By J. Donald Waring
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength … Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. (from Jeremiah 17)
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke we’ve heard the portion of Christ’s Sermon on the Plain called the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a sermon, or a distillation of many sermons that Jesus preached in which he pronounced God’s blessings to be upon those who would not likely make any list of tough guys. Rather than conquering life, these are people who have been conquered by it.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you … on account of the Son of Man … for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Those are the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain.
“But wait,” you say. “Sermon on the Plain? I thought the Beatitudes were in the Sermon on the Mount.” You’re right: the Beatitudes are in the Sermon on the Mount, as Matthew records it. But scholars tell us that Matthew’s Beatitudes are the more housebroken version compared to Luke’s. In Matthew, Jesus is removed from us on a mount, speaking to the 12 disciples only, pronouncing blessings in the third person. Matthew’s first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is much more palatable for people of means than Luke’s “Blessed are the poor. Period.”
Matthew’s Beatitudes have been more popular for good reason; they fit nicely onto sheet music, and into the stained-glass parameters of spirituality. They give no undue offense. Luke’s words, however, are a harder, tougher, more direct account of the sermon. Jesus comes down from the mount, and gets in our face, speaking in the second person — to you, not them. What is more, the accompanying “woes” turn up the heat even further. Perhaps the difference between Matthew and Luke goes all the way back to Jesus himself, who gave essentially the same message on two different occasions — once on a mount and once on a plain. In any case, neither is a list where you want to find your name.
The Beatitudes are a complete reversal of the way we think things ought to be. Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep, and you whom people hate? With blessings like these, who needs curses? Or, in the words of the late Mae West, a movie star of the 1930s, “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich. Believe me: rich is better.” We don’t trust the prophet Jeremiah when he claimed to speak for the Lord, saying, Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength. We do “in our own strength confide,” despite what the great hymn (688) says that we opened with today. We don’t want to let others see that we aren’t strong.
I remember an incident some years ago when I desperately wanted to hide a rather public stumble. I was riding my bicycle on a busy street, traveling along at a nice clip, when traffic in front of me slowed. Instead of stopping along with everybody else, I thought using the sidewalk to keep going might be a good plan. So without slowing down much I veered into the first driveway opening I could find. Too late did I notice a large patch of sand still left at curbside from the previous winter. The tires of my bike hit the sand and flew out from underneath me.
For one agonizing moment that seemed to last forever, I knew I was going to hit the ground hard. Down I went with a spectacular tumble for all to see. After I landed, I remember my very first concern being not how badly I might be hurt, but whether anyone in all the waiting traffic had seen me fall. I got up as quickly as possible and walked along as if nothing had happened — as if to convince people I’d actually meant to go sprawling on the sidewalk. I mean, God forbid that I should need someone’s help. That would mean I wasn’t a tough guy. And I wasn’t going to let on to that — not even in that ridiculous situation.
Isn’t it a shame: we have so bought into the world’s standards of success that Christ’s beatitudes are foreign to our daily living. We can’t admit to the failure that’s required to embrace them. We don’t ask for help when we need it. Our pride won’t allow us to shed a tear in public. Our culture pressures us to be strong, keep up appearances, shake off your grief and pain, flirt with that avalanche.
Thanks for the blessings, Jesus, but perhaps you should save them for people who really need them. Me? I’m fine. Have a nice day. Isn’t it a shame: somehow this reliance on human strength has seduced even those who claim to be followers of Jesus. All Beatitudes aside, what we really suspect is that God approves of the tough guys: “The Lord helps those who help themselves” is a phrase I’ve heard many good Christian people put into the mouth of Jesus. The trouble is, Jesus never said those words. You will not find them anywhere in the Bible. And nothing could be further from the gospel of grace that Jesus preached and lived. The Lord helps those who know they need help. The Lord helps those who seek his mercy and rely on God’s strength.
Why does Jesus bless the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the unjustly reviled? The reason is not because he wanted to romanticize these conditions, or in any way encourage us to be stuck there. Likewise, God certainly has nothing against trying hard, and doing well, and being the best possible steward of our time, talents, and treasure. But in the end, God sides with the weak and disaffected. Why? Because these folks have already learned what many of the tough guys and thrill-seekers never will: that human might and strength are insufficient to bring about God’s kingdom, God’s fullness, God’s joy, and God’s rewards.
The prince of darkness grim, they are no match for him is how we might paraphrase another line from Luther’s hymn. But those who have been conquered by life have given up the notion that they are their own “mighty fortress.” Their bulwarks have failed, and that makes them more open to receiving new life, the life of Christ, resurrection, eternal life. They live in the place “where faith is possible.” God calls us out of our security, out of our mighty fortresses, into a life where faith is possible. That place is the daily abode of the people mentioned in the Beatitudes.
Do you still think that God is secretly expecting you to be a tough guy? Do you still fear that the blessings of the beatitudes are a hoax, and that what is in store for failures is guilt, not grace? I want to read something to you. It is a short piece about the life of Jesus that strikes me as wonderfully good news for all those who know they need help. In light of all the hype that Mel Gibson’s movie is stirring up about the life of Jesus, this little piece, called “One Solitary Life,” speaks quietly yet powerfully about the number-one person on our list. I do not know the author, who, in reference to Jesus writes:
Here is a man who was born of Jewish parents in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. They laid him in a borrowed manger in a rude stable. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never went to college. He never traveled two-hundred miles from the place he was born. He painted no pictures. He composed no music. He had no influential or affluent friends. He had no bank account. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but a life obedient to God. While he was still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying — and that was his coat. When he was dead he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Several days later some women who had come to the tomb to anoint his body were told that he had risen from the dead.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the focus of the human race and Lord and Master of millions. This man whose cradle was among the straw of a stable because there was no room in the inn now causes the whole world to stand still in undying remembrance of his birth. This man who wrote no books has had more books written about him than any man who ever lived. This man who wrote no music has furnished the theme for the world’s greatest composers. This man who painted no pictures has inspired the greatest art of the world. This carpenter of Nazareth whom the world once rejected has become the very foundation of a whole civilization. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of humanity upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life — Jesus the Christ.
Perhaps in those words about Jesus’ life, you find good news for your own one solitary life — no matter how badly life has conquered you, no matter how much in need of mercy you may be. Remember the words of the Lord, as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. Indeed, blessed are those whose trust is in Jesus: the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing, without whom our striving would be losing.
The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Church, Manhattan, New York.