Blessings: Nothing to Sneeze At

[I wrote the title to this post last. It is a very bad play on words based on the fact that many people say, "God bless you," when someone sneezes. I'm very sorry. All I can say is that I had good intentions...]
 
One thing about the Beatitudes in Matthew is that, for the most part, the people who are "blessed" don't often seem very blessed. Let me show you what I mean:

Imagine a large, old church with tall Gothic arches and acres of stained glass, filled with proper, well-to-do people. Imagine a smiling, older man stepping up to the microphone in the front of the amassed congregation and saying:

Let me tell you a little about Bob. He's been blessed by God more than almost anyone I've ever met.
For example, he is poor in spirit. In fact, it hardly seems like there's anything spiritual about him. I'd say he's  even spiritually indebted. Many people have wondered if he is, in fact, the Anti-Christ. God surely blesses this man.
He mourns continually. His tears form little puddles under his chair. I'm having to speak pretty loud now so that you can hear me over his agonized moaning. No one seems to know what he's mourning for, because he can't stop sobbing long enough to tell anyone what's wrong. We should all be as blessed as Bob.
Bob is a meek man. One hardly ever knows what he wants, which, considering that he might be the Anti-Christ, is probably a good thing. Bob never seems to have ever done anything he's proud of. Blessed is he.
Bob hungers and thirsts for righteousness. He is almost completely lacking in righteousness, Evil Incarnate, so to speak, and he desperately wishes he weren't. Such a blessed man Bob is.
Considering what I've said so far, it should be clear that Bob gets beaten up by people who love righteousness all the time. I'm telling you, Bob is amazingly blessed by God!
People who love Jesus make up lies about Bob all the time. They feel that slandering Bob helps Christ. People say that Bob is Jack the Ripper, kidnapped Lindbergh's baby, killed Jimmy Hoffa and John F. Kennedy, is Luke Skywalker's father, causes hurricanes with the power of his mind, and turns gold into lead. None of it is true, of course, but people say it about him because they love Jesus. Can you imagine anyone so blessed as Bob.
And so, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you our new pastor, Rev. Bob ...
I know, I'm having some fun with this, but it does seem clear that Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes that what
God blesses is not what the world blesses. Jesus doesn't say "Blessed are the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful, the well-loved, the competent." We want to believe that God's blessings go to those who deserve it, but in Matthew, Jesus says that God blesses those the world leaves behind, people that even good church people think are poor and unfortunate, and need to "get over it," or maybe need a "hand up" from the good people in the pews.

This pattern seems to hold except for three of the Beatitudes which might not describe Rev. Bob: Bob: the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart. It's a compliment to be called merciful or a peacemaker, right? I'd feel good if I were told that I have a pure heart, I think.

I can kind of understand the blessing for the merciful and the peacemakers in the light of Jesus turning on its head the world's wisdom about blessing. My experience is that the spoils go to the ruthless victors, not the merciful or the peacemakers. You get fame, power, and wealth from defeating your enemies, not from showing mercy or preventing conflicts.

So, while we might honor the concept of peacemaking, we don't really reward those who engage in it. Jesus says that God acts differently. I understand that.

But what about the "pure in heart"?

If Jesus is talking about innocent people who only mean well, whose motives are always on God's will, then Jesus is blessing himself and no one else.

Maybe you think that last sentence was a little stern. I mean, there might not be many saints, but most people are basically good people, right? And some of those people are pretty much all good, right?

I'm not really worried about protecting people's self-esteem when it comes to sin. And sin is what we're talking about. If someone's heart is pure, it seems to me he must be free of sin. Blessed is that person, of course, but that person is only Jesus.

Jesus blessing himself seems out of place here in Matthew. If this was the Gospel of John, it'd be a whole different story, of course. Jesus talks about himself endlessly in John. But this is Matthew.

Maybe Jesus meant "pure in heart" to mean "not ritually pure." That is, maybe Jesus is saying that even if you didn't do the right things all the time, didn't do all the sacrifices and follow all the religious rules, you are blessed by God, and you will "see God." Maybe...

Or, maybe Jesus means that if all you can claim are good intentions, if you're that desparate to believe that you're somehow a good person, if you've screwed things up so bad that all you can say is "I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it!", then God blesses you.

God blesses the man who said the very wrong thing to his wife and sits staring at the wall while she cries in the bedroom, thinking "I didn't mean it! I never wanted to hurt her!" Maybe blessings aren't what his wife would give him, but God isn't his wife.

God blesses the woman who did the very wrong thing for her daughter, and watches as she drives off in anger and thinks, "I didn't mean it! I'd take it back if I could!" Her heart might not be "100% pure," but it was much purer than her actions. She knows she screwed up, and God blesses her, even if no one else would.

God blesses the kid who screwed up badly in school and, worse still, sees the disappointment in his mother's eyes, and says, "I didn't mean it! I thought I was doing good!"

Maybe God blesses us when no one else would, when we desperately want to believe that we're better people than all the evidence suggests, when we cling to the idea that, though our actions are polluted, or hearts are somehow pure.

Maybe the poorest people, left with nothing but their "pure" hearts, are blessed by God precisely because God loves and blesses us not because of what we do, or even what we believe, or who we are, but because God knows us and loves us.

Blessed are you.

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