The Beatitudes Challenge Our Culture on Many Fronts

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 4
January 29, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In some ways the Beatitudes have become so familiar to many Christians that they miss how counter-cultural they are. One way to see them in fresh ways is to read them in unfamiliar translations that can help uncover at least some of how Jesus' first hearers might have received them.

We humans sometimes make up phrases to reflect conventional wisdom. The author Kate Bowler wrote about some of those phrases in her book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved.

The phrases can be reassuring. "God never gives you more than you can handle," for example. That one, however, raises the question of why our mental health institutions are so busy helping overwhelmed people. Or this phrase you sometimes hear spoken to grieving parents of a dead child: "God needed another angel." It's meant to be reassuring but Bowler calls the god it depicts "sadistic."1

This matter of making up sayings is not new. For instance, the point of the book of Job was to challenge the conventional wisdom that suffering is a sign that someone sinned.

So in the ministry of Jesus, we find that he, too, challenges conventional wisdom. And there's no better example of that than the Beatitudes, which we read from the book of Matthew today.

The Beatitudes are countercultural. They take what people think are true sayings and they turn them on their head. The Beatitudes, in other words, make people stop and say, "Wait. What?" And that response is a clue that maybe we haven't fully appreciated the way Jesus challenges the systems that rule our culture and our world.

Jesus asks us to stop and reimagine how the world would be different if we actually tried to live out the values of love, compassion, mercy and justice instead of the ideas our culture often values -such as the importance of power and wealth and consumerism and mindless entertainment.

The Jesus who spoke the Beatitudes isn't the meek-and-mild child we imagined when we first met him in the manger in Bethlehem. Rather, he's out to shake up our world in fundamental ways and to change us.

Over the years some people have tried to tame or domesticate the Beatitudes. The famous TV preacher Robert Schuller, for instance, even once wrote a book called The Be (Happy) Attitudes. Jesus' Beatitudes, however, weren't designed as a recipe for happiness but, rather, as a way of understanding what the reign of God is all about. That reign, of course, doesn't exclude happiness, but being reviled and persecuted and called evil things on account of our love of Jesus seems like an odd way to achieve happiness. And it's meant to sound odd.

The term Beatitude, by the way, comes to us through the Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate because each verse begins with the words beati sunt, meaning "blessed are." And although today we read the Beatitudes as they are found in what's commonly called the Sermon on the Mount from the book of Matthew, you also can find some Beatitudes in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke in what's sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. There, however, four Beatitudes are followed by four Woes, such as "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep."

So you may have heard the Beatitudes dozens of times in your life, but just for today, let's pretend that we are hearing them for the very first time. To help with that, we'll use several different translations.

Imagine a world in which people really tried to live by the Beatitudes. Well, we can do more than imagine it. We can help bring such a peaceful, loving world into existence by following the One who told us how we can be blessed. And we can begin today. May it be so.


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