My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 4: The Beatitudes

I started this series on my favorite parts of the Bible a looonnnng time ago, and now that I’ve returned to blogging, I want to pick it back up. You can find previous blog posts in this series at these links:

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“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.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)

Early in his ministry, according to Luke, Jesus goes up on a mountain and, in the words of Shane Claiborne, gives his “platform” speech, his big “commencement address” to kick off his “campaign” announcing God’s kingdom. And he does so by first declaring a series of blessings on the people.

But, he doesn’t announce blessings on just anybody. He isn’t here to heap praise on the powerful, the strong, the wealthy, or the well-fed. Jesus’ campaign isn’t about putting the stamp of approval on the way the world works. Instead, Jesus declares a series of countercultural blessings, blessings that turn on its head the traditional understandings of what is good, and what is not.

“Blessed are the poor,” he says.

“Blessed are those mourning.

Blessed are those who are meek.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, not just for food and drink, but for the work of righteousness.

Blessed are those who practice mercy.

Blessed are those whose hearts remain pure and fixed on God.

Blessed are those who seek peace.

Blessed are those who are persecuted, who are oppressed, who are hated, who are lowly and weak.”

These aren’t the blessings that those who write the big checks in church, that make decisions and wield power and decide who is in and who is out, want to hear from their religious leader. This isn’t blessing on the rich, the smart, the leaders, the influential, the biblically sound, the self-righteous, the ones who stick to fundamentals.

No, Jesus’ inaugural blessings are reserved for those on the margins, the outcasts and the despised and the forgotten and the dirty.

The Gospel of Luke goes even further than blessings. Luke, working from much of the same source material as Matthew, has Jesus also proclaiming woes on some as well:

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Luke 6:24-26, NRSV

In this telling, it wasn’t just enough for Jesus to declare who is the favored of God. He also recognizes that the existence of the poor, of the mourning, of the hungry and thirsty, of the persecuted, implies the existence of oppressors, and of those who take more than their need, who cause situations of injustice.

These blessings and woes tell us something important about the Way that Jesus was leading his disciples down. The faith of Christians is one that recognizes those in need, and lifts them. It sees the people who are being held down, those are who are the margins, and it does what it can to make Jesus’ blessings real in their lives. But that’s not all. It is also a Way that calls out the reasons behind those oppressions, that points fingers, not in anger, but in order to heal and bring the created order back into harmony with God.

The Beatitudes is one of my favorite parts of the Bible for this reason. In reading them, you see Jesus giving us the clearest indication about why we are called to be Christians. We see in these blessings that we are called to be light to those who need not, and not in the sense that we must stridently evangelize them, but in the sense that we must free the imprisoned, and feed the hungry, and live in humility, and fight against persecution and oppression wherever we see it.

The Beatitudes have been an inspiration for Christians ever since they were first spoken. One way they have inspired people is through an on-going tradition of writing new Beatitudes, in response to the situations and oppression and injustice Christians have confronted throughout history. One of my favorite modern versions is the Beatitude Benediction written by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’ve heard her proclaim them in person twice, once at the Why Christian conference at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago in 2017, and another time at a book talk she gave at Old St. Patrick’s Church, also in Chicago, last year. Here is her version:

Blessed are the agnostics.

Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.

Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.

Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.

Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.

Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.

Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.

Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”

Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted.

Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.

Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek.

You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.

Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.

Blessed are foster kids and special-ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.

Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.

Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.

Blessed are the kindhearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives.

Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.

Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.


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My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 3: The Social Justice Heritage of the Jewish People

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:8

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 6:24

I don’t know a progressive Christian who doesn’t love these two verses. (Or one who passes up a chance to write them on a protest poster or quote them in a meeting of community organizers.)

I’m no different. These verses played a big role in my return to the Christian faith after my early-20s disillusionment. To discover that there was a social justice strain in Christianity, and that it could be found explicitly in the Bible – in the Hebrew Scriptures, no less! – was huge for me.

img_4572But I don’t want to just talk about them like they are the opening lines of some kind of Social Justice Handbook for Christian Activists©. Instead, to reflect on the role they play as favorites of mine, I want them to inspire gratitude in Christians, directed towards the Jewish prophetic tradition in which Jesus existed, and out of which our own faith tradition grew.

Here’s what I mean: we Christians didn’t invent religious social justice awareness. In fact, we haven’t even been the ones who perfected it, or practiced it in its “best” form. That distinction goes to the Jewish tradition, the progenitors of the prophetic critique and social justice-minded faith.

The words of the Jewish prophets, which we are so used to reading today that seem rather typical, were radically new at the time of their writing. No other religious system of the ancient world had used faith as a critique of power. In fact, religions had long been used as props to the governing elites, confirming them in their exercise of power and rule over the vast majority of people. But the prophets of ancient Israel were a new force. They disrupted the power structures by declaring that God was not merely a rubber stamp for the ruling elite, but instead, had great requirements and expectations, rooted in justice for the people and mercy for the oppressed.

Thomas Cahill highlights this in The Gifts of the Jews, speaking of the Law that the the prophets defended and called the kings of Israel and Judah back to:

“…in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people. even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy…The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole of human history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Thus, these words of the prophets have context. They aren’t just something lefty Christians can appropriate in making the case for our preferred political candidate or policy. Instead, we must remember: these are words about God, and God’s grand design for Creation. They are words that aren’t just about holding the correct political positions; they are words about the very nature of the Universe, about how things should be. They are, in short, holy, inspired words, not to be used and discarded, but internalized and held as holy. For they reveal to us the nature of God.

So yes, these words can inspire us to action, to become followers of Christ in deed, and not just word. They can provide the moral underpinnings of our convictions about the work we feel called to do in the world. But, when we invoke them, we should always do so with a sense of reverence, and an attitude of gratitude, for the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, who have birth to the notion of a socially-conscious faith, and who shared that notion that comes down to us today.

My Favorite Bible Stories: Series Introduction

Part 1

Part 2

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 2: The God of my Enemies

jonahvtI don’t have a specific verse or set of verses today. Instead, I commend to you the entire book of Jonah.

Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. We all know it, heard it growing up. I am particularly fond of the Veggie Tales film Jonah. Those are some catchy songs.

But it’s what comes at the end of Jonah that I love. After being called by God and running, after being thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish and spit out on dry land, after a long and arduous journey across the desert of Syria to the enemy city of Nineveh, Jonah delivers his message to the Assyrians: repent, or perish at the hand of Israel’s God.

Message successfully delivered, Jonah leaves Nineveh, and camps out on a nearby hill to watch God rain down holy fire on the unrepentant barbarians. Why shouldn’t he enjoy a good show and well-deserved comeuppance for his enemies after everything he’s been through? And what a satisfying show it will be! Nineveh, after all, is the capitol of Assyria, Israel’s worst enemy, who had threatened them and attacked them and made their lives generally miserable. Finally, Jonah thought, justice will be served! God will save God’s people, by killing these others!

Only, it never happens. The king of Nineveh repents, and decrees a fast in the whole city, in order to appease God and avert destruction. God relents. The people of Nineveh, God’s very own children, are saved.

Jonah is pissed. Not only because Nineveh was saved, but because he knew this would happen. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knew God would spare Israel’s greatest enemy, and he can’t stand it. He wanted justice. He wanted the very people who plagued Israel, who destroyed their land, to be wiped from the earth.

And instead, he got a God of mercy, and compassion, and love. He got a God who is not just his God, not just his people’s God, not merely a divine strongman protecting just the Israelites. He got a God of all people. A God who protects God’s own, be they Israeli or Assyrian or Greek or Roman.

I love this story, because it reminds me today that God is the God of America, of Christians, of the West. God is the God of all. God does not support our side against theirs. God does not ride into battle with us, to protect us and avenge us. God instead stands with all of humanity, on both sides, no matter the wrongs committed by either side. God’s justice is bigger than our justice. God’s mercy is more bountiful than our mercy. Indeed, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah reminds me that, when my country gets into a war fever, or descends into tribalism, that God does not condone such things. God loves all of humanity, be they American, Israeli, British, Palestinian, Iranian, Mexican, Chinese, Russian, French – all of us.

And if we expect God to vanquish our enemies, well, we will be very surprised to find that our God is not just our God, but is the God of our enemies as well.