A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 15, 2015
THE PATH OF MERCY
A Meditation on the Beatitudes
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.
— From the Gospel According to Matthew (Revised Standard Version)
In our time and place, I suspect it is hard to think of the Beatitudes without also recalling that bit in the Life of Brian and those people stuck at the very back of the crowd when Jesus delivers his words from so very, very far away. A man says, "I think it was, 'Blessed are the cheese makers!'" And with that Gregory's wife asks the obvious question, "What's so special about the cheese makers?" To which her husband replies, "Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products."
Of course, what was said on the other side of that great game of telephone that has been repeated across the ages, and even when first written down a full generation after he spoke, could take up any amount of time we might want to devote to it. The famous, for some infamous Jesus Seminar, the collective of more or less liberal scholars who have examined the details and teachings of Jesus are of the opinion that only three of the Beatitudes likely were spoken up by Jesus himself. They are those that appear in both Luke and in Matthew, those words about the poor, the hungry, and those who weep. The Seminar discounts the only other one that appears in both gospels, the one about those who are persecuted for "my sake," as well as those that appear only in Matthew.
Me, I'm fascinated by the differences in the gospels between Luke's blessing of those with physical hunger and people who are desperately poor, as opposed to Matthew's blessing of those "poor in spirit" and those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness." I get how the universalizing of poverty and hunger can deserve its bit of mocking, like in Brian with the blessing going to any manufacturer of dairy products. Still, actually, even the longer, more attenuated, spiritual if you will version is very compelling. And for me there's something in the tension between the two hungers that make it even more powerful.
No doubt. Here is something profoundly haunting in that direct call and challenge to the way things are we get in the Beatitudes. Structurally, each of them has two parts, a condition and a consequence. Some see a pattern derived from the Psalms, although I admit I find that a bit of a stretch. I find Allen Ross cited in Wikipedia, a bit more on point when he describes the Beatitudes as "cryptic, precise, and full of meaning." Even the more spiritual version is marked by those sharp, cryptic, and evocative words, words that have haunted us for two millennia.
I with Kurt Vonnegut, when he observed, "I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount." And the old humanist puts his finger on why. "Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far." And then he adds in how, "Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and bye - and then we will have two good ideas." While maybe I could dig up a second, possibly even a third good idea we humans have cooked up, I agree there is something astonishing in the Beatitudes. It contains a very, very good idea. Something that sings right into our hearts.
The Beatitudes express a rare perspective on who we are, and what we might be. Some find parallels in both the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita. The closest I can find for a parallel in other religions comes from, possibly of course, the Buddhist Pali text the Mangala Sutta. There the Buddha is said to describe the conditions of "blessing," a list of some thirty-eight actions. They include among more monastic qualities calls to generosity, humility, and patience. But like with the Koran and the Gita, not as pointed, not, well, quite so haunting as in Jesus' words. I find them only matched by the Chinese philosopher Mozi (apparently also raised a carpenter...) who about four hundred years before Jesus also called for a "universal love" manifested in self-restraint, self-reflection and authenticity. His is perhaps the most directly consonant with what the Galilean carpenter proclaimed on that mount.
My point is that the Beatitudes are not exactly unique, but they come close. They are an amazing good idea. And even if he had a little help with some editing, Jesus' proclamation in the Beatitudes is a genuine message of hope, an authentic blessing on the whole human condition. Something of a road map to what we can be.
No wonder people have celebrated them over the year, why so much music has been dedicated to holding them up like a mirror to our hearts.
The word beatitude derives from the Latin and means "happiness." I believe with the Beatitudes we get the message found deep within our human hearts. It is the genius of the Christian tradition it is the heart of the Christian way. And it is a gift to the whole world. Our own Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church reframed the list just a little, and with that points to what I think is the deep call framed as we contemporary religious liberals might most profit from considering.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they know the inutterable beauty of simple things. Blessed are those who mourn, for they have dared to risk their hearts by giving of their love. Blessed are the meek, for the gentle earth shall embrace them and hallow them as its own. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall know the taste of noble thoughts and deeds. Blessed are the merciful, for in return theirs is the gift of giving. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall be at one with themselves and the universe. Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is kinship with everything that is holy. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for the truth shall set them free."
Let's take each of the eight and reflect just a little.
First, that blessing on the poor in spirit. And, maybe even the poor. Two points, really. For those who are willing to surrender their certainties, there is something. And, for the poor themselves, there is a whisper that those who love God, who love the whole, must also stand with them. For all who surrender into the larger, they get to know the inutterable beauty of the world as it presents.
Next, the blessing on those who mourn. If we are willing to not turn away, if we fully feel our grief while at the same time noticing we are joined with everyone else in that sorrow, everyone has experienced loss; well, there is a chance we can find a comfort that is the love of our human condition joined in hurt as well as success. Precious as we are, we find our comfort only with an outstretched hand, and within a loving embrace.
That blessing on the meek is very much a challenge to all of us who strive and who want. When we see there is no end to striving, and we realize that in the last analysis we are all members of a single family, then we find a comfort beyond ordinary understanding.
Then another double blessing. The blessing on those who hunger for righteousness and the blessing on those who are actually hungry. They are joined, those who see injustice, who care for the hungry, who both find a way to feed someone, and who want to see into why it happens that some are hungry when others have more than enough, well, it opens a way, a path. Possibly it opens the only way for our species to survive.
And blessed are the merciful. I suspect some sense of justice, if mostly of the rough and ready sort comes as naturally as human beings noticing our need for others and see how it can only work if we all have some genuine stake in the success of us all. But mercy, that's something more. It is seeing deeper than utility, it is seeing something of that holy family to which we all belong. It is the way of love.
And I love that blessing on the pure of heart. It is a call to openness, to letting go our our grasping, to seeing into the matter of self and other and how in the last analysis there is no difference. It is the way of wisdom, it is the way of the wise heart.
And, of course, a blessing on peacemakers. We are an aggressive species. This aggression may even contain the seeds of our ultimate destruction. But, we also, from time to time, find peacemakers arising among us, a hint of hope within our human condition, witness to the fact we don't have to be our most basic selves.
And last a blessing on those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, the blessing of the whole on those who stand with those who have been left behind. Because these who endure this persecution have mastered the great secret, no one belongs outside the family. We are all of us children of the same God, part of the great unity. So, those who witness this truth, even as they suffer for it, become a beacon of light, opening the way of the heart for all of us.
Good stuff this.
The path of mercy.
The song of our hearts.
Wise words that stand out, even after two thousand years.
And more, the path through for us as we face the troubles that could destroy our planet.
Happiness, no doubt.
A blessing, no doubt.