I’m not a big fan of the beatitudes, especially Luke’s version. It’s not that I don’t think they are important, I think they are misused too often. When they are taken out of context they allow people to abdicate responsibility for living out what Jesus taught. These words are too easily put in service to the Empire rather than the work of liberation.
First, let’s look at where Jesus was when he spoke these words and to whom he spoke them. For Luke Jesus has just spent a night in prayer and chosen his twelve disciples out of a crowd. They then came into a crowd of people from all over the area who had come for Jesus to teach them and heal them. In the midst of this, Jesus spoke to his disciples, not necessarily to everyone everywhere in all times and places. Jesus spoke to those committed to following him. And his words were peculiar, maybe more so than usual.
To his disciples Jesus said, when you are following me you are blessed even when you are poor for yours is the kin(g)dom of God. Maybe he wanted them to remember that poverty is not a punishment from God. Perhaps in their lack, they could take comfort in doing the work to bring the realm of God into being. Notice how important context is here. He is not saying that all poor people everywhere are blessed. It is not a blessing to be poor in general. However, when you are doing the work of God, you can find blessing even in poverty. What does this mean for how we treat those who are poor today? Are we not obligated to raise them up?
So, too, with those who are blessed in their hunger, for they will be filled. Same context – Jesus speaking to his disciples. If they are hungry because they have given up much to follow him, then they will find fulfillment. Generally, there is no blessing in hunger. However, if you are hungry because you are bringing Divine Love into the world and sacrificed much, you might discover blessings in the growling of your stomach. On the other hand, those who are hungry because they have no way of getting food and live in deplorable conditions, there is no blessing there. Are we not called to feed the hungry? Glamorizing poverty and hunger with a coating of blessing allows us to turn away from those who are hungry on our own streets.
The next statement is equally challenging. There is no blessing in weeping unless you are weeping over the pain of following Jesus into these uncomfortable places. If we weep because you’ve been loving and serving your neighbors, rejoicing is bound to follow. Otherwise, maybe not so much. Jesus is trying to comfort his followers and the Gospel writer is trying to give hope to those experiencing persecution by the authorities and rejection by friends and family. Otherwise, we are called to comfort those who mourn and bear the burdens of those who weep. We can’t just pass by and pretend that sadness, grief, despair, or depression is somehow a blessing that will yield joy.
When we move on to being blessed when you are hated, excluded, reviled, or defamed, it’s clear that the Gospel writer is invested in encouraging those who are being persecuted because of their faith. Maybe Jesus said these things to his followers, and maybe not. However, these words have been used to justify some horrific deeds done in Jesus’ name. So let’s be careful about aligning ourselves with this particular blessing. If you are engaged in bringing Divine Love into the world and liberating those who are oppressed and you are hated, excluded, etc. for it, then you can look for the blessing in that. Otherwise, you might just be a bully and causing harm unnecessarily by saying that you are acting on Jesus’ behalf. Rejoicing will follow if you are truly serving God and neighbor. Otherwise, not so much.
And then we move into the “woes.” Imagine Jesus saying these things to the Twelve. I picture them as adolescents who just might be struggling with giving up the reliable mealtimes and processions that were part of their life at home. So Jesus spells it out for them. Not only is it possible to find blessing in their lack, there is also the probability of experiencing woe if they are rich because that means others are likely going without. If their bellies are full in this moment, then chances are pretty good someone close by is hungry. If you are rejoicing now while you are in the midst of a crowd that is full of poor, hungry, and sick folx, then when you recognize what you have missed, you will weep. And if you are telling people what they want to hear, then woe is coming your way because you aren’t offering them anything in the way of liberating love.
These beatitudes are hard. They are not prescriptive; they are descriptive. They were meant for those of us who are committed to following Jesus. They are meant to get us to pay attention to what we value and where our sense of happiness, or blessing, comes from. If it comes at the expense of our neighbors, then chances are woe will follow. Being a disciple is not easy and it should make us question the values of the Empire. If it doesn’t, then chances are we aren’t really following Jesus.