January 30, 2011
The opening scene of an episode of the TV show Psyche shows a father out in a field with his son and his son’s friend. They are on some kind of Scouting trip, and the father is preparing to launch a rocket.
As he works to set up the rocket, he gives the boys a little pep talk: “The name of the game is survival,” he tells them. “In order to survive you have to fight and if you fight you better . . . win. Because if you don’t win and you don’t use your brain then what happens? Gus?”
And for this troop, that is not an option. Comprende? Because losing is for lowlifes. Losing is for quitters. Are you boys lowlifes? Are you boys quitters?”
When the rocket is ready to launch, the father explains the rules: “One of you lucky grunts is going to nab this [rocket] and [bring it] back to me. The prize? A hot fudge sundae. But if you lose . . . what does the loser get, Shawn?”
“He gets to look on with envy.”
“That is correct. He gets to look on with envy. Because that, gentlemen, is the American way.”
The American way. Only one person can win. You earn the prize–the sundae, the blessing–by being the fastest, the smartest, and–if necessary–the most cunning and ruthless.
Sounds to me like a story I’ve heard before. It’s a story most of you have probably heard, too. A story that those people listening to Jesus on the mountain had certainly heard.
(Genesis 27) It’s the story of another father. This father is not taking his boys on a scouting trip; this father lays dying on his bed. And before he dies, he has a blessing to give; he also has two sons–twin sons–who desperately want to receive that blessing.
Isaac, the father, intends to give the blessing to his favorite son, Esau. But Rebekah, the boy’s mother, overhears Isaac tell Esau to go hunt game and make him food. Since her favorite son is Jacob, she makes some food for Isaac, dresses Jacob up like his brother, and sends him into Isaac to get the blessing. Isaac’s old eyes don’t work very well, and the ruse works. Jacob receives the blessing.
When you hear this blessing, it becomes obvious why only one son can get it. The blessing includes the lines: “Be lord over your brothers / and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.”
Esau, of course, is furious when he learns that his twin has stolen the blessing. He demands that his father bless him also. But Isaac says, “I have already made him your lord.” And the pseudo-blessing Isaac gives to Esau is not a blessing most of us would want.
In this biblical story, in this TV episode, in what could probably be considered the dominant cultural narrative, blessings go to the winners.
It’s true that standards for winning and losing vary from culture to culture and group to group. Winning might have to do with how many people you beat up. Or how much money you make. Or how physically attractive you are. Or how many times you can get the orange ball through the hoop. Or how many articles you have published in peer reviewed journals.
The standards we set up for winning vary. But the basic principle is consistent: the winners are the ones who get the blessing. And not everyone can be a winner. You earn your blessings by accomplishing something more than what other people around you have accomplished.
It’s a pervasive world-view; one that is nearly impossible to escape. Which is probably why we carry it with us even into our reading of these opening words of Jesus’s sermon on the mount.
We do recognize what Jesus says here in this familiar–maybe overly familiar–passage as a counter-cultural teaching: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are those who mourn . . . blessed are the meek . . . blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . blessed are the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . the persecuted.”
We recognize that these people that Jesus proclaims “blessed” are not generally the people that society rewards or recognizes.
Yet still we read this counter-cultural pronouncement with the eyes of those steeped in a culture of winning and losing; of earning and deserving.
We tend to read the Beatitudes as if they are a set of commandments. Moses goes up on the mountain and receives the Ten Commandments. Jesus goes up on the mountain and proclaims the Beatitude Commandments–he tells us how to earn our prizes: If you are poor in spirit, you will get the kingdom of heaven; if you mourn, you will be comforted; if you are meek, you will inherit the earth; if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you will be filled; if you are merciful, you will receive mercy; if you are pure in heart, you will see God; if you make peace, you will be called children of God.
But Jesus does not say, “If you . . . “. Jesus says, “Blessed are you.”
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should forget about being poor in spirit, or merciful, or peacemakers. All of these qualities that Jesus lists here are reflected in his life, and will be reflected in our lives if we truly seek to follow him.
All I am saying is that this word from Jesus, these beatitudes that he speaks, are not about how we can be winners in God’s kingdom. Not about how we can earn our prize.
We read the Beatitudes and say that Jesus is changing the rules to the game. The winners will no longer be the arrogant, the powerful, the selfish, the violent, the shrewd. Jesus is setting up a new standard.
But Jesus is not changing the rules. Jesus is not establishing new criteria for winning the game.
Jesus is quitting the game altogether. And he is inviting his followers to quit as well.
In this act of extravagant blessing, Jesus exposes the lie that is at the heart of the game. The lie that a father has only one ice cream sundae, only one blessing to give. The lie that says if someone else gets something then there is less for me. The lie that says if you get the blessing, then I’m out of luck.
Jesus says, “Blessed are . . . blessed are . . . blessed, blessed, blessed.”
There is enough blessing for both–for all. There is enough earth for all to inherit. There is enough sustenance to fill us all. There is enough mercy to go around. The kingdom of heaven is big enough . . .
This word from Jesus is a word of pure, extravagant blessing. Blessing for his disciples then. Blessing for his disciples now. Blessed are you. Blessed are we. Thanks be to God.
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Artist and writer Jan Richardson notes that in Jesus’ story, “Elizabeth is the first to speak the word [blessed] as she offers her threefold blessing of Mary.” She writes, “It set me to thinking about how Jesus must have absorbed that word in the womb. . . . Blessed. Jesus absorbs this. Blessed seeps into his forming cells, blessed passes from Mary’s flesh into his own. From the womb, he knows the power of receiving a blessing, of living within it. He understands what it means to inhabit this word, to dwell within one who has been named blessed.”
As we enter into a time of silence, I invite you to sit with the blessing you have received. Absorb it. Let it seep into your cells. Jesus says, “Blessed are you.”