In early 1993, I was invited to provide music for a conference taking place in the spring at Boston University. The conference was known as “Women and the Word.” It was an annual event for women in ministry, and even through I was not quite finished my first graduate degree in pastoral ministry, and even though ordination was a complicated, elusive goal somewhere off in the unknown future, I was already part of a network of women who were ordained. I was already engaged in conversations about what being a woman in ministry might look like in a profession that had been almost exclusively male pretty much since the everyone had forgotten that Mary Magdalene was the chief witness to the resurrection of Jesus.
It was a complicated request. My daughter Joan was just a few months old, and I wasn’t able or willing to be separated from her, though I knew 5-year-old Ned would be fine at home with his dad. And I was eager to take part in conference, and to see my friend Kerry, who had invited me, and my friend Jemma, who was eager to help out with Joanie. So, on March 1, 1993, I set out in my Volvo station wagon, not-quite-6-month-old Joan strapped into her carseat in the back, and made the five-hour drive to Boston.
At this point, I need to say: my parents were a wreck. They did not like the idea of me traveling, all alone, with a little baby. They were terrified we would be abducted, or that someone would bop me on the head and take Joan. They warned me not to stop anywhere.
Of course I had to stop. I had a little baby with me, and babies have their needs—not to mention mommies. I drove over three hours to the Massachusetts Turnpike before stopping. I carried Joanie into the rest stop, looking around furtively, as if I were trying to get away with smuggling gold.
I had a strange sense of unease as I sat and ate a quick lunch, Joan in my arms. She was good as gold, by the way. When I was in my car again, and we were moving, I felt that we were safe.
There have been only a few times in my life when I have actually felt unsafe.
Our opening speaker at the conference was Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor of theology from the University of Chicago. (She is still there.) Thistlethwaite is what some might call a “social justice warrior.” Evidently, that is a recently coined phrase, intended to make fun of people who are concerned about sexism, racism, bigotry, and injustice in its many varieties. It’s hard for me to hear it as an insult, though, since we Christians follow a well-known social justice warrior: Jesus.
Our morning prayer had the passage we are reading today as its centerpiece. I think my friend Kerry may even have been the liturgist. A room filled with hundreds of women listened in a profound and attentive silence:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” ~ Matthew 5:3-10
After the reading was finished, Dr. Thistlethwaite stood to speak. She opened by saying, as clearly as I can remember it, the following.
“I am shocked and dismayed that we are reading the beatitudes today as they are recorded in Matthew’s gospel. The more authentic and more challenging version is found in Luke. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is a cop-out. Jesus wasn’t making excuses for people who like to think of themselves as blessed. Jesus’ words, the best scholarship tells us, were ‘Blessed are the poor.’”
I can only speak for myself. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Those of us on the planning team had been reprimanded, we had been rebuked by one to whom we felt a great debt for her scholarship, one to whom we looked as a guide in our own attempts to be faithful. And she had told us, first thing, that we were not being faithful to Jesus if we settled for a watered down gospel.
That didn’t feel good. A punch in the stomach never does, nor does a glass of cold water in the face, or a blast of wind when a door is opened. It was the kind of thing that made a person profoundly uncomfortable. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing that could have turned someone off, made them close a door in their heart, so that they couldn’t hear anything else the professor was saying.
Except, she had the knowledge to back up her claim. Since the 19th century, scholars have delved into the gospels with newer and more precise tools. They have strained to understand how the gospels—all, precious faith documents we own, and none of which we have tossed out—can tell one story in such different ways. And they tell us, in a great consensus, that Jesus’ words, in the most authentic rendering, were “Blessed are the poor.”
Today we have begun to explore the beating heart of the gospel of Matthew, the part we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” This portion of the gospel has had effects reaching far and wide. Many have called this passage “the Magna Carta of Christianity,” a document that expresses, in some foundational way, the unique worldview of Jesus. It is a worldview grounded in love, empathy, and forgiveness. Mahatma Gandhi spent time each day in prayer and meditation on the Sermon on the Mount. “Gandhi lived his life according to Matthew 5-7 and returned to that handbook on nonviolence every morning and every evening. In his private letters, he was puzzled why other Christians didn't do the same.”[i]
But what does Jesus mean? These words, by any traditional understanding of the word “blessing,” make no sense.
“Blessed” are the poor? Tell them that the next time they are evicted!
“Blessed” are those who mourn? Tell that to a widow, weeping for the only love of her life, after decades of faithful devotion.
“Blessed” are the peacemakers? Peacemakers are regularly killed for their efforts.
Is it possible that we have been completely misunderstanding this word “blessed”?
We have been led to believe that “blessing” equals being given things that are pleasant—like a convenient parking place, or a nice complexion. People are blessed with good cholesterol numbers, or an aptitude for math or languages. Or even, loving relationships. But you see the problem, when it appears that God randomly selects some for delightful things and forgets about the people who, for example, are fleeing countries where bombs are dropping all around them, in search of safe haven. These people don’t seem to be particularly “blessed,” by our typical understanding of that word. “Blessing” must mean something else—because these people, the least, the lost, and the left behind—are absolutely including in these blessings for those who are poor, and who are mourning, and who are hungering and thirsting for justice that seems to have been delayed, if not denied.
It turns out, we have a translation problem, and it’s not easily solved. Sometimes we hear “Blessed are the poor,” and other times, “Happy are the poor.” Neither is quite right. Another suggestion has been, “Congratulations, poor!” and that is getting closer. The closest to being a good translation seems to be, “Honored are the poor.” The first century is a society where nearly everything about social status goes back to whether or not a person is “honored” or “shamed.”
And the ancient world shamed poor people, and people who had suffered misfortunes. (This has not changed.) Even in a religious setting, it was assumed that those who were poor had brought it on themselves, and somehow deserved the squalor and want they suffered. It was believed that God had punished them.
Jesus, therefore, absolutely stunned the crowds on that mountainside when he declared, “Honored are the poor; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” This was a sweeping statement that those whom we have assumed are being punished by God, are actually being punished by an unjust society. This was an affirmation that those who have been on society’s margins, are, in fact, right at the heart of God’s concerns. This was a pronouncement reminding us that we don’t see things with God’s eyes, but telling us that… we still might. I imagine it was very much like a punch in the stomach, or a cold glass of water in the face, or a blast of icy wind to some of the listeners. But for many, many others, I imagine it was like a soft, warm blanket being draped gently around their shoulders, or like stepping near to a crackling hearth, or like inhaling the fragrance of their mother’s cooking.
“I honor them,” says God.
I honor them, says God, those who can’t afford their rent these last two months.
I honor them, says God, those whose children are victims of the opioid epidemic.
I honor them, says God, those who can’t get out of bed to face that bully of a co-worker today.
I honor them, says God, those who weave a vision of a better way for humanity, and who invite us to see it with them.
I honor them, says God, those who look the killer in the eye and see his brokenness, and find mercy in their hearts.
I honor them, says God, those whose hearts are pure, even if we can’t quite understand them.
I honor them, says God, those who insist on building up relationships instead of tearing them down.
I honor them, says God, those who are mocked as “social justice warriors” because they have the audacity to insist that all God’s children are created equal.
The life of faith is a life in which we hear Jesus’ words over and over again, and find that they are never stale, but ever new. Jesus is the living and breathing empathy of God for humanity. He invites us on a journey in which we, too, will find empathy—for people on other journeys that are not ours, and that we may never fully understand, but about whom God says, “I honor them.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] John Dear, “Gandhi’s Daily Scripture Readings for Peace,” The National Catholic Reporter, August 20, 2013, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/gandhis-daily-scripture-readings-peace.