Ancient Contemporary Wisdom
Text: Matthew 5: 4
Last week I mentioned that three or four of the beatitudes seem to really stand out as authentically Jesus. Part of that determination from Bible scholars comes from looking for certain characteristics that a teaching of Jesus will often contain. One of those characteristics is often a reversal of thought and often very concise, even though it contains a lot of information. With this particular beatitude, these things are present, but there is also source information which leads scholars to believe that this particular saying is authentically from Jesus. . Today’s beatitude – blessed are those who mourn, or grieve has all of these same qualities.
That being established I want to first look at the word “Blessed” and offer a few interpretations of that word that may be new information for you. Many scholars believe the word could be translated into modern English by defining it as “congratulations”. Another way of interpreting the word “blessed” is an inner-awareness, or a special knowing; things of this nature. One thing is consistent, and that is the intent of the word “blessed” does not reflect any kind of special blessing from God. The word choice and sentence structure in the original Greek tend to exclude this as a Divine blessing. This is an important element toward our full comprehension of this particular saying of Jesus.
One of the things which make this saying of Jesus authentic, as I mentioned earlier, is that it contains a reversal of thought, or a challenge of the status quo. Jesus was doing this all the time, most of us are familiar with sayings when Jesus says the first shall be last, the poor are rich and other sayings like these. The reversal of conventional wisdom in this beatitude, I believe, revolves around the idea of the type of God which can offer comfort. The Old Testament is quite full of a vengeful and angry God, and the concept of a compassionate God would be somewhat new for the audience that Jesus was originally teaching. There are a number of references in the wisdom literature, the Psalms and so on, about God as being a comfort, but the context of most of those references is a God that is mighty and powerful and we take comfort in the protection of that power. Even the famous 23rd Psalm indicates this with the reference of ‘thy rod and thy staff they comfort me’ – the rod and the staff representing the power and control of a shepherd.
What is different in this beatitude is the personal nature of the comfort of God-meeting you where you are in your grief and offering comfort in a spiritual or personal way. For ancient Judaism, this was quite a new concept. Today we think of this type of presence as the work of the Holy Spirit, but we must remind ourselves that this teaching took place prior to the formation of Christianity and much before the idea of a Trinitarian God had ever been thought of.
One possible interpretation of this beatitude is a very traditional interpretation which I am not fond of at all. It puts forth the idea that those of us who become aware of our own inadequacies and our own sin then become sorrowful and full of grief – and with that realization then comes the comfort of God in the form of grace and forgiveness. I don’t find this interpretation particularly helpful; I prefer a more positive approach and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to the interpretation of this beatitude. I believe the beatitudes are designed to help us live life here and now, to help us deal with everyday challenges and everyday problems. To be reminded of how inadequate we are in the eyes of God generally, at least in my opinion, is not that helpful.
My personal take on this beatitude you might be able to find a few commentaries, but as far as I have been able to determine, this interpretation is fairly unique to my own personal thought. So, once again, it may be time for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer, these are my thoughts and they don’t have to be your thoughts-I offer them simply as an opportunity to think about things, ask questions and arrive at your own conclusions.
Back to my interpretation of this particular saying of Jesus. There is an old saying which I think has application as we begin to unpack this beatitude, and that saying is this; “all sunshine makes deserts”. The idea here is that we must experience some rain if we are to stay alive or expect to grow. I think the key ingredient here is growth. Sorrow and trouble offer us that opportunity and it is an opportunity to walk closer and to better understand our God. This concept that hard times grow character is not a new concept; what is new, I believe, is the thought process that allows us the opportunity to see this “up” side of sorrow or grief or hard times much sooner than in the past.
I think many of us have had the experience of 20/20 hindsight where we realize that a particular spot of trouble or some hard times may have been beneficial for us in some way. Almost everyone I think is able to remember a time that was hard, but proved to have a silver lining, as they say, after a decade or two has passed. My concept around this beatitude is to provide us the chance to see that silver lining much sooner.
There is also a principle at work here that some people refer to as ‘contrast’ – this is a very common tenet in some of the eastern religions. The idea of contrast is that there must be hot in order for us to experience cold, there must be soft if there something hard is to be experienced, there must be something rough if we are going to experience smooth, and so on. Jesus also echoed this teaching in a number of the parables and stories he told. If we apply this idea of contrast to this particular beatitude, we could include a more contemporary translation of the word “blessed” and come up with a new way of reading this saying of Jesus. In this beatitude, we could think of a different translation as saying something to the like: “congratulations, for now that you have experienced sorrow, you are better equipped to appreciate joy; and that knowledge will bring you comfort.”
I have been told and have read from a variety of sources that our human psyche is only capable of experiencing one emotion at a time. In other words, we cannot be happy and sad simultaneously; we are either happy or sad, but we cannot be both. We can often ping-pong from one to the other, but our human emotional response system is set up so that we can only actually experience a single emotion at a time. This is a key thought.
If we can recognize sorrow or grief or suffering as an opportunity for contrast, this changes our emotional response to the immediate situation. Because we can see hidden in the sorrow an opportunity for comfort and an opportunity for growth and as an opportunity for developing a greater understanding of God in our lives, then we can begin to actually offer thanksgiving for the experience of sorrow. Remember what I said earlier about the human psyche only experiencing one emotion at a time; with that offering of thanksgiving, will come a different set of emotions and the emotion of sorrow or grief will be mitigated and we will experience comfort.
If we place this idea in the context of the beatitude, we come away with a perspective that those who begin to understand this concept are to be congratulated because they know that in their grief there will be wisdom, learning, and a new appreciation of joy and happiness-so their natural response to sorrow and grief is to embrace it and actually give thanks for the experience. As they do, the emotions of sorrow and grief begin to fade and the emotions of love, thanksgiving, gratitude and joy rush in to take their place. That transformation of emotional response brings great comfort.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Food for thought.
Go in peace and go with God. Amen.