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." (Matthew 5:1-12) [NRSV]
That was quick. Last week Jesus was calling his disciples, and already he is immersed in his ministry of teaching. As far as the church year is concerned, there's no time to waste between his search for companions and his plunge into the substance of his work.
The first one is the hardest, and that's what I've been thinking about this week, as I tried to plan what to write here. For many years, I found the Luke version, the concrete "Blessed are the poor," was much easier to comprehend. Not that it's easy to understand why literal, monetary, material poverty should exist, either in God's plan or on a planet so rich in resources. But it is easier to talk about poverty as a concrete concept than poverty as a spiritual concept.
It does seem to seep into our consciousness though. I think that now, in my fifties, I can comprehend spiritual poverty in ways that were outside my grasp a decade ago. I can't claim advancing maturity or depth of understanding as the reason; I can only say that circumstances have required me to abandon certain goals and ideals that I thought were unshakable, as necessary to my existence as breathing. All gone now. Things that most other people in my small world have been able to take for granted evaporated for me, suddenly and with no warning. All gone now.
When hopes and dreams that you have worked for fall away, you get two choices. You can stand there, screaming and crying and begging to get them back, resisting with all your being the new path laid before you. Or you can wipe your eyes and set your shoulders straight and let the past go. We usually talk about this process as one of "detachment," although one of my sons, who has studied a bit of East Asian thought and history, tells me that "un-attachment" would be a more appropriate phraseology.
I'm not there yet. I can't talk about spiritual poverty with more than the most glancing acquaintance with the consequences it might bring. But even that glancing acquaintance is an expereince that we resist, as individuals who want what we want, and as a culture that wants more all the time. Perhaps most of us experience it only when it is thrust upon us, unwanted and despised.
When I realized that this passage was one that I wanted to explore but could barely understand, I started looking for what some other people have had to say. Sometimes, I just have no hope of conveying what I would like to, so I'm going to let them do the talking today:
And you must know that to be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God. (Meister Eckhart)
The creative individual is particularly gifted in seeing thegap between what is and what could be (which means, of course, that he has achoeved a certain measure of detachment from what is. (John W. Gardner)
Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see heaven in every direction? (Laotzu)
The test of Christian leadership: What are we giving away? (Our pastor in a sermon this morning, on this very passage)
When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge. (Bhagavad Gita)
The desert is a place for learning to lower one's expectations almost to the point of absurdity, being content increasingly with less and less, giving up living ambitiously for lofty ends of any sort. One discovers there the importance of the simplest of means, ignoring everything else that doesn't serve the ordinary. That's how one comes, at last, to find strange comfort in the desert waste, only by embracing indifference, learning to delight in nothing so much as simplicity. Solace likes at the still point of emptiness-beyond hope, beyond proof, beyond consolation. Deliberately aiming the exercise of indifference(apatheia)at oneself, one releases little by little the anxious thoughts of the distracted ego. The false self is gradually starved by inattention. One learns also to be indifferent to others, ignoring surface impressions so as to open oneself to radically different people on the clean, level ground of unspoken humanity. No longer driven by short-lived feelings of sympathy or pity, one consistently, doggedly works for justice without thought of reward. (Beldon Lane)
He who would be serene and pure needs but one thing, detachment. (Meister Eckhart)
Serenity and purity do sound like blessedness, don't they?