Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As I read this passage, I’m struck by a dynamic they open up between the present and the future. Jesus is describing certain people as blessed and this blessing opens up upon a future that sounds very different from our present. This dynamic, this presentation of an alternate future reminds me of a quote: the architecture firm that designed Duke Children’s Hospital says in their advertising materials that they structured the space to “accommodate multiple futures.” I know they mean that they designed the building to be expanded through future capital campaigns, but as I’ve spent hours in waiting rooms and echo labs and back in the Peds Cardiac ICU, I think of the multiple futures running through the minds of every family who walks through that space.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about: the institutions that shape our lives—hospitals, banks, schools, courts—they put us in this position where we can’t help but try to imagine the future. Whether we’re waiting for the loan or the score or the diagnosis or the verdict, we’re haunted by the possibility that things will go as poorly as possible, worst case scenarios happen all the time; but at the very same time, we hope that things will all work out in the end, and in fact its hard to keep going at all if at some level we don’t think things will eventually be OK. We know that rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and so we hope that someday, maybe even today, we’ll get good news—the tests will be negative, you passed, you got approved or hired—which means it’s your turn to say “oh that’s a blessing.” We’re taught that the possibility of a blessing somewhere off in the future makes our struggles now more bearable.
This is one way, a very common way, of reading this morning’s scripture. Jesus goes up onto the mountainside, just as Moses once went up onto the mountainside, and in that place he gives a series of maxims and parables about what the disciples’ lives could look like in the kind of world Jesus wants to make. And the whole thing begins with this series of paradoxical statements: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the people who are reviled.” Now on the face of it, this is nonsense. “Blessed” would not be the appropriate category for poor, mourning, persecuted, reviled. Traditionally, we would tend to associate those conditions with being cursed. If that’s your life, whatever powers are running this world are not on your side.
So the easiest, maybe the most natural, way to read these verses is to project them into the future. How are the mourning blessed? They will be comforted. How are the persecuted blessed? They will receive the kingdom of God. How are the reviled blessed? Their reward will be great in heaven. So blessing, in this reading, is more aspirational than descriptive. We still know that people in that position aren’t actually blessed right now; our model for blessed and cursed still holds, it’s just that different people will occupy those positions in the future, most likely in heaven after they’re very much dead. So the hope of the Gospel, in this case, isn’t so much a hope for now, as it is a hope for a different kind of future.
We know who’s still blessed. There’s a whole hashtag. It’s been around long enough that people mostly post it ironically, but it’s hard to tell the difference between irony and earnestness, when in either case your instagram shows you images of people buying houses, or standing on the beach with, ya know, abs, or riding in fancy cars. To be blessed is to be healthy, successful, wealthy, thin, able, either young or related to someone who’s young. That’s still the kind of life that “blessed” describes.
And I think maybe these images that we share or are constantly bombarded with are more deeply connected to our world than we know. Because while you’re looking at that picture of your sister-in-law or your college roommate’s pristine life, you’re producing data about your own viewing habits that gets added to massive algorithms modeling our world and that ultimately build a whole economy designed around using those models to predict the future, so that they can tell which advertisements will tempt you to certain aspirations, so that Google can tell you where you’re going as soon as you get in your car. So while we’re presenting ourselves and consuming each other as blessed, Google and Amazon are making billions of dollars, reinforcing a kind of world where the few are blessed and the many toil. And again, this whole apparatus is built on the ability to predict the future: things might not be OK now, that might not be you this year, but your life might accommodate multiple futures and that’s where you should look.
It’s really amazing, the kind of pressure we put on ourselves, internally and externally, (even if you’re not very online) to feel like we can identify as “blessed” in some way. Whenever someone goes through something really hard, there’s this tic that a lot of us have where when we talk about our struggles we have to say, “Now, I’m not complaining, I know other people have it worse.” Like “I lost my house, but in court I met another guy who lost his house and he has cancer, so I don’t have it that bad” or “Well I broke both my arms in a car accident, but the person who shared my room lost both his legs, so at least that’s not me.”
Things don’t have to be as bad as they could possibly be to be terrible. I know those kinds of instincts are just people just trying to make themselves feel better, but doesn’t it say something about what makes us feel better when that is knowing that we’re doing better than someone else? Under capitalism we even practice humility as a kind of competition where we know we’re better than someone else. Our struggles could be opportunities for solidarity as we come into contact with people who are struggling in similar ways. Instead of “at least I don’t have it that bad” we could very easily say, “Why are so many people going through things like this?” But in the economy of blessing we’re taught not to describe ourselves that way; we want to identify with the blessed and for many of us that means hiding our need.
The idea of a world where people are atomized by measuring ourselves against each other, and where the poor and the marginalized aren’t truly blessed now but might be in the future, given certain conditions, is actually perfectly fit to Capitalism. If there are some people who we know are blessed, and there are others who aren’t right now, and if we know that God wants the people who aren’t blessed right now to be blessed in the future, then the people who are blessed right now have a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves: maybe the blessed are blessed to be a blessing. But that means they need those blessings, otherwise they won’t have them to give them away. This is the American Gospel: we’re a city on a hill, so we need to take this land from indigenous peoples so we can bless the world; slavocracy is a benevolent institution that instructs and civilizes; philanthropic billionaires have done so much good! If the chosen people are faithful in multiplying their talents, the benefits will trickle down to all until the kingdom of God is at hand.
This whole Gospel of accumulation and American exceptionalism is a model that isolates us into blessed and needy and has the needy in competition with each other to show they’re worthy of blessing, so whatever future justice is promised what we’re actually practicing is the reinforcement of the present. [Internet…weather…algorithm] It’s a way of saying we actually have to intensify the present if we want a different future. It’s also a story that positions most of us as passive beneficiaries or victims where we don’t have a role to play in bringing about the kingdom of God, we are supposed to be at the mercy of the blessed.
But my friends, Jesus doesn’t say, the poor will be blessed. He doesn’t say the meek will be blessed. He doesn’t say the reviled will be blessed. Jesus’ says we are blessed, right now. Jesus’ statement isn’t aspirational, it’s descriptive. He’s not taking the common models for blessed and cursed and then using that model to predict the future, he’s offering a completely different understanding of what it means to be blessed now. We can’t change the future, by definition, it doesn’t exist. If someone’s trying to sell you on a radically different future that doesn’t involve drastic change or struggle in the present, they’re lying to you. [Wrong side of history; if you want history to show a position as just, you have to struggle for it now, there are no guarantees in history]. The future Jesus describes only comes from a total redescription of the present and that’s the project he invites the disciples to be a part of, not to condescend, to slum it from their blessed position, but to find solidarity in shared struggles.
This is the nature of Jesus own life; he is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, past and future, and in the resurrection the promised future comes into the present and starts causing trouble. When Jesus comes to be with us and then says that the poor are blessed, he explodes the hierarchy of blessed and cursed. He’s not just saying, “God likes the poor,” Jesus is also saying to the rich, “This whole arrangement you’ve set up isn’t just bad, it’s a lie. The only power you have you have by extracting it from these people. The whole world actually depends on the many not the few; and so those who are poor and reviled and persecuted, they altogether are already blessed right now and if they realized it and stood together, there’s nothing any Caesar or CEO could do about it.”
And that power, that divine favor, those gifts are not somewhere off in the future—when you’ve gotten the degree, when you’ve lost enough weight, when you’ve paid off the debt, when you’re in a better place—no my friends Jesus’ says you are blessed right now which means we are called right now, not in your abundance, not in your wealth, not in what the powers of this world would call blessing; you are called in your struggles, in your wounds, in your fears, in your anxieties, not because those things are OK but because you are already not alone in them and even if others have it worse you need them and they need you. We don’t serve a pristine, photoshopped God, but a God who rises with wounds and invites us to touch them and know that risen wounds are the very form of God’s glory.
When Jesus says “blessed” he is not describing a future while reinforcing the present; he’s redescribing the present to accommodate another future. He’s not inviting us into philanthropy or optimism that one day off in the distance things will get better; he’s saying that his kind of world, his kind of community, only begins when we join each others’ struggles and stand in solidarity now. Multiple futures open up only through that kind of struggle in the present.
But we can do that work together, the church can be that kind of people, not because we are so smart or well-resourced, but only because together we confess our weakness and find there in each other the strength of God’s Spirit. Amen.