Ridiculous Blessings {a hillside sermon}

Blessed are the poor. {Jesus}

Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. {Paul Simon}

No matter the continent or century, we agree: the destitute and impoverished among us are the oppressed, not the privileged. The poor are beaten down by the man, undone by their addictions or overwhelmed by unjust systems. However we might describe the downtrodden, they are most certainly not blessed.

Yet Jesus leads off his litany of blessing in his sermon on the hill, the sermon launching revolutions and befuddling readers, with these strange words: blessed are the poor. Is Jesus glossing human sorrow with sentimentality? Has Jesus surrendered to an inner, “spiritualized” idealism, making a clean break from reality, from the poverty staring him in the face? Has Jesus lost his ever-loving mind?

Some have wondered if Jesus’ words minimize the plight of the poor, as if those under the heels of economic strain should stop bitching and thank their lucky stars they have received such an odd mercy. It hurts, but it builds character says the cliche. Of course, few of us want to get in line for this brand of mercy. Odd, isn’t it, how we can twist words so that the one who came (as the old prophet Isaiah said) to “bring good news to the poor” sounds darn close to a callous robber baron.

Jesus has no idyllic vision of poverty. Jesus is not suggesting that the hungry boy trapped in the slums simply surrender to squaller because – doesn’t he know?? — he’s blessed. Rather, Jesus announces the presence and power of God’s Kingdom, that reality that unseats and overturns every other reality, by proclaiming that the very ones gathered round him (the sick, the diseased, the outcast) who were in every way poor were welcomed, were desired and would by God’s grace be blessed, made well. As Glenn Stassen said, “The poor are blessed, not because their virtue is perfect but because God especially does want to rescue the poor.”

Matthew casts a wider net, telling us that all who are “poor in spirit” are blessed. Poverty makes it round to all of us. The poor in spirit includes all of us who are humbled. All of us who think we have nothing, are nothing. All of us who have slammed up against our limitations or another’s ridicule. All of us who feel small and insignificant. All of us who have been crushed by disappointment or shame. All of us who have been ignored or dismissed.

In one way or the other, at some point or another — and if we possess the courage to be honest — each of us will discover ourselves situated firmly in the company of the poor. We will be among those whom no one mistakes for an expert, who have no wide following, who fail to make the list marked elite. We are the silly ones, the bumbling ones. No one would come to us for an endorsement or to raise cash. We have little power. We are a poor fool.

And strangest of truths, Jesus announces to us in our impoverished place, the Kingdom is yours. Welcome. Blessed.

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