Well in today's Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after epiphany that I just read for you, we hear four of Jesus's Beatitudes. Now you'll see from the title of my homily, I refer to the Beatitudes as the Be-attitudes, because they're the attitudes for how to be.
The word beatitude comes from a Latin root word beatus, which means happy or fortunate. And that may seem very confusing to you. Because in these four Beatitudes, Jesus is talking about the poor, and the hungry, and the sorrowful, and the those who are persecuted. Those aren't really four groups of people who we think of when we think of people that are happy or fortunate.
So what are these Beatitudes all about? Well, many of you know that there are actually eight beatitudes that are told to us in Matthew's Gospel, in Jesus's famous sermon on the mount. Luke's Gospel, which we're reading from today, only has four Beatitudes, and Jesus doesn't deliver them from the mountain, the Sermon on the Mount, he delivers them from the ground. That's why this Gospel passage is referred to as the Sermon on the plain. And I really like that. I like that Jesus isn't up above talking down to the people. He's actually speaking to them from their level. But notice the first sentence of the Gospel reading says, “Jesus came down from the mountain and began to teach,” which means he was up on the mountain.
Now I've shared with you before, mountains appear in the Bible so many times, and it's symbolic. Mountains in the Bible symbolize a place of higher consciousness. And if you read the Gospels, you'll see every time Jesus is on top of a mountain, he's praying. So we know he was up there praying and meditating. And during that time, the Beatitudes were revealed to him. He comes down from the mountain to give the people this great and surprising teaching.
Our friend Father Richard Rohr says he believes that the Beatitudes are the greatest Wisdom Teaching of Jesus. And yes, these teachings are wise and great, but they were also really daring and really dangerous. Jesus would get killed for speaking those words. Richard Rohr says Jesus wasn't killed by evil men. He said Jesus was killed for daring to challenge the conventional wisdom of his day.
Now two modern-day prophets, 20th-century prophets Mahatma Gandhi, and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also were silenced for speaking these truths. In fact, both men said that it was Jesus's Beatitudes that sparked their activism. Dr. King said that the Beatitudes of Jesus were the motivating force behind the civil rights movements. Gandhi and Dr. King, were challenging the conventional wisdom of their day. So what makes these words so daring and dangerous that they wanted to silence Jesus for saying them?
I mean, Jesus is saying in these four Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the hungry, Blessed are the sick, Blessed are those who are persecuted. What's so dangerous, so daring about that? Well, you see, Jesus was telling the people, ‘Everything that you've been taught to believe by your ancestors, by the religious authorities, by society at large is wrong.’ The people of Jesus's day believed that if you were rich, if you were powerful, if you had success and prestige and good health, well, then God was rewarding you. You are God's highly favored ones because look how you're living.
And conversely they believed if you were poor and hungry and sick. Well, then God was punishing you. Because obviously you or your ancestors were sinners. You did something wrong. You were not God's highly favored. You are not worthy of God's love.
So what Jesus is saying here is, you're wrong. He takes what they believed, and he flips it on its head. He's saying, ‘No, it's just the opposite – the poor and the hungry, and the sick and the persecuted – they're God's highly favored ones, not you. And he's saying the kingdom belongs to them, not you. They're poor and sick, not because of God, but because of you. That's why they're poor and sick and hungry, because of you.
So those are very dangerous and daring words. You can see why people in power wanted to silence Jesus. But we, my friends, if we truly are to call ourselves Christians, followers of the way of Jesus, we have to be people of the Beatitudes, we have to care for the poor and the sick, we have to feed the hungry, we always have to be on the side of the oppressed. We're called to lift up the lowly, to make the least of these, the most important.
That's why if you believe that Jesus, if he was here today, would be about building walls and refusing refugees? If you believe that he would be advocating for policies that would benefit the rich and the powerful at the expense of the poo? Then you don't know Jesus.
Now, Pope Francis recently spoke of the Beatitudes, and of them, he said this, he said, “A person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not a Christian. This is not the gospel, we need to build up a society in light of the Beatitudes, walking towards the kingdom, with the least of these.”
We need to build up a society in light of the Beatitudes. That's what Jesus meant when he told us to build the kingdom, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. He's talking about building a society in light of the Beatitudes.
Most of us don't understand that. We were taught that the kingdom of heaven was something that happened after we die. And so for many of us growing up in the Christian church, we thought the Beatitudes meant blessed are you who are poor, because you're going to be rewarded in the next life. If you're hungry or oppressed now, well, you're blessed, because in the next life, when you die, and you're in heaven, then you're going to get your reward.
That's not what Jesus was saying. We heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, about the Jesus Seminar. And I've told you about the Jesus Seminar before. It happened in the 1980s and 90s. About 150 theologians and historians from all over the world got together to really study the teachings of Jesus and put them in historical context. And one of the many things they discovered was that in the sixth century, the Christian church destroyed all of the Aramaic Bibles. We know that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but they destroyed all of those Bibles. What we come to see when we take those teachings and we translate them back into the original Aramaic, we see that Jesus was not talking about heaven being a place we go to after we die. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was here. That's what he meant when he said, it's at hand.
So with the Beatitudes, Jesus isn't saying, ‘Well, if you're poor or sick, now you're going to be rewarded when you die.’ He says, ‘No, you're going to be rewarded right now. Because in this kingdom that I'm going to build right here on Earth, you're going to be first.’
And that's why we heard this morning that the Aramaic word for blessed is “congratulations.” Jesus is actually saying hey, poor people, Hey, hungry people. Hey, sick people, you who are being persecuted, congratulations! And why is he congratulating them? Because he's saying, this kingdom that's coming about, that I'm going to help build? In that kingdom, you're going to be first, you're going to be the most important. And then he says to the rich and the powerful. Woe, are you. ‘Woe’ meant warning. ‘I'm warning you, those of you who are full now, those of you who are laughing now, those of you who are rich now, Woe are you, because in the kingdom that's coming, you're going to be last, you're going to be pulled down from your thrones.
So you can see my friends why these words, why these Beatitudes were so daring and dangerous for Jesus to speak, and why he had to be silenced for saying them.
So what does all of this have to do with us today? Well, it's a good time for us to look at who we are aligned with in this story. Are you aligned with the rich and the powerful? Do you care more about maintaining the status quo, making sure that you're protected, that your stock portfolio is going to be well protected, that your retirement count is going to be protected, that you have good health care? Or are you concerned about other people? Are you concerned about everyone having good health care? Are you concerned about everyone's safety and security? Or do you just care about your own?
Maybe in this story, you're aligned with the poor and the hungry? Maybe not literally, but spiritually, maybe you right now you feel spiritually poor? Your spirit is so poor, it's low, it's dejected. You're so discouraged by the state of the country, and the state of the world. Maybe you're hungry, hungry for justice? Maybe you're sorrowful, maybe you're so sad at the way people treat one another.
If you're feeling that way, Jesus would say to you, congratulations. Congratulations, that you're feeling that way. Because you're awake, you're paying attention, you're alive. And you're ready to build this kingdom.
So congratulations, my friends,
I've told you this before. Jesus is not coming back to build the kingdom for us. He's not. He's calling us to build the kingdom. The Second Coming of Christ doesn't happen in the future. The Second Coming of Christ happens now. And it happens through us. We're the ones that we've been waiting for. So let us be people of the Beatitudes. And let us have the courage that Jesus did, and Gandhi did. And Dr. King did. Speaking truth so that we can bring about the kingdom of heaven here on Earth.
I would like to conclude my homily this morning by reading another modern-day version of the Beatitudes. And they were 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, vilify, persecute them. About the only thing you can't do is dishearten them. They comfort. They show mercy. They heal. They mourn with those who mourn, they love, they are filled to overflowing with goodness. And while some may see them as the weak ones, I say they are blessed.”
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
From the book, The Secret According to Jesus, by Rev. Ed Townley
In today’s Gospel story, known as the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is teaching the crowd, saying: “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who are weeping. Blessed are you who are persecuted.” Familiar translations for "blessed are you” have been "happy are you" or "favored are you.” But, the more recent “Jesus Seminar” Scholars Version captures both the meaning and the energy with a jolting choice of words: "Congratulations are you!" The word "congratulations" helps us to grasp how radical and dangerous these Beatitudes must have seemed when they were first spoken. At that time, people learned and believed wealth, happiness, and success were all signs of God's favor. People who were poor, sick, or failing in any way were clearly being punished by God. Then along comes Jesus, offering his spiritual congratulations to the very people who were being judged and condemned by the religious authorities of the time. He is telling those who have been most thoroughly excluded from religious acceptance that they are, in fact, God's beloved. What an energy of hope and new possibility his words must have carried to the poor, the sick, and the marginalized who thronged to hear him!
What did you think?