Mark Shea: Blessed are the poor, mourning and meek

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Both versions of Jesus’s sermon on the mount pronounce a blessing on the underdogs of society. PHOTO: Peter Rosengren

Part 2 of Mark’s series exploring the Beatitudes

One of the first things to note about the Beatitudes is that there are two sets of them.  Matthew 5 gives us one version and Luke 6 gives us another.  The similarities are as notable as the contrasts.  Both versions pronounce a blessing on the underdogs—the poor, the sorrowing, the hungry, and the persecuted.  But Luke’s version has interesting differences too.

For one thing, while Matthew’s sermon happens on a mountain (since Jesus is like Moses giving a new law to a new Israel), Luke sermon happens on a “level place” because Jesus is the New Adam calling the whole human race together as brothers and sisters in him.  Also, Luke includes a bunch of “woes” with his Beatitudes that deliver solemn warnings to the rich and powerful in contrast to Jesus’ blessings on the underdogs.

Some people, seeing these contrasts, immediately assume that only one version can be the “real” Beatitudes.  But of course, what we are hearing in these summaries of Jesus’ preaching are variations on a “stump speech” he likely gave a zillion times as he travelled around the Holy Land on his preaching tours.  He preached the beatitudes countless times—and changed them up depending on who he was talking to and what they needed to hear.  The anawim—the desperate and deeply pious rural poor of Israel—did not need to be clubbed over the head with, “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  But the smugly rich and powerful in the cities—and especially in Jerusalem—needed to hear exactly that warning. Luke, writing to rich and poor, gives both.

Matthew is attempting something different. He prefers to focus on the spiritual more than the material.  So while Luke is addressed to the materially poor (an absolutely essential aspect of gospel teaching), Matthew speaks of the “poor in spirit.”

Tragically, we now live in an age when huge numbers of Christians have embraced a gnostic view of life that pits the spiritual against the material.  For them, the popular lie is that being poor in spirit is the opposite of being materially poor.  Such Christians are eager to pretend that you can serve both God and Mammon and that, conversely, the poor are poor because they are losers, not blessed. They love the bunk that you can be poor in spirit while loving money. Jesus, in contrast identifies with the poor, as Matthew makes that clear when he reminds us that whatever we do for (or to) the poor, we do to Jesus himself.

Jesus’ blessing on those who mourn is also counter-intuitive—until you experience his comfort. He speaks of all forms of sorrow here.  And we see him comfort a host of different mourners in Scripture.  Some sorrow comes to us from outside, such as tragedy to those we love.  He consoles those mourning the death of loved ones by raising them from the dead.  He consoles the sick and the oppressed.

But he also consoles those whose sorrow comes from themselves, because of the shame of sin.  Peter begs him to go away because of his sinfulness when they first meet.  Instead Jesus comforts him with a call and a mission.  And the risen Jesus continues that comfort even when Peter fails him at the Cross, by restoring him to that mission with the call to feed his sheep. Jesus’ consolations always seek to heal and restore to a life even greater than the one we lost.

Jesus then offers a curious blessing, and again a very counter-cultural one: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  It is notable that the reward of “the earth” has strong echoes in the Jewish tradition.  Israel, after all, inherited the land in which they lived by conquest.  That was the norm for how all peoples who wanted land got it.  And in Jesus’ day, that earth had been, in turn, taken from his people by the occupying Roman power.  His contemporaries had very definite ideas about how to inherit the earth: muster an army and destroy your enemies.

But Jesus has bigger plans: a new heaven and a new earth in which humans raised from the dead—just like him—will live in peace, starting with self-denial and love for enemies right now.  So instead of conquest of Rome by power, Jesus blesses conquest of sin and death by meekness.

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