The Strange New World of the Beatitudes
An encounter with the Sermon on the Mount says something about Christianity as a whole.
Baker, 2017. 352pp.
Recently, at Greenbelt in the United Kingdom, an annual open-air festival of faith and the arts, the popular Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber turned her attention to Jesus's Beatitudes and stunned everyone with her updated version: "Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers." "It can be easy to view the Beatitudes," she reflected afterward on her blog, "as Jesus' command for us to try real hard to be meeker, poorer and mournier in order that we might be blessed in the eyes of God." Surely many in her audience were used to thinking of the Beatitudes in this way, judging by how often sermons and Sunday school lessons seem to treat them as exhortations in disguise. "But what if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive—what if it's performative? . . . meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself." Just as surely as the Sunday-school self-help interpretation would surprise no regular churchgoer, this must have sounded strangely liberating to many of Bolz-Weber's hearers and readers: to think that the Beatitudes might be more about God and God's activity than human worthiness or active response.
I’m struck by how the Beatitudes take their hearers and readers straight to the question of what Christianity, at its root, is all about.
Reading Bolz-Weber's reflection, I'm struck by how the Beatitudes take their hearers and readers straight to the question of what Christianity, at its root, is all about. When Jesus pronounces, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)—or as David Bentley Hart's new translation colourfully renders it, "How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens"—he juxtaposes a positive thing (blessing or bliss) with a negative (poverty of spirit or destitution) and thereby leaves a mystery dangling in the air. Is it that one of these elements leads to or is the cause of the other? Is being poor in spirit the basis for the promise of divine blessing? Do we, as Bolz-Weber says we tend to, imagine that if we make ourselves poorer, God will grant us more blessing? If that is Jesus's meaning, then, as the late Dallas Willard noted years ago in The Divine Conspiracy, he would seem to be equating poverty of spirit "with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude that 'qualifies' us for the kingdom"—which is, as Willard accurately intuited, merely rebranded Pharisaism, offering "some very gratifying new possibilities for the human engineering of righteousness."
Or is it that, as Willard himself preferred to think, Jesus's pronouncement of blessing is in spite of the negative descriptions of its recipients? On this way of hearing the Beatitudes, when Jesus announces bliss or favour, he is forecasting a divine redemption that, far from sanctioning the status quo, spells its reversal. "Happy are the unhappy," is how the New Testament scholar David Garland paraphrases this perspective, "for God will make them happy." What the Beatitudes mean, on this construal, is not that God finds poverty of spirit (or mourning, or being persecuted for righteousness's sake, or any of the other descriptions listed) as somehow meritorious on its own terms. Rather, the Beatitudes announce Jesus's conviction that God's final triumph will save and enrich the poor, that under God's reign the poor will be poor no more and that they may therefore consider themselves blessed in the meantime, in anticipation of that eschatological reversal. But in that case, it seems fair to ask if the promised eschatological state bears any positive connection with particular human postures and habits and lifestyles now, besides using them as a foil for its redemptive glories.
Whichever option you take, it would appear that interpreting the Beatitudes immediately ushers you into a much wider and deeper grappling with the meaning of the Christian faith itself. According to Jonathan Pennington's new theological commentary on Matthew 5–7, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, this is inevitable: "Without exception, one's reading of the Sermon says much about one's understanding of Jesus and Christian theology" as a whole.
For Pennington, the Beatitudes—and, by extension, Jesus's wider ministry and the Christian theology that eventually grew out of it—isn't about pinpointing a list of moral attributes that must be obtained, like tokens from a video game, in order to unlock God's favour. Indeed, Pennington thinks the "Blessed are . . ." pronouncements aren't really about divine blessing at all, at least not directly. They are instead "declared observation[s] about a way of being in the world." With this angle, Pennington retools the "eschatological reward" interpretation too. He repudiates, at least in part, the notion that the Beatitudes hold out the promise of a heavenly prize that will eventually overturn, but does not now begin to heal, present human miseries. For Pennington, it's crucial to grasp that the Sermon on the Mount is oriented not only toward some ultimate salvation lying on the horizon but also toward the cultivation of wisdom in the here and now. The "blessings" of the Beatitudes—the macarisms, as he calls them, based on the Greek word makarios that Jesus uses—are descriptions of what it looks like to be living well in the present. Thus "flourishing" —as Pennington renders it—"are the poor in spirit because the kingdom of heaven is theirs."
The Sermon on the Mount is oriented not only toward some ultimate salvation lying on the horizon but also toward the cultivation of wisdom in the here and now.
One way of picturing the difference, which Pennington sketches with a helpful graphic embedded in one of his chapters, would be to draw two vectors terminating on a person: the one coming down from above might be called a covenantal arrow, channelling favour from God to human beings; the other coming from somewhere alongside the person, horizontally, might be called a sapiential, or wisdom-oriented, arrow, declaring the value of the particular way of being in the world that the person embodies. The Beatitudes, Pennington thinks, belong in the latter genre. They are proverbial, you might say, rather than salvific. They woo rather than pronounce. They imagine a way of life rather than promise a divine disposition. They are, in brief, "poetically crafted . . . implicit invitation[s] to consider what the best way of being in the world is and to pursue it."
If Pennington is right—and it's hard to gainsay his meticulous scholarship—then we should hold him to his word and ask how this reconfiguration of the Sermon unfolds a broader vision of what the Christian message is all about. What does it mean to describe those who are poor—or those who mourn, or those who are reviled by their enemies—as flourishing, as thriving and enjoying the fabled "good life"? What strange calculus of woe and weal is at work in such descriptions? As Pennington is well aware, the conditions of poverty of spirit and mourning and hungering for righteousness, along with the others named in the Beatitudes, appear to be "the opposite of flourishing." So what gives? He answers:
The reason Jesus can boldly claim that the poor in spirit are truly flourishing is because, despite appearances, these lowly ones are actually possessors and citizens of God's heavenly kingdom. . . . Flourishing are those whose lives are marked by hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, for God to set the world to right. This is not apparently a good state to be in—to be dissatisfied because of an awareness of how not right the world is, and to be in a place of longing for God to return. Yet it is precisely those who are described as flourishing because of the great promise that this hungering and thirsting for righteousness will be satisfied.
There is deep mystery at work here. On the one hand, Pennington argues that Jesus is straightforwardly trading on familiar notions of what it means to look for the good life, what it looks like to embrace a vision of human well-being in the world. He is calling his followers to assume a certain posture, to embrace a particular way of life. And yet, overturning all canons of normalcy and predictability, Jesus describes as flourishing those who by every common measurement are obviously not flourishing. By a strange alchemy, "Jesus is redefining flourishing as suffering while awaiting the eschaton."
If this is a vision not just of the Beatitudes but of Christianity as a whole, it is—to borrow a term fast approaching overuse—an apocalyptic one. It depends, in other words, on a revelation from outside the usual sphere of human calculations, otherwise Jesus's vision remains mere wishful thinking. Only if one believes Jesus's claim that he is the bearer of an in-breaking divine, benevolent reign can one see those who are poor, tearful, hungry, and persecuted as flourishing. Only if the world's present regime is passing away and a new world of wholeness, of peace and righteousness, is coming into being would it ever make sense to describe history's losers as those who are well. (As a later apostle would put the inverse: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" [1 Corinthians 15:17, 19 NRSV].) Only if one grasps and internalizes that theological conviction—that the new has arrived and begun to reconfigure the values of the old—does it make sense to stay in the place of mourning, peacemaking, purifying one's heart in the face of persecution, and all the rest; if the longed-for apocalypse of God's reign in Christ is not true, better to look for a way of flourishing that allows an escape from these miseries.
Pennington's book, then, sets out to interpret the Sermon on the Mount and ends up interpreting the Christian faith. My only regret is that he didn't pound the point home even more strongly: If the poor and the mourning and the peacemakers and the persecuted are presently flourishing, it is only because we now know, in Christ, that poverty and mourning and the struggle for peace and endurance are only history's prologue. If the hungry and the mournful are well, it is because of what they hunger and mourn for. The world will be made new and, to the eyes of faith, is new even now. Therefore you—even you—are flourishing.