A lovely atheist friend who was born in Scotland occasionally used to surprise us by casually pronouncing blessings - on people and on animals, especially her own aesthetically challenged scruffy dog who every now and then did something cute. ‘Bless!’, our friend would say. So I was intrigued to discover that amongst its more restrained religious meanings the English word ‘bless’ comes from the Old English word for ‘blood’. Something sacrificed, something fought over, something consecrated by kinship and suffering. A strong word indeed.
My Bible dictionary offers even more help, informing me that the English word, ‘to bless’, belongs to a very special class of words known as ‘performative utterances’. When you bless someone you are not just wishing them well or vaguely hoping for a good outcome but actually conferring something on them. A performative utterance is a word that does something. There’s something in the words, ‘bless you’, for example, that can’t just be translated ‘have a nice day’ – the words are a benediction, a sense of protection against the uncertainties of life – the words ‘bless you’ represent an appeal to God’s will that creatures should thrive and be fruitful – and to say ‘I have been blessed’ is to evoke an image of generosity, of joy and of plenty.
So blessing is about protection and favour, gift and abundance. To be blessed carries a sense of participation in God’s own life, and for human beings to bless another is give something of ourselves. Which means that blessing - whether the Old English form that reaches back into Celtic prehistory or the equally ancient Hebrew form, barak, is an evocation of the original divine act of creation, which in the Genesis story is is surrounded by God’s blessings from the very beginning, and of the abundance of God’s creative goodness. In the ancient world beatitudes were a popular sort of folk wisdom - but in today’s reading from the Gospel, Jesus takes the usual idea of blessing and turns it on its head. For a start when we look at the people Jesus calls blessed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of abundance or good fortune. But remember it is a performative utterance? The blessing Jesus pronounces only becomes true in the stating of it. This is even more obvious when we read Matthew’s version of the blessings alongside what seems to be the older version preserved in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus’ blessing is pronounced on those who are literally poor, the literally hungry and those who weep. The kind of poverty Jesus is talking about includes the poverty of those who are homeless or unemployed, the poverty of widows and orphans, as well as the poverty of a whole people who are oppressed – and in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus is more clearly echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah – proclaiming a new deal for underdogs, claiming that God’s priorities and God’s kingdom are connected with justice and transformation in the here and now.
However Matthew’s version of the blessings has undergone a subtle change – the focus in the version we read this morning is not so much on those who are literally oppressed as on those who are being challenged to live in a new way and take on a new set of priorities – not the poor but the poor in spirit. It is not that Matthew, when he writes his gospel, disagrees with the original sayings – but that the community he is writing for are reasonably well off and they need to hear a word for them in their own circumstances. It’s a fair enough question, isn’t it? - if the kingdom of God is a new deal for the poor, well, what does that mean for the rich, or at least for those who – like us – at least know where they are going to sleep tonight and where their dinner is coming from? And so Matthew says it is about living out of the right relationship with God, and with other people; an attitude of humility, of lowliness, of hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, of being peacemakers, of being compassionate. An attitude, in short, that means we are living in solidarity with those who are literally dispossessed, who are literally hungry. We are blessed in the way we show compassion, in the way and to the extent that we bless others.
The danger in reading Matthew’s version of the beatitudes without one eye on the Luke’s more literal version, is that we can over-spiritualise them – keeping them connected with the earlier meaning reminds us that righteousness is nothing less than a yearning for and working towards God’s reign of love in the here and now. Matthew’s version, like Luke’s, points us toward the fact that the people Jesus is calling blessed are the ones whose lives do not overflow with the sort of abundance and security that we would rather think of as blessing. And if Luke’s more literal version makes it sound as though the blessing that the poor will receive is not going to happen until the next life, as a sort of compensation for the rough deal they’re getting now – then Matthew’s list of beatitudes that focus on the how and the why of faithful living makes it clear that blessing is not a sort of delayed reward, but a natural consequence of a particular way of living.
Matthew’s beatitudes point to a paradox – that it’s only when we give up the illusion of security and abundance that money and security and status provide, it is only when we open ourselves to the risk and insecurity of a life lived in dependence on God and in relationship with others, that we experience real abundance. Those who mourn feel pain because they have lived in relationship, open to love and growth and pain and loss. The merciful are able to offer mercy - because they have learned to live with open and vulnerable minds and hearts. Peacemakers offer reconciliation and a new start - because they are prepared to take the risk of seeing life from their enemy’s perspective. The poor in spirit are blessed - because they refuse to believe in the myth of their own self-sufficiency, instead taking the risk of living out of the awareness of their true relationship to God and to those around them.
Blessing is a process, not a payment, and it comes as we learn to engage God and the world around us in a new way. Blessing comes as a consequence of reorienting ourselves towards another, of making room for others by taking up less room for ourselves – blessing, in other words, comes when we participate in God’s primal act of creation.
Which brings me of course to baptism, as one of the primary ways in which as Christians we get to participate in God’s original blessings which weave creation together. Baptism takes us all the way back to the performative utterance by which we and all things are created, in baptism we re-enact the primordial blessings of God as we give thanks for the movement of the Holy Spirit in Audrey/Henry’s life and pray a blessing on him/her for everything that lies ahead.
But blessing, in the perspective of Jesus, is primarily invoked right where from the world’s perspective it seems to be absent. What in the Beatitudes Matthew describes as poverty, Paul talks about as foolishness. The point is that the technology of self – the whole apparatus by which as competent adults we learn to navigate the world – the technology of self is what we have to give up if we want to live in right relation to God. Does this sound a bit tough? Because it is! When Paul talks about the wisdom of the world and contrasts it with the foolishness of God, he is not just saying, oh, even on a bad day God has got more power than all the armies of the world put together; even when he’s not even trying God is wiser than human wisdom – what he is actually doing is pointing out the paradox – or the apparent contradiction - that God encounters us not in power and strength, but in weakness – the cross, after all, was the Roman Empire’s greatest and most brutal symbol of shame and failure. A bit hard to take seriously as a symbol of salvation if what you’re really after is to be reassured that God has got it all under control. God’s power, in fact, is precisely the power of humility and weakness, it is the power to trust in relationship more than in competence, even when laying down everything we think we know and all the power we think we have means getting pushed aside onto the cross.
So Paul is claiming that God uses what is weak in the world to expose the poverty of human claims to power. When power and status become an end in themselves, and especially when the exercise of power and the privileges of wealth deny the basics of life to others, then it becomes demonic. And here’s the real rub. Because St Paul here is talking to Christians that are a bit too impressed by their own status and their own respectability, and he is saying to them, ‘your good opinions of yourselves and your shows of righteousness are shamed by the hungry and the poor.’ Pious worship and fancy words about God are hollow, and we are shamed by the mute witness of those in need. This is also what the prophet Micah reminds us this morning, isn’t it?
The beatitudes tell us that we are blessed, and we become a blessing to others, when we join with God in the self-emptying and self-giving work of creation. To be blessed is to be recreated and transformed into the image of God. The promise of Jesus is that God’s good and loving purposes will be completed in all who suffer. For that, we can only wait in faithful expectation. But if, like Matthew’s community, we are not living under oppression ourselves, then we are being challenged to live in solidarity. If there are people in our own community who live on the edges, people whose experience is of being excluded or not being welcome, then we are challenged to live in solidarity. That’s what it means to be poor in spirit. When we dare to take a perspective that’s wider than our own horizons, when we learn to live out of awareness of our true relationship to God and to others, then we will be blessed.