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On the fourth Sunday of Epiphany, the lectionary texts make clear that God’s light shines through the world’s darkest nights of oppression, injustice, and violence. For many readers, these texts will be familiar, perhaps even favorite, Bible verses.
Let them speak to you anew. Take some time today and meditate on these beautiful and challenging words from Micah and Matthew.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I don’t remember when I first heard the Beatitudes. There are a few words like that in my life — phrases uttered around me before I understood them — of which I have no first memory: Mommy and daddy, the Baltimore Orioles, Jesus, crab cakes, Democrats, the florist shop, Methodists, and “blessed are the poor.”
The words said around us as young children weave our very lives. These are the taken-for-granted things, so familiar that they make us who we are, establishing patterns for our loves, fears, prejudices, and preferences for decades to come.
But familiarity may, as the proverb says, breed contempt. Sometimes we have to shake the old childhood tapestry and get the dust out. Familiarity may also breed a kind of surety. We are certain we understand our parents, could coach the best baseball team, or make the ultimate crab cake in the world. Familiarity invites us into a false sense of expertise about relationships, a skill, an institution, or an idea. Thus, familiarity — because we so often think of it as sameness — both breeds contempt and sets us up for the temptation of control.
This is especially dangerous when it comes to scripture and theology. If we’ve heard something our entire lives, it can be very hard to see what we’re holding from a different angle and to reshuffle our deck of interpretative cards. And thus, when we hear verses like “blessed are the poor,” we think we know what they mean. Depending upon our mood, we treat the familiar text with nostalgia, a yawn, or intellectual superiority. Familiarity doesn’t allow for the possibility of biblical wisdom to crack through contempt or control. Familiarity tames the text when what we might well need is our spiritual lives disrupted.
All week, I’ve been reading and reflecting on those familiar words, “blessed are the poor,” and thought about the different ways I’ve understood them through the years and how much they’ve meant to me. Yet this year, in this re-reading, they fell flat.
Except for one phrase: “When Jesus saw the crowds.”
Since that little clause is the beginning of the first sentence in Matthew 5, I turned back to the page before. Did the end of that chapter provide a clue? “Jesus went throughout Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,” according to the final verses in chapter 4, “and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” His fame spread:
they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him . . .
Those are the people in the crowd to whom the Beatitudes were addressed — everyone cast off and rejected, who were believed to be somehow not entirely human, the unclean and the impure. That’s the crowd.
The crowd makes a difference. And yet, I can’t recall hearing a sermon about the crowd. Most sermons I’ve heard emphasize only the words of the Beatitudes — and how we find ourselves in those words — how those words are about a way of life for Christian people — how we can be happy and blessed.
Yet those beautiful, poetic words weren’t first heard by people like me; those words were gifted to people who were considered the refuse of the ancient world.
When I was younger, I’d imagined myself in the crowd listening to Jesus’ words, confused by them but embracing their warm comfort, drinking in his blessing. It was like a youth group meeting or a worship service where Jesus’ disciples gathered to hear his wisdom. We were clean, eager, and earnest. We wanted to follow Jesus.
But that crowd of the underclass and untouchables? Really? Would I be there? With them? If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I would have been. Perhaps I might have shown up out of curiosity. Or brought a sick friend. More likely, I’d have been an onlooker, shocked at the rabble following this rabbi, and puzzled by his blessing of the riffraff.
The crowd makes me uncomfortable. The crowd makes me wonder where I would have been on that day long ago. The crowd distances me from the familiar Beatitudes, those tamed blessings of my spiritual imagination. When the crowd comes into view, I find myself a guilty bystander, unsure of myself and somehow stricken that their blessings are beyond me. No matter how difficult my life, how much sorrow I know, I feel separate and separated from the crowd of “all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.”
When I feel the pain of the separateness, a strange thing happens — the division begins to dissolve. The sorrow I feel for my own distance lures me into sympathy — and empathy — for those deemed undesirable. And I realize that the only way to blessing, the only way to Jesus, is through the crowd — that crowd. Bystanders aren’t blessed. Only participants.
Perhaps we can’t find ourselves in the words until we find ourselves in the crowd.
Or maybe we’ve been in and with the crowd all along and just didn’t know it.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
To change the world enough
you must cease to be afraid
of the poor.
We experience your fear as the least pardonable of
humiliations; in the past
it has sent us scurrying off
daunted and ashamed
into the shadows . . .
— Alice Walker, a snippet from her “To Change the World Enough”
Blessed are the poor, in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus. (Commas restored).
Jesus was as usual talking about solidarity: about how we join with others
and, in spirit, feel the world, and suffering, the same as them.
This is the kingdom of owning the other as self, the self as other;
that transforms grief into
peace and delight.
I, and you, might enter the heaven
of right here
through this door. . .
— Alice Walker, a snippet from her “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit”