When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain . . . .Then he began to speak, and taught them. Matt. 5:1. (The full text for this morning’s readings can be found here.)
In the name of the Living God, who is making all things new. Good morning, good morning. I want to thank Father Holloway for asking me back again and thank you all once more for your generous hospitality.
You know, there’s an idea floating around in Christianity today, and it’s been around for a while. This notion still has a lot of adherents today, and you can hear many of them on television. But this doctrine is well summed up in a story that Oral Roberts used to tell. It goes back to a time in 1947 when Roberts was going through a time of crisis in his life and ministry.
Well, around this time, through a friend who owned a Buick dealership, Roberts was able to acquire a brand-new shiny Buick automobile. According to Roberts, the “new car became a symbol to me of what a man can do if he would believe God.” His first book on this topic was entitled “God’s Formula for Success and Prosperity.” Like I said, that notion is still running around today. And that idea, which suggests that God’s love for us can be measured by our financial well-being, is sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel.
And there’s a theological term for it. We call it poppycock. We call it gibberish; we call it balderdash. If you have any doubts about it, all you need to do is study today’s gospel—because that’s not what Jesus is saying. Not at all.
Now, this story appears very early in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is baptized, he calls his disciples and then begins teaching and healing and the crowds start following him. And this story describes Jesus’ very first sermon, the first teaching that Matthew records. And Matthew wants to place Jesus in a historical context and a spiritual context. Like Moses, Jesus ascends to the mountain. Matthew wants to point his readers—us—to the notion that Jesus is the new Moses.
Rather than a tablet of laws, however, Jesus offers us a set of descriptions or signposts that point the way to the kingdom of heaven. Rather than a set of rules, he describes the surprising people that God treasures, and along the way shows us what a life with God would look like. They describe a divine reality we already live in, but can’t always see.
When we look at the world, any fool can see that meek don’t look very blessed. They didn’t inherit the earth then, and they’re still not inheriting it. And the merciful, they don’t seem to get much mercy. I’ve known way too many who mourn and they are still looking for their comfort. I’ve seen too many peacemakers laughed at, scorned and called unpatriotic. And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, well, they’re still hungry and they’re still thirsty.
If we’re really honest as we look at the world today, we’d say something like blessed are the well-to-do, for they can send their kids to good schools. And blessed are the really attractive people in this world, because their road is going to be a lot easier. Or, too often, blessed are those without much of a conscience, because they will find a way to get it done even when it’s built on deception or hurting good people. If we’re honest, we have to admit that the world Jesus describes is not really the world we’ve made for ourselves.
But it can be. In one sense, I think these beatitudes are a daring protest against the world around us. Jesus is announcing: this is not how God meant for us to live. This is not how things have to be. God sees this world very differently than most people do. And if we want to share in this kingdom-vision, we can begin by reexamining our values and the people who are down on their luck. Because in God’s story, in God’s story, we find some very surprising heroes.
These beatitudes teach us that the people that God calls holy, the people that God cherishes, are those who are vulnerable. Not the spiritual whizkids, but the poor in spirit. This world admires those who are strong, follows those who are influential, and marvels at blustery braggarts. But those are not the people that God embraces.
We can hear echoes of other parts of the gospel here. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant, she announces that God is going to scatter the proud and lift up the lowly. He will send the rich away empty and fill the bellies of the poor. He will pull the mighty from their seats and raise up the meek. Or maybe we hear the echo of Jesus saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. Or maybe we hear the resonance of Jesus telling us that the stone that the builder has rejected has become the cornerstone. All of us have experienced, at one time or another, that sort of rejection. We have all, at some time, been broken.
If we look at the people Jesus is talking about, the people this world rejects and calls losers, we find one common trait. They are vulnerable. The beatitudes teach us that the people God calls holy are broken people. And maybe that’s where we’ll find an insight into God’s mercy: it evades the appearance of perfection and reaches into the broken parts of the world to mend it. And maybe, just maybe, if we drink from the deep well of grace, we’ll learn to be like children, who show their scars like medals they’ve won.
I think that Jesus offered us these beatitudes, these blessings, to show us the world that God sees, to show us a vision that is too often clouded by the cataracts of sin and self-assurance. The gospel text today begins with the idea that Jesus “saw” the crowds. There’s a world of difference between looking and seeing. I think Jesus turned his penetrating gaze right into the broken hearts and souls of those very ordinary people who were listening to him.
So maybe that’s the challenge of today’s gospel. Maybe we are called to look upon the broken people—the vulnerable people in this world—and see them as a blessing. Maybe this passage calls out to us to bless them, and be blessed by them. I think Jesus’ vision of the kingdom calls us to see the world through the lens of mercy, through the eyes of those with pure hearts, from the perspective of those who’ve experienced a terrible loss.
These blessings are a protest against the world-as-it-is, and a call for us to reshape our lives as a people who have experienced the gift of failure. Jesus teaches us that our full humanity lies along the road of loss and the messiness of want and longing. Our deep hope, as opposed to a superficial optimism, lies in learning to live with compassion.
Sometimes I look at God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and I think it is the light of the world. And sometimes, I look at it, and I think it’s the Island of Broken Toys. And on my best days, on my very best days, I can look at it and see that it is both. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022