Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.
But are these words more than encouragement?
Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospelare often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.
Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!
Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.
For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.
Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.
The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.
In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.
Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.
Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:
“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy.
“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were branches.
“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon!
“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”
Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.
Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.
“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.
Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.
And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.
Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ.
To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.
Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.