Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Beatitudes: What Does It Mean To Be Blessed?

[Informal preamble]

Both our Bible readings this evening - from Psalm 119 and Matthew’s Gospel - have focused on the idea of blessedness. But what does it actually mean to be blessed? Over the next few minutes, I want to tackle the following questions:
  1. What does it mean to bless and be blessed? 
  2. Whom does Jesus say is blessed by God?
  3. How can we be more blessed?
So, Q1, what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question, because even in church people often say things like “The Lord bless you”, “The music was such a blessing”, or “I feel truly blessed today”, without thinking in anything but the most general way about what it means.

In contrast, the Bible uses ‘bless’ and ‘blessed’ in a very specific sense, and one that is rooted in a very practical concern for the happiness and wellbeing of others. Of the two OT words normally translated as blessing, one means to praise or wish someone well.  The other refers to a kind of happiness and wellbeing that comes when you are prospering materially and spiritually, living at peace with those around you, and fulfilling God’s plan for your life. Putting the two words together, to bless someone is to will their healing of all the consequences of living in a fallen world. And when God wills something, it cannot fail to be fulfilled.

So, Q2, if that’s what it means to be blessed, whom does Jesus see being blessed by God? To whom does God most emphatically will the joy, peace and fulfilment that are wrapped up in the biblical meaning of the word ‘blessing’? We can see from our Psalm reading that the Jewish idea of blessing was rooted in obedience to the Law of Moses:

v1:   Blessed are those...who walk according to the law of the Lord.
v2: Blessed are those who keep his statutes.

Unfortunately, like some Christians today, the religious teachers of Jesus’ time expected God to show his blessing in material ways, right here and now. If you were successful, healthy and prosperous, that was proof of God’s blessing. If you were poor, hungry, diseased, disabled or a victim of misfortune, that was a sign that you were not blessed but under God’s curse. 

And all the power structures in Jesus’ society were built on this foundation. Holiness and political power alike were validated by health and prosperity. That’s why Jesus’ words were such political dynamite. He was declaring God’s blessing on those whom the authorities declared unclean. Blessed are the poor, he said. Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the humble, blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty, blessed are those who are persecuted. They, not the rich and powerful, are the ones who will inherit the earth, who will be shown mercy, who will be called children of God.
In fact, Matthew’s version is less confrontational than the parallel account in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke’s version, Jesus actually says, Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, and woe to you who are rich and powerful. In contrast, Matthew’s version seems more about people’s spiritual state: “Blessed are the poor in spirit...the humble...those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” 

But the differences are essentially cosmetic. In order to appreciate the wonderful coherence of Jesus’ teaching, we have to see that the people he wanted to reach were poor in spirit because they were poor; they were hungry for justice because they were hungry, they were unable to turn to the Temple for comfort because they were in mourning. In each case, their practical hardships excluded them from the community of faith because these sufferings were seen as evidence of God’s anger with them. In contrast, Jesus’ message was, “Come to me. I will give you the spiritual connection you so urgently need. And I will build you into a new community in which together you can tackle your material hardships.”

So for Jesus, being blessed is a circular process. To bless others is to draw them into the warmth of God’s love, to help them deal with their practical obstacles to happiness so that they too can fulfil God’s purpose for their lives. And it’s in the process of blessing others we are ourselves most richly blessed.

That partially answers my final question: “Question: How can we be more blessed? Answer: By being more of a blessing to others.” But it’s not easy in this fallen world to discern what God is calling us to, and it can be harder still to find the strength to do it. Fortunately, Jesus offers us a source of guidance and strength to hear and answer his call. “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he says in v17. “I haven’t come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

As always, Jesus has rooted his teaching in Scripture. The threat that he poses to the authorities is not in dismissing the Scriptures from which they draw their authority, but in challenging their faulty interpretation. And the key to hearing God’s call and finding the strength to respond, the key to becoming a blessing to others and so experiencing ourselves the richness of God’s blessing, is an honest engagement with Scripture. 

There are several opportunities this Autumn to recommit ourselves to studying the Bible. We have an Alpha Course starting this month, which is a brilliant opportunity for new and experienced Christians to study the Bible together. Confirmation classes have just started this evening. The house groups have been a great success and will be starting again any time now. And the leadership team would be delighted to offer suggestions for private Bible study notes. 

But ultimately the ball is in each of our courts to find a way to engage more deeply with the Bible, in the knowledge that it will guide us and strengthen us to be a blessing to others. And it seems from Jesus’ words that being a blessing to others is the most important step in being ourselves blessed.


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