On Blessing: Beatitudes, Knowledge, and Power

"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…" (Matt 5:3-5)

(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

I don’t know really what these words mean. It’s OK, neither do you.

I mean that fairly seriously, if not completely. Being technicians of knowledge as those of us involved in theological education tend to be, we are always trying to work out what things mean, and how to use them. What’s the point of hearing the word if it doesn’t preach, or if you don’t know what to do about it, or if it doesn’t at least helps us to be right about things? Well - sometimes not knowing what it means or what to do about it or what is right might be more the point than we want to accept.

Blessing is not available for manipulation. The Beatitudes are not a manual for right living, or (sorry) for social activism; they are not anybody’s technique for anything. You can’t read them and then say “this means I have to do x or y” and then imagine you have got it.

Micah’s impassioned plea in the first lesson is one of our favorite social justice snippets, and risks becoming too familiar to actually be heard; it also concerns the difference between thinking of religion as technology, and as transformation. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” - what is the right answer, what do I need to know, shall I do this, shall I do that? The suggestions are technical, ranging from the obvious to the extreme. The famous answer is of course practical - “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (6:8) but actually deeply counterintuitive too; it is not, as so often assumed or argued, the substitution of ethics for religion; it is the substitution of transformation for technology.

The Beatitudes are also not a division of humanity according to who is right. There are things around us that certainly demand discernment of what is right and support for what is right, and condemnation of what is wrong, but this is not that, not quite. There is a great spiritual risk for us at present, an obvious one, that we fail to respond to evil and normalize it as the temperature of wrongdoing rises as for that proverbial frog in the warming pot.

Yet in fact the greater spiritual risk for us, aside from ignoring injustice itself, may be far less obvious; namely that we will be right all the time as we oppose what is wrong, and that being right risks becoming a protection for us, a defense not only, or not so much, against wrong but against whatever transformation we are being called to in the present. But we are not called to be right, we are called to be transformed.

No, we don’t know what this means. But we know it when we see it.

In a big week or two of images, my favorite was the two dads with kids on ther shoulders at O’Hare airport, a little boy in kippah, a little girl in hijab, with their signs affirming love and opposing hate. I don’t care so much that they were right (they were right), as that they were there, and not so much that they were there but that they met, and were blessed hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

This is the difference between religious technology and blessing. Blessing is mysterious and transformative. A beatitude speaks it into being, but cannot define it so we could grasp and use it.

Blessing isn't about what other people are or do; it’s not about what you know; it’s about who you are. Blessing means that, like Paul’s loving dig at the opinionated Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), that it is grace that gets us here rather than knowledge or power as usually conceived. Blessing hints at the fact that the structure of reality is the one shown by a cross and a resurrection, and where our notions of power and knowledge get reversed.

So no, I don’t know what these beatitudes means, but I know I need this blessing. And so do you.

[From a sermon given at the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Feb 1 2017; proper for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany]


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