Posts Tagged ‘Beatitudes’

Why I haven’t liked the Beatitudes

August 8, 2013

divine_conspiracyI have been severely yet delightfully challenged this week by Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy, particularly the chapter on the Beatitudes, on which I’ll preach this Sunday.

Among other things, Willard challenged me to confront the uncomfortable fact that I don’t really like the Beatitudes. Well, for one thing—just looking at Luke’s version (from the less popular “Sermon on the Plain”)—I’m not poor, I’m not hungry, and I’m not particularly sad. I’ve hardly experienced any meaningful rejection or scorn or persecution because of my Christian faith. Moreover, I don’t want to be or experience any of these things if I can help it!

I can try to take some refuge in Matthew’s version: “Sure, I’m not poor,” I tell myself, “but I can still be spiritually poor in spite of my wealth.” Except I’m not even that. Hungry for righteousness? Please! I’m not meek. I’m not much of a peacemaker. Forget purity of heart.

Does the fact that I strike out on all these Beatitudes make me a horrible Christian? Does at least feeling guilty about my failure make me slightly better? Is there still a place for me in God’s kingdom?

But then: Why would I even ask these questions? Justification by faith alone, we Protestants say—and I’ve got all the proof-texts on my side. Why does Jesus seem to be teaching works righteousness? Is he really saying that if you are this way, or you do these things, then all these good things will happen to you—including heaven when you die? Or, as in Luke’s version, if you aren’t and you don’t, you’re in trouble? Does even faith in Christ matter less than these things?

Seriously: I had a theology prof in seminary who argued for “hopeful universalism” based in part on the Beatitudes. “See, people can prove that they really know Jesus—without really knowing him—if they are or do these things.” Didn’t Karl Rahner call these Beatitude-obeyers “anonymous Christians” who will be saved in the end?

Nice thought, I guess, except who are these anonymous Christians since so many of us professing Christians can’t live up to the Beatitudes?

I’m with Dallas Willard: these “literary and religious treasures of the human race,” these “highest expressions of religious insight and moral inspiration,” are nothing but “pretty poison” if my traditional way of interpreting them is true.[1]

My defense mechanism against these verses is to say that Jesus is describing an ideal state: we’re not this way, but we ought to be. We’ll still be saved, of course (thank you, St. Paul, for making that clear), but “only as through fire,” as Paul would say. Some other Protestants—dispensationalists—assign these words of Jesus to another “dispensation,” specifically the millennial reign of Christ. In other words, like much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ tough words don’t really apply to us here and now.

Seems like wishful thinking to me, and, besides, I’m not a dispensationalist.

So what do we do with the Beatitudes? Mostly—if we’re evangelicals—we ignore them. If we’re not evangelicals, we “join the revolution,” devote ourselves to social justice, and probably read a lot of liberation theology. I read a lot of liberation theology in seminary. (It was Candler’s default theological stance.) There’s value in some expressions of liberation theology, but even if all the world were as socially just as, say, Sweden, the world would still need Jesus. Sweden still needs Jesus!

No, maybe we’re reading the Beatitudes wrong. That’s what Willard thinks. And I think he’s onto something, although some of the following words knock the breath out of me because they’re so contrary to what I’ve thought.

The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings.

No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top “after the revolution.” They are explanations and illustrations drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.[2]

In other words, Willard says, Jesus was drawing on types of people that were following him in the crowds—most of whom, by worldly standards, were of little or no account—and saying, “the blessings of God’s kingdom are available even to these,” just as they are available to everyone else. And to signify the truth of his words about the availability of God’s kingdom, he was healing and forgiving many of them.

If Willard is right, we could paraphrase the Beatitudes to say, for example, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs even to you. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for even you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for even you will laugh.”

I know from my previous study that there’s something to this idea. The peasants of Jesus’ day wouldn’t have doubted that wealthy, powerful elites already possessed or were entitled to God’s kingdom. For example, remember the Rich Young Ruler? Jesus’ words about how hard it is for a rich man to be saved “astonished” his disciples because if even a rich man can’t enter God’s kingdom, then who possibly can? What hope is there for the rest of us?

And Jesus answers, in so many words, “Quite a lot, actually: With God, all things are possible”—including the salvation of both rich and poor. Because, as we Protestants knew all along, salvation isn’t based on anything other than justification by faith alone.

The Beatitudes, therefore, are mostly an expression of the magnanimity of God’s grace—something quite different from any kind of works righteousness.

This doesn’t settle every question in my mind, but it’s a good start.

What do the rest of you think?

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 98-99.

1. Ibid., 106.