Much of the Church spent 2021 wondering what to do with all the anger people dragged in from the troubles of the world. There were many reasons to be angry! The American Psychological Association has been naming a main reason for years: climate change anxiety. But there is so much more! The effort to finally put an end to racial injustice may bear fruit, but the process has left a wake of injury in many places. Covid-19 makes everyone cranky, especially after another holiday season was impacted — we lamented the other day that just when we think we are getting our footing, we get clobbered again! The natural response to all these things is to cut off and withdraw. So we can add relationship issues to all the rest. (Maybe the commitment to cut-off started in 2013, as some sociologists say).
I was talking to a friend about these things and he had the sense to find a way to encourage me through my soft spot: the Sermon on the Mount. I still feel that central teaching of Jesus forms the heart of the “lens” through which Jesus-followers, like me, see the world. My friend lightly touched on the progression of the Beatitudes because I was feeling beat up and mourning, and that’s where they start. At first, he felt I was being stubborn and implied I needed to move on into forgiveness and courageous action. But the more he listened to me, the more he accepted that my grieving would last as long as it needed to last. Nevertheless, he reminded me of that other world, always possible beyond my present troubles. He is right, we all need to keep moving today and be our part of the salvation of the world with Jesus.
As I am wont to do, I googled his idea about the progression inherent in the Beatitudes. I thought he was referring to a book he had read, and I came up with it. The idea that the Beatitudes have a progression to them is hardly a new idea, but a particular look at their progressive sense was recently popularized by an Evangelical pastor serving in the Chicago suburbs named Colin Smith in Momentum: Pursuing God’s Blessings Through the Beatitudes.
The “intro” to the Sermon on the Mount got tagged as “The Beatitudes” in English because in Latin each line begins with “beati” or “blessed.” Add a “tude” to that and “beatitude” is “the state of being blessed,” and the “Beatitudes” are “the statements about being blessed.” If you take the Sermon on the Mount as basic to the way of Jesus laid out for his disciples, then you can feel the inherent progression in the Beatitudes. That sense of moving along can lean internal – they are the way to joy. If you add the idea that the sermon teaches the disciples how to be joy to the world then that sense has an external bent – they are the way to be a blessing.
My friend thought I should be a blessing, which I appreciate, since he thought I had it in me and might even be betraying my character and calling if I denied it. But he resigned himself to the fact that I had a way to go to get out of the morass of 2021 at this point. I might be a “blessingette” for a little bit each day, doing the best I could do for a while.
I think the first part of the Sermon on the Mount is so popular because it speaks to us from the beginning of our faith journey to the end — or, as I have heard, from messed up to blessed up. What’s more, it stays relevant. I am finding out one can get clear to the end of the Beatitudes and find himself back on square one at a deeper level.
What would a blessed 2022 look like? Is it having a happy intimate relationship? Is it grateful children or wise parents? Is it good health, surviving Covid? Is it not being the target of a climate disaster? Fulfilling work? Financial stability? Travel opportunities? Maybe you have an unconscious list you carry and are often irrationally angry when you don’t experience what is on it. Regardless, you probably noticed that none of the things I mentioned above. which are often on our lists, are on the Lord’s list.
Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are the happily married,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He doesn’t say “Blessed are those who enjoy good health,” but “Blessed are those who mourn.” He does not to refer to what Americans generally associate with blessing: a just piece of the American dream. According to Jesus, the greatest blessings aren’t found where we normally look, but in places we aren’t inclined to explore.
Villages along the way
So here is my take on the progression inherent in the beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12) as we begin our journey into more uncertain territory in 2022. We will arrive at little of external value if we don’t move into the internal, so let’s start at the heart of each of us.
When our Lord tells his disciples about life under God’s blessing, he describes a person poor in spirit, who mourns over sins, who meekly surrenders control, and so longs to grow in righteousness. These first Beatitudes feel counterintuitive to most of us. Being poor means you don’t have resources. Nobody wants that. But Jesus speaks of a kind of poverty that makes you rich. Mourning means you have great sorrow which is what we would most like to avoid. But Jesus speaks of a kind of mourning that leads to joy.
Smith and other Americans picture the Beatitudes like they present a course of discipline, something like the set for American Ninja Warrior. You get through one saying and you have another challenge until you ring the bell in verse 12. One interpreter saw them as rungs in one of those horizontal ladders next to the jungle gym. Traditional Catholic writers often see them as upward steps on the staircase of piety. Those interpretations might work for the Peloton generation. But they are a bit much for me. It think Jesus is inviting us all on a journey. It may be physical. But it is mostly the way of the heart. I’m not sure the heroic or better-abled have an advantage. Plus, is is not a race. We inevitably go at our own pace.
So think of them as a journey with me. To get to the further village, you’ll need to pass through the one you are in, at least the outskirts. They are not the wheel of time but a natural progression, step by step. They feel seasonal; you get to the end of one season and the next one rises before you. You can start the whole process again at a deeper level, perhaps, when you get to a whole new season of life.
The first village is one everyone will reach. If you move further you will find the second, the third, and so forth. The place of forgiveness, then purity, and then peace follow after the previous. They need to be reached. The Beatitudes lead us there with Jesus leading the way.
Roots . . . Shoots . . . Fruit
The first three beatitudes deal with our need. We’re poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) because we don’t have what it takes to live as our true selves; we are sidetracked. We mourn (v. 4) because our sins are many and we are sinned against; there are dark powers lording over us. We become meek, rather than resistant or avoidant (v. 5), because we admit we are helpless and not wise enough on our own. This turning onto a new path is the root of a blessed life.
Out of these roots come the shoots of the fourth beatitude—a hunger and thirst for right relationship with God and others (v. 6). The very soil where our unhappiness and need are rooted is where God reseeds us with a new longing. When we turn into and not away from the roots of the first three beatitudes, we are nourished, our desire for love and truth grow. I am experiencing this hunger right now. I am grateful to mark the end of a very costly 2021. I feel starved for new direction and community.
Continuing the metaphor, the roots produce shoots, and the shoots bear fruit. The first fruit of this blessed and godly life is mercy, or forgiveness and compassion (v. 7), then purity, childlikeness renewed (v. 8) and then peace, reconciliation with God and others (v. 9).
The order of the Beatitudes shows how to make progress
Our Lord also gave us an eighth beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (vv. 10-12). The others sayings reflect the character God’s people should develop on their way; but persecution is different. Though we shouldn’t pursue it, it will pursue us as we live in the light of the previous verses. I have often met up with people or forces I never expected along my journey — and I still love to travel! I have had a lot of v.11 insults and falsehoods thrown at me this year; I’m still hoping it was because of Jesus somehow.
The order of the Beatitudes, then, shows us how to make progress in the Christian life, village to village. If you want the fruits of forgiveness, clarity, and peace in your life, then begin with the roots of accepting how poor in spirit you are, mourning over your sins and situation, and meekly relying on the guidance and comfort of the Spirit.
Suppose you are trying to help a friend who wants to forgive, but feels it is beyond her reach. She knows she should forgive, and she admires those who do, but she’s been hurt. Her wounds run deep. The Beatitudes lead the poor in spirit on a journey toward mercy where they find the strength to forgive. The point is not about behaving properly, it is about moving with Jesus.
Or suppose you are discipling a friend who struggles with shame. His guilt is trapping him; his frailty is closing him in. He longs to be free but he can’t get out. His despair can lead to mourning which will eventually release him into a sense of being free and clean. It is less a matter of achieving perfection than it is staying on the journey with Jesus.
I think Jesus did a good job of encouraging his first disciples and then the billions who followed them to stick with their Guide along the way. The lofty and beautiful life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is not really good thinking that gets applied, it is a life which is continually realized, a journey. The Beatitudes are like welcoming villages where we are fed and conditioned to travel the next leg. We are always at a certain point along the way with Jesus and we are always about to move on with him toward wholeness.
When we look at the world at this point, the challenges of 2022 could easily seem insurmountable. So maybe this is a good year for the Beatitudes. They have such an innate generosity built into them which allows anyone who is poor in spirit to start along the way.