There are a whole lot of movies around about seeing history differently at the moment. I have not yet seen Hidden Figures although I have been told by many people here that it is one of the best movies they have seen. In case you have not come across it, it is the story of the african american women who worked for NASA in the space program as mathematicians and scientists.
Over the weekend I saw Bridge of Spies, based on the story of James Donovan, a New York attorney, called to defend and accused Russian Spy in 1960 and then asked to negotiate the release of Gary Powers and a student, Frederick Pryor.
Recently I have seen a lot of the Beatitudes, well at least parts of them, popping up on my Facebook feed. They are well known, they offer comfort and it makes sense, in times when it is difficult to know what to say, difficult to make sense of things in the ways which we are used to, that we turn to something familiar which might seem to frame our own concerns and offer us hope and stability.
Verses of the Bible often appear in social media, together with a pretty sunset photo or a challenging social photo. They are popular because they are like drive through religion or cramming down a bar of chocolate - immediately satiating, somewhat addictive - but we all know what happens when the sugar high wears off.
Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry. He has survived, thanks in no small part to Joseph (remember we are in Matthew, not Luke). He has been baptised, has survived the Temptation in the Wilderness, chosen disciples and now is surrounded by crowds of people interested in hearing, seeing and being touched by this new preacher and healer.
We cannot be sure whether the Beatitudes were actually preached to the whole crowd or whether they were a message to the Disciples. It is easy to overlook that first verse about going up the mountain with his followers - Matthew does not make it clear whether the crowds followed and were in earshot. It might not matter, only, having the thought that Jesus might only be talking to His inner circle should make us take seriously the possible intensity of His message.
The Sermon on the Mount sets the scene for Jesus ministry - this is what a Disciple is like, then, as we go through the chapters, this is what Christian community is like. Mountains and high places, of course, indicate the closer presence of God - going up to say these words is a powerful symbol of their origin. Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets which summarized the old law, Jesus ascends to proclaim a new paradigm of covenant and being. These sayings are no spiritual candy and we would do well to hear them in their context.
This idea of claiming an alternative view - or actually, seeing things as they actually are, is at the heart of the Beatitudes. The Greek is strange - a string of adjectives at the beginning but no noun or other object and no verb in the first part of some of the sentences. Interpret as you will. The Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, gives us the word Beati neatly at the beginning of each sentence. If is from here we get our word Beatitude. Blessed or honored from the Greek.
The thing is that Beati has almost opposite meanings in secular and ecclesiastical Latin. In the secular world it meant the rich, those who had been blessed with prosperity and wealth. However, the Church took the same word and turned it into a word about Saint. The blessed, the saints. This blessing, then, is a characteristic, not something we are getting. It is not a thing, a noun, something that is going to be done to us - it is who we are, an adjective.
And it is who we are, not who someone else is. It is tempting to use the Beatitudes as a sort of checklist as to how we are doing. How blessed are we, will we make it. We treat them as some sort of Spiritual inventory. I mourn, I hunger after justice, I tell people to be nice to each other - that is peacemaking, right?
But let’s for a moment see the Beatitudes in a different light. Let’s see them as a challenge and not a panacea. What if being a Disciple means that I am already Blessed - then I am already meek, poor in spirit, I mourn, I hunger and thirst after justice etc. If I have said yes to Jesus, if I bear the name Christian, then what if I have already signed on to all these things? What if this is a challenge to us to live into our faith and not a promise of future reward if we manage to check enough of them off on the list?
The thing that really stood out to me in the movie Bridge of Spies was when James Donovan was talking to a CIA agent who tells him there are no rules in the game of international espionage, that his attempt to defend Abel, the accused man, is lost. Throughout the movie Donovan has been driven by what he sees as a quest for ultimate justice, doing the right thing. A sham lawyer for a sham trial is not in his vocabulary, no matter what it costs him.
“My name's Donovan, Irish, both sides, mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one, one, one, the rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules and that's what makes us Americans and it's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book and don't nod at me like that….”
What is is, then, that holds us together as Christians? What is our Constitution? I would suggest the the Beatitudes are a good place to start. I wish I could tell you all how to live into these sayings, how to act into the blessedness which we receive from God, but I am not really sure I know for myself. I do know I need to ask.
“For theirs is the Kingdom of God,” is how we are accustomed to thinking about the Beatitudes. This makes it easy for us - we act, others are the poor or the oppressed and we look after them and then we all get, like a super prize, the Kingdom of God. But there is another way to translate these words, “because of them is the Kingdom of God”. That is a very different thing. That is not something that we will get around to when we have time, when the kids leave home, when it does not cost us much and might not cause embarrassment.
If because of us there is the Kingdom of God we must get on with being the Kingdom of God on earth. This is not, as my father would have said, all about “pie in the sky when we die”. This is about finding our common story and those things which bind us together as the Body of Christ here and now. We are in confusing and dangerous times, far too confusing and dangerous not to take this seriously.
This is not a “when I get around to it” thing, it is a here and now thing. It is an important thing. It is an unsettling thing. The Beatitudes are not a panacea but a challenge. A challenge to live lives which are transformed and transforming. “Blessed are you….” says Jesus. Blessed are we and we must learn to live as those who understand both the gift and the gravity of that title.