Do you ever read the words of Jesus and get confused? For instance, his Sermon on the Mount begins with a peculiar description of people he considers blessed. Reading the list might make you scratch your head and wonder, “What is Jesus really saying?”
Blessed are the poor . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . the hungry . . . the persecuted.
It’s a strange list indeed. Who in their right mind wants to be poor, sad, week, hungry, and picked on? Is Jesus really saying, “be like this and you’ll be blessed,” or is he making it clear that his kingdom includes and values those who are typically unblessed and excluded by the world’s criteria for blessing? I believe the latter. When you read the beatitudes through this lens his sermon becomes “good news to the poor.”
Think about that day in Galilee, when Jesus first spoke these words. Who was there on the hillside, listening to him teach?
The people gathered on the hillside were the poor. They were the hungry. Collectively, those setting with Jesus had spent a lifetime mourning, grieving and longing to be included in a beloved community. Jesus sits with them, celebrates their beauty and includes them in his circle of friendship—a circle he calls the kingdom of heaven.
In his book, Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard paraphrases the beatitudes by saying, Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of religion—when the kingdom of heaven comes upon them.
Unfortunately, spiritual zeros are typically not celebrated in the life of the Church; instead, we celebrate those who add “value and leadership” to the programs we offer. All to often, the church’s definition of blessing mirrors the ways of the world, more than the ways of Jesus. We fall for the lie and believe “the blessed” are the wealthy and powerful, the attractive and thin, the youthful and talented.
When we chase after the world’s values—seeking a blessed life—we run the risk of missing the blessing that is being offered through the hands of Jesus. Perhaps that’s why Jesus follows the beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke with a list of woes:
Woe to you who are rich . . . Woe to you who are well fed . . . Woe to you who laugh . . . Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.
The tension between the beatitudes and the woes is resolved in my mind by a quote from St. Augustine: God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.