Monday, June 8, 2009

Blessed Are You

Matthew 5:1-12

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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“When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain side and he sat down.”

That is a significant detail in the gospel of the Sermon on the Mount. Often, when a rabbi was having a discussion with a student, or a group of students, he would walk with them. But when he was expounding the Law, he would sit in front of them. When Matthew writes that Jesus sat down, he is telling us that what follows is not small talk, but serious business. The Beatitudes are the core of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sermon on the Mount is the core of the good news.

In our translation, the Greek word “makarioi”, which begins each of the beatitudes, is translated “blessed”; in other translations, it is “happy”. There is a significant difference between being blessed and being happy. Just this morning our cook showed me pictures of her newborn granddaughter. As is usually the case, there were pictures of older children gathered around, and – it goes without saying – pictures of each of them holding the newborn. As for the baby – she slept through it all. She enjoyed her blessed nap. “You are blessed with good health”, they say, and they mean that you are lucky. But you don’t feel blessed, you feel normal. It is only when we are sick that we appreciate the blessing of good health. “When you have a toothache, you realize how wonderful it is not to have a toothache”, wrote Thich Nhat Hanh.

Happiness, on the other hand, is merely a feeling that comes and goes. The core of the word is related to “happening”, “happenstance” and “perhaps”. The one thing constant about feelings is change, just like the weather. “If you don’t like the weather in New England”, wrote Mark Twain, “wait a minute.” If you’re feeling glad, wait a minute, and you might be feeling sad.

Jesus doesn’t tell to be happy. He tells us that we are blessed. If you are poor in spirit, you probably don’t even know what that means, but you are blessed. If you are mourning the loss of a friend or a family member, you don’t feel happy, but you are blessed. If you are meek, you are likely to get ignored, which won’t make you feel good, but you are blessed. If you ever tried to break up a school yard brawl, when you were in grade school, you may have had both brawlers turn on you, but God blessed you for your effort.

The last of the Beatitudes is so significant that Jesus repeats it and expands on it. If you strive to be a righteous follower of Jesus, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, you are likely to be misunderstood, to be ridiculed, and even, in some instances, to be persecuted. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in Heaven. (And probably not till then!)

I close this reflection with the words of Saint Paul to the people of Corinth, today’s first reading:

2 Corinthians 1:1-7

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our joy.

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