I think it’s no secret that I am a news junkie. I read several articles and opinion pieces in three major newspapers (the N.Y. Times, the Washington Post, and the Manchester Guardian) everyday. I watch the cable news commentaries on all of the news channels (yes, even Fox) and I read a couple of major international journals on a regular basis (the Economist and Foreign Policy).
I’ve been a news junkie since I was a kid. It was not uncommon for my parents and I (and my older brother when he was still living with us) to watch the CBS Evening News during dinner. I will always remember Walter Cronkite’s sign off: “And that’s the way it is . . . . ” and then he would say the date. “And that’s the way it is November 5, 2017.” Over on NBC, which my grandparents preferred to watch, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley shared the anchorman job, one in Washington, DC, the other in New York City, and they would sign off by wishing each other and the nation “Good Night!” There was something reassuring about those sign-offs, something solid and final. If Uncle Walter said, “That’s the way it is . . . .” If Chet and David said, “Good night!” we could rest easy knowing that the world was right, that the facts were nailed down.
It doesn’t seem to be that way anymore, does it? On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow says, “The sky is blue;” on CNN, Jake Tapper says, “The sky was blue but might be turning grey;” on PBS, Hari Sreenivasan says, “The ski is expected to be blue, but we’re still checking on it;” and over here on Fox they’re talking about carrots. We live in a world of opinion, interpretations, and alternative facts in which no one seems able to say, “That’s the way it is. Good night!”
If we spoke First Century Greek, however, we could. And that’s what Jesus does in the preaching what we have come to call the Beatitudes as reported by Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus uses a verb tense called the “present indicative.” When he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” that’s what he means. Not that they will be blessed in some yet unrealized future, not that they will be blessed in some pie-in-the-sky heaven, not that they will be blessed in an unimaginable afterlife. No. They are blessed now. That’s the way it is. Full stop. Good night!
Which ought to make us sit up and take notice because what he is saying is nonsensical. It’s paradoxical. How can he make such firm, present-tense, declarations? How can the downtrodden, the depressed, and the dispirited (those are the “poor in spirit,” by the way) be considered in any way blessed? How can the grieving and the sorrowful (those who mourn) be considered in any way blessed? How can the submissive and the constrained (that’s what “meekness” is, by the way) be considered in any way blessed?
Maybe we need to better understand what this “being blessed” is all about. Maybe we’re not hearing this right because we attach too much baggage to this word, too much religious baggage! What I mean be that is just consider the way we say this word . . . When you think of the Beatitudes, when you say them to yourself in your head, when you hear them sung (as for example in the beautiful chant setting done by the Nóirín ní Riain and the monks of Glenstal Abbey – the embedded YouTube video below), how is this word b-l-e-s-s-e-d pronounced? I know the monks sing it in two syllables, and I’ll bet most of us recite the Beatitudes to ourselves in that way as well:
Bless-éd are poor in spirit . . .
Bless-éd are those who mourn . . .
Bless-´ed are the meek . . . .
When we say the word in that way we mean something much different than when we pronounce it with one syllable: “Blest.” There is a good deal of difference in meaning between the typical Southern farewell “Have a blest day” and the way we describe Christmas as “that blesséd day.” In the first instance, the speaker means “have a nice day, have a happy day, have a day full of good fortune,” but he or she is not suggesting that you have an especially sacred or holy day. On the other hand, when we described Christmas as “blesséd event,” that is precisely what we mean.
Or . . . consider this. Suppose someone were to say, “Truly, I am blest.” We would all understand that person to be saying that he or she is very fortunate. But if someone were to say, “Truly, I am bless-éd,” we would think that person had way an opinion of him- or herself. “Bless-éd” has that religious baggage of holiness.
I want to suggest to you that, in understanding the Beatitudes, we have to set that two-syllable understanding aside, that in listing these categories of persons who are “blest” Jesus is not describing sainthood. He is not laying out a program for personal salvation: “Achieve poverty of spirit, meekness, sorrowfulness, and so forth and you’ll get the Big-S title . . . .” No! It’s not that at all. If the Beatitudes are programmatic of sainthood in any way, it is found not in the first half of each statement, but in the second.
Let me explain what I mean by getting behind this English word “blessed” and doing what I so often encourage you to do, remember the languages in which Jesus would have been speaking and in which Matthew and the other evangelists wrote.
It’s likely that the former was Aramaic. It’s probable that Jesus also spoke koiné Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written; it was the common business language of the Roman empire. We know that Jesus had conversation with Roman soldiers and other gentiles, non-Jewish foreigners in Palestine who likely did not speak Aramaic, the common tongue of the land in his day. So he may have delivered the Sermon on the Mount in Greek, but I think that unlikely. These teachings were meant for the Jewish people and he was speaking on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, solidly Jewish territory, so it’s more likely he was speaking Aramaic.
Aramaic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew in which there are two words used in the Scriptures commonly translated into English as “blest” or “bless-éd”. One is barak – which most frequently has that two-syllable religious holiness connotation; the other is ‘esher – which most often has the one-syllable meaning of happiness or good fortune. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, barak, the word carrying the character of holiness, was most often rendered as eulogeo, which means “to invoke blessings” or “to consecrate a thing with solemn prayers;” it is the root of our word eulogy. It has that two-syllable feel of holiness about it. On the other hand, ‘esher, the word carrying the connotation of happiness or good fortune was rendered is makarios, which has that one-syllable sense of “happy” or “fortunate”.
When Matthew reported Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, when he recorded the Beatitudes for Greek-speaking posterity, he chose to use makarios to translate whatever Aramaic word Jesus used (and I suspect it was something similar to the Hebrew word ‘esher). Luke uses the same word, makarios, to report his simpler version of the Beatitudes in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49).
What I’m getting at here is that Jesus was not praising the holiness of those who mourn; he was telling them that they were and are fortunate. He was neither praising the sanctity of the poor in spirit nor extolling the blessédness of the meek; he was assuring them both that they had and have reason to be happy.
When we were discussing this gospel recently, a clergy colleague of mine said that he considers the Beatitudes to be “an anthropology of the kingdom of heaven.” I believe that what he meant by that is that they help us to understand what it means to be fully human within the community established by Jesus, what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the Beloved Community,” a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. And I believe that that anthropology, that understanding of humanity is found (as I said before) in the second half of each of the Beatitudes.
For example, the first of these statements in our New Revised Standard translation says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3) Based on the word study I’ve walked you through, I suggest a way to understand this is, “Those who are dispirited, depressed, and downcast are fortunate for Christ’s community of abundant love is opened to them.” Saintliness is found not in being depressed; saintliness is found in welcoming the dispirited into the Beloved Community where they will find their impoverished spirits enriched.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4) similarly means that those who are grieving and sorrowful are fortunate because they will be consoled and reassured. Saintliness is found not in the grieving, but in the comforting. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5) means that those who exercise restraint and moderation will be rewarded with abundance. Saintliness is found not in self-deprivation but in the sharing of resources. And so on down the line. The anthropology of the kingdom of heaven, the sanctity of the Beloved Community is found not in being one of those named by Jesus as “fortunate,” but in those who recognize and minister to or with them.
In today’s first reading, John of Patmos records his ecstatic vision of heaven in which he saw the multitude of the redeemed and was assured by “the elder” that “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . . for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd . . . and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:16-17) In our Gradual, the Psalmist reminds and reassures us that “angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them,” that those who revere the Lord “lack nothing.” (Ps. 34:7-9)
I am often mindful of St. Teresa of Avila’s reminder that the way God feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, delivers those in captivity, and makes sure none are in need is through God’s people:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” wrote the author of the First Letter of John. “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” (1 Jn 3:1- 2) We are God’s children now; we are Christ’s hands and feet now. Because we are and if we live and act as if we are, the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and all those others are fortunate. If we look to the Beatitudes as a program for saintliness, as an anthropology of the kingdom of heaven, we will find it in the second half of each verse, not the first. I suggest to you that that is neither opinion, nor interpretation, nor alternative fact; that’s the way it is, November 5, 2017.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, All Saints Day, RCL Year A, are Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10,22; 1 John 3:1-3; and St. Matthew 5:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)