Saturday, January 17, 2009

We Are the Light of the World

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
-Matthew 5:8
I've long had a problem with other people's interpretations of the Beatitudes. So often they're treated as commandments. Some people hear, "Blessed are the meek," and they seem to automatically translate it to, "Thou shalt be meek!" That's always kind of gotten under my skin. These are announcements of blessing, right? But the human heart is an hopeless seeker of merit, and so the natural reaction is to ask, "What do I have to do to earn that blessing?" And the only answer in sight is, "Be meek." So it becomes a commandment. The problem is, it doesn't work quite as well with "Thou shalt mourn" or "Thou shalt be persecuted."

Against this, I've seen (and been taught to see) the Beatitudes as blessings, announcements of God's favor. But despite my best efforts, I haven't really been able to dig in and get more than a shallow grasp on this. I've always been in danger of slipping into a sort of "Minnesota nice" view of it, like the woman in Monty Python's Life of Brian who says, "Oh! It's 'the meek'...'Blessed are the meek.' That's nice. I'm glad they’re getting something because they have a terrible time."

I've gotten some help from Christian thinkers from Dallas Willard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I can't remember exactly who put it this way (maybe Willard), but I remember reading someone who said the Beatitudes are a description of what life in the Kingdom of God is like. I liked it, but it didn't really sink in with me. But this week, as I reflected on this passage, by God's grace it did sink in.

I would describe my understanding this way: The Beatitudes are a vision of Christian community. I think my problem in the past is that I've always tried to view things too much from an individual's point of view. "I'm poor in spirit, so I score. I'm not mourning, but I'm happy that those who are will be comforted." Or, on my best days, I saw the people of God in the "blessed" column and God on the "blessing" side.

And I guess this was my real breakthrough this week. I saw that the people of God are blessed through the people of God. We are both blessed and blessing because God is in our midst.

The poor in spirit are welcomed into the community. The community comforts those who mourn. The community values the meek and helps them to thrive. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice will have their fill in the community. The merciful will meet mercy within the community. The pure in heart will see God all around them in the interactions of the community. Peacemakers will be called childern of God in the community. Persecution will not overcome the community. All of this is because God is in their midst.

This understanding gives the Beatitudes an overwhelmingly strong connection to the sayings about the salt of the earth and the light of the world that follow, and invites me to continue applying this sort of view further into the Sermon on the Mount.

One of the great shortcomings of modern English is that you (singular) and you (plural) are the same word. It causes us to hear things like, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and respond, "Who me? Oh, thank you very much. I'll work on that." But with a suspicion fed by my above insight, I looked it up. Those "you's" are plural.

Unless the righteousness of the Christian community exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, the Christian community will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

It's even more pressing, isn't it? It's not just my soul on the line now.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

That's a really interesting way to see it, and you're right, it DOES make more sense now. And not being alone does make it more pressing. Thanks