1 Cor. 1:18–25 & Matt 5:1-12
Reflection by Dan Spragg
What does it mean to be blessed? Take a moment of thinking out loud on that with your neighbour.
What does it mean to be blessed? It isn’t a straightforward question. I could show you a quick google search that would give us a good indication of what popular culture believes it to mean. The ‘hashtag’ ‘#blessed’ a few years ago became the most widely used tag as people were posting things online. It became a trend to take a photo of yourself in exotic locations, with beautiful people, drinking expensive wine and to tag the photo with the word, ‘blessed’. That sort of behaviour becomes pretty annoying pretty quickly, for good reason. It speaks more of a false humility, certainly, it isn’t about being blessed. But a certain picture of the good life is what we are meant to value isn’t it?
The other big thought floating around the western world recently is that of happiness. Some would say that the meaning of life is to be happy. Is that what it is to be blessed, happy? It is interesting that one of the bible translations that I usually quite like translates this passage in Matthew as, “Happy are those…” in an attempt I guess to bring this sermon of Jesus into our time in the world. But it feels a bit temporary to me. Happiness is more of a feeling in a moment isn’t it? This to me feels to cheapen the depth of what Jesus is trying to say here. Perhaps it is even a little on the nose! Try telling someone who is struggling in poverty, or in grief, that they should be happy… it doesn’t feel right!
The idea of blessing, definition wise, holds that it has something to do with the divine, something to do with God. Religions and religious people have understood this throughout all of history. To be blessed was to receive the favour of God. From what we see in history, and even in some of today’s forms of religion, what people name as God’s blessing tends to take on more of the human tendency to love and value things that look shiny and cost a lot of money… from the wealth and opulence of the traditional churches in history, to the private jets and Harley Davidson motorbikes of self-proclaimed bishops, modern tele-evangelists and the disciples of prosperity teaching… popular culture is a very powerful influencer when it comes to what we value and what we don’t.
What does it mean to be blessed? What does it mean to receive the favour of God? Is it simply to have nice things, to be a nice person, to have a good family, some good friends, and some money in the bank? Even in Jesus day it was quite apparent what people considered to be the blessing of God. That’s the thing with universal human tendencies, they exist in almost every time and place. In Jesus day, as in ours, it was often thought, and even taught that God blesses those who behave well, follow the rules, and work hard. I think our collective ‘missing the point’ is that we equate blessing with external things, with outcomes, or with conditions that are needed to be met. You will be blessed because of x,y,z… do this and then, then you will be blessed…
There is a stream of thought in theology called Liberation Theology. It holds that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. In Liberation Theology God takes sides. God does not sit as a neutral observer impartial to what is happening, God actively sides with those who are oppressed. Liberation Theology was birthed in the struggles of the south American people among others in the second half of last century who took to heart and took great solace in the writings in the Old Testament where the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and the oppressed are upheld as valuable. They took to heart Jesus announcement in Luke where he says that he has come to ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… to free the oppressed.’ Liberation Theology brought a great reminder to Christian thought worldwide, especially to the western world, to remember that as our wealth and influence grew, the plight of those who our society ignored and indeed who in our capitalist system we needed to make our cheap goods and provide our cheap labour, those people too were valued by God. Liberation Theology would say that God not only values these people, but that God gives preferential attention to them.
The stream of instruction and teaching in the bible about God’s attention, love, and care for those who are on the lower end of things is quite immense and the church’s response to this throughout history has mostly got it right. Our response to the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves has been mostly, on the whole, pretty good. But the question still remains, what does it mean to be blessed? Despite the overwhelming evidence that God has a large heart for those who are less fortunate, and despite our good work in response to this, our tendencies are still to not quite understand what Jesus was saying here. But Jesus, in another place said, ‘The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’ This is helpful and we have to remember that Jesus entire ministry is related to the belief he had that he was announcing afresh the way of God that had come to take root in the world. All he does and all he says is because of this belief, this conviction.
It’s not surprising given the arc of scripture before Jesus, that the beatitudes come at the beginning of his first public teaching in the book of Matthew. At the end of chapter 4 just before this, Jesus has been healing the sick, the diseased, and casting out demons. Then here, he goes up a mountain – which is always a significant theological moment in the bible – his disciples join him, and he begins to teach them. It is like he is teaching them, by giving language to what they have just seen him doing. It is like he is giving them an explanation of what has just happened. It is like he is saying what is indicative of what God’s way in the world looks like. ‘All that has been said in the scriptures until this point, well look around you, this is what it means.’ Jesus doesn’t teach here the conditions of blessing but rather names what the way of God is like and pronounces a blessing upon those who we would normally not look at in that light. What does it mean to be blessed? It means that God favours you. It is a statement of being, a giving of identity, an announcement of place, a proclamation of inherent value. Now, of course God loves everyone, but are we willing to understand that when it comes to the poor, those who are suffering in any way, those who are struggling against the powers that be for justice and peace and righteousness, those who are oppressed in any way, those who are persecuted for what they believe; when it comes to all these, God not only loves them, but God in actual fact favours them.
So, if this is how God sees things, if this is how Jesus teaches us like those first disciples, how does this shape our understanding of what we are to value? Or perhaps more specifically, who we are to value? What do we strive for? Who do we seek to exalt? Personally, I find it hard sometimes to resist popular culture that constantly tells me what I should value. I like nice things; I like being comfortable. I wouldn’t be surprised if we all do at times. With the wealth of information and the often-overwhelming amount of issues in our world, even in our own country, it is hard to care all the time. What does it mean to us that living in God’s way means to value an upside-down way of living? Do we lift up those who are poor in spirit? Do we lift up those who mourn? Do we exalt the meek? Do we strive for righteousness? Do we act mercifully? Do we keep our hearts pure? Do we strive for peace? Do we stand firm in the face of criticism, or rejection, or even persecution? (Do we let ourselves be in places we’re we might attract persecution?)
What does it mean to be blessed? And, indeed, how are we to live as our response to this? They aren’t easy questions! Some words from our 1 Corinthians reading today may be of some encouragement: “23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23-25)
And here’s a quote from a commentator I listened to this week. Along with Paul’s words to the Corinthians, hear this as encouragement as well: “Sometimes the only way to be a disciple of Jesus is to do that which makes no sense. Do the beatitudes make any sense? Does Jesus teaching make sense? Does an empty tomb make sense? Do grace, mercy, and justice make sense?”
Perhaps it is ok that the question of what does it mean to be blessed isn’t a straightforward one. And, maybe that’s the point – a reminder that God’s ways of being usually operate on a different level to ours. Perhaps it isn’t meant to make sense. So as we wrestle with the teaching of Jesus coming to us from then, into our now, maybe that’s enough to be mindful of as we listen to Jesus teaching in our time. God’s ways usually operate on a different level to ours, and to be aware of that is enough to say ‘yes’ and to keep going in faith as we follow Jesus in the way of God.