Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The First Word

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . (Matthew 5:1-12)

The one word of the beatitudes that we all know best is perhaps the one word we understand the least.

The word Jesus uses over and over in an almost rhythmic fashion is ‘blessed.’ When the beatitudes are read aloud this word provokes a slight discomfort. Are we to pronounce it as a two syllable word as in ‘bless-ed’ or do we end it with a ‘t’ on the end?

Beyond the minor issue of pronunciation there is the deeper question of meaning. Jesus is telling us who is blessed, but it isn’t clear exactly what their state of blessedness means. Some translators have used an alternative and equally acceptable rendering of the Greek word and given us ‘happy’ in place of blessed.

As for the question of pronunciation, let’s agree that it really doesn’t matter. And as for the meaning of ‘happy’ as compared to the more familiar ‘blessed,’ we’ll come back to that later in the week. What we will observe today is the simple placement of the word in the beatitudes. Nine times ‘blessed’ is used and every time it comes first.

Inevitably, the beatitudes draw us into discussions about who is blessed: Who are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted? These are important discussions because the ‘who’ truly does matter. But each of those designations is preceded by the word ‘blessed.’ Enjoying the favor of God comes first, and in this we see the heart of our good news to the world.

In The Divine Conspiraccy, Dallas Willard carefully and persuasively cautions us against treating the beatitudes like a list of goals, as if by cultivating a particular quality of character we will thereby enjoy blessing. Not so says Willard. “Whatever the point of the Beatitudes, it cannot be that they state conditions that guarantee God’s approval, salvation, or blessing” (p. 115).

We do not become poor in spirit or meek or merciful or pure of heart and then find favor with God. In other words, God’s favor or blessing is not something we achieve or earn. We do not show ourselves worthy of receiving it. It is simply given – and it is given to these who seem least likely to be included among the recipients.

Being blessed is not an achievement; we neither earn it nor deserve it. And yet we spend so much energy trying to do just that. Could it be that it is our striving for blessing, the drive to prove ourselves worthy, that often keeps us from experiencing true blessedness?

Next Steps: 
Who do you typically think of as the ‘unlikely’ or ‘unimpressive’ in your world? Be specific. Who will you encounter today that strikes you as one of the world’s benchwarmers in the game of life? Make a plan to bless them – to show them favor and dignify them with your kindness for no reason at all. Make ‘bless’ the first word in what you do today.

Gracious God, your blessing and favor are given to us freely. Grant that we might give it to others, without regard for their status or smarts or skill, without calculating how we might benefit from the kindness we show. Help us to bless as you have blessed us we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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