says, ‘Soon, all of you are going to be mourning, and weeping.’
So again, what does this mean for us today? Well, let's look at who we are with the Beatitudes. There are a lot of Christians in America today, people who claim to be followers of Jesus, but they don't follow his greatest teaching.
So they don't want to welcome the stranger. In fact, they say, ‘I don't want these People in my country, they're stealing my jobs.’ And these people who claim to be Christians, they don't want to give free health care to the sick. And they say to the poor and the hungry, ‘Get off of welfare, get a job.’
But then there are Christians who are trying to build up the world in light of the Beatitudes. They may not all be poor financially, but they're poor in spirit, which means that they are dejected about the state of our nation in the world. They may not be hungry for food, but there are Christians today who are hungry for justice. And there are Christians today who are sorrowful, they are mourning about the state of the church, and the state of the world.
If you are one of those people, Jesus would say, Congratulations! Congratulations, that you're feeling that way. You know why? Because you're dissatisfied with the status quo. And that means you're going to wake up. This is Waking you Up, this dissatisfaction with the way things are, so that you can continue the work of bringing about the Kingdom.
When it says in Scripture, the second coming of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth is not coming back. Jesus is not coming back. He's not gonna drop from the sky and appear on Earth and fix everything for us.
The second coming of the Christ happens in us. It's the Christ in us, who's called to continue to build this new world order. We are to be the changemakers. We’re the ones we've been waiting for.
And that's what the Beatitudes call us to do, to bring about this just world for all people.
Now, here is a modern day version of the Beatitudes that was written by John Patterson.
“Here's to the weak ones, the outcasts, the broken the peacemakers, the ragamuffin royalty, who will inherit a new world, the ones who see God through open eyes, and open hearts. They don't long for power, and they have no respect for status. You can insult them, spread lies about them, disbelieve them, vilify them persecute them. The only thing you can't do, is dishearten them, because they show comfort. They show mercy. They heal. They mourn with those who mourn a love. They're filled to overflowing with goodness. And while some may see them as the weak ones, I say they are blessed.
May it be so. Namaste.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Thomas Shepherd
In the Sermon on the Mount, the author of the Gospel of Matthew brings together in one speech all the essential teachings of Jesus' three-year ministry. The Sermon begins with this passage known as the Beatitudes, intended to shock and awaken his listeners into realizing that his message was going to be radically different from traditional religious teaching. The translators of the Jesus Seminar, in their book The Five Gospels, attempt to communicate this radical energy by changing the mild "Blessed are ..." to the more aggressive "Congratulations to ...." Congratulations to the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. All of those listening to Jesus were “poor in spirit,” feeling like religious rejects living unhappy lives with no real hope of “salvation.” Jesus makes the essential point that a sense of being poor in spirit—a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo—is a good thing; it's essential for anyone about to set out on the great spiritual process that will bring the kingdom of heaven into expression through us. We won't be motivated to move forward if we're passively accepting of what already is. The same is true throughout the Beatitudes. Each overturns the religious mindset that sees negative life experiences as punishment from God. They are rather wake-up calls to get us moving on our spiritual purpose. We must mourn our lost sense of spiritual identity if we are ever to find it again. We must hunger and thirst after righteousness if we are to bring the experience of righteousness into being. We must begin to recognize the creative power of our own thoughts—thoughts of mercy create a merciful life experience, thoughts of peace create a peaceful world. We must, in short, stop seeing ourselves as victims—of either an angry God or an unfair world—and allow Jesus to teach us how to claim our true spiritual power.
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