Along with many Christians, I find it difficult to maintain any sort of disciplined study of the Bible. I let the details of my life take priority over the health of my soul. A while back, I started writing down the thoughts I had as I read my Bible. In an effort to have some accountability to continue reading, I posted a few of these writings on a social media site. I stopped though because I felt that the posts were longer than that venue was truly meant to support. Since then, I have been asked by by several different people to start sharing those thoughts again. This blog is my answer to those requests. I do not profess to be a Biblical expert. I do not pretend that I am always correct in my interpretations. As I read the Bible, thoughts and questions occur to me. I write them down. If they bless anyone else, if they play a role in drawing anyone else closer to God, then I praise Him for allowing me to be a part of such wondrous things.
I thought I was going to be able to tackle a whole chunk of verses in this post or at least more than one verse. I was all set to combine the salt of the earth and the light of the world and maybe even the fulfillment of the law into one magnificently inspiring post. (Hey. I can dream.) I’m not sure why I thought I could do that since it took me 7 posts just to get through the beatitudes. Nevertheless, I was prepared to hit all those familiar points and move on. Then that question that wouldn’t go away hit.
I began exploring this verse the way everyone else does. I thought about what salt does and how important it was in the past. Salt’s main functions are food preservation and flavor enhancement. So, as the salt of the earth, Christians keep the world from rotting and make it more palatable.”Yeah, us!” I thought. That’s when it started. I realized I was only addressing 7 words out of approximately 35 in the verse. I wasn’t thinking about 4/5 of the verse.
Ignoring 80% of the verse just isn’t acceptable so I read the whole thing I don’t know how many times. I found that Jesus spent most of the verse talking about how worthless salt is when it loses its saltiness. As I started pondering how that affected the metaphor, I was slapped in the face by a seemingly mundane question. How does salt lose it’s saltiness anyway? At first I assumed it assumed it must be a matter of salt being contaminated with some kind of impurity. Try as I might to work with that, I just wasn’t satisfied with guessing. So I applied the default research strategy of our time. … Yep. I googled it.
It turns out that the impurity concept does have some validity, especially in light of the salt-gathering processes of ancient times. Salt back then was definitely not the same substance we put in our salt shakers. In fact, the salt did not need to be contaminated at all since it was already mixed with other things. The more profound revelation I discovered was the fact that, in these salt mixtures, the sodium chloride can “disappear” when exposed to moisture, leaving behind a substance that still looks like salt but doesn’t actually contain any. This greatly expands the meaning of the verse for me.
Jesus isn’t just metaphorically describing Christians. He’s issuing a warning. There are many people who wear the label of Christians that don’t have the faith to actually be Christians. They may look good, maybe say and do the “right” things but they possess no power to truly affect the world. They are worthless when it comes to furthering the gospel. So this verse is basically saying that it doesn’t matter if you outwardly look correct if you aren’t made of the right substance. If you aren’t full of faith and true belief in Christ, then you are worthless to Him.
Three things struck me when I read this final part of the Beatitudes. First, people who want to dismiss Jesus as nothing more than a good teacher will have to ignore verses 11 and 12. Verse 10 talks about those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The next verse clearly connects that idea directly to Jesus. The persecution is on account of Jesus. So, Jesus is equating himself with righteousness. Verse 12 connects Jesus’ disciples with the Old Testament prophets which means Jesus is equating himself with God. This passage is one of many that make it impossible to so easily dismiss Jesus. He just didn’t leave that as an option.
The second thing was really a baffled question. Why are so many American Christians surprised when their faith makes people mad at them? Jesus clearly states here and in other verses that, if you are truly living for him, the world will retaliate. However much we may wish it otherwise, we do not live in a Christian world. To further compound that problem, if we are truly living as God calls us to live, we are fundamentally different from the rest of the world. And, despite all the lip service given to tolerance, the world does not respond kindly to differences.
The third thing that struck me was that the “reward” for persecution is the same as for being poor in spirit. The last beatitude loops back to the first. Is this a rhetorical device used to tie things up? Perhaps it is but it is meaningful nonetheless. We aren’t meant to view the Beatitudes as a disjointed list or a menu to choose from. They are a single unit, a description of what ALL Christians are supposed to be. Taken together, these verses show what God wants us to grow to be, the way He wants us to react to the world He sends us into. It would be a daunting prospect except all we have to do is follow Jesus. God will take care of the rest. In such infinitely capable hands, blessed are we indeed.
What is a peacemaker? A literal definition would be “one who makes peace.” While this is certainly correct it’s one of those totally unhelpful definitions found in more annoying dictionaries. “Making peace” implies the establishment of a state free from strife. So does that mean peacemakers avoid conflict and seek to not rock the proverbial boat? I know several people who ascribe to this definition but I have never understood why they think avoiding issues is peaceful. In my experience all it does is cause pain and resentment to fester under the surface. At best it creates a false image of peace, one that is rapidly torn to shreds when the buried negativity finally busts out. The aftermath is usually ugly and incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
What, then, does it mean to “make peace”? True peacemakers do not avoid conflict. Instead, they seek to resolve it, to turn arguments into conversations, to change animosity into cooperation. None of that is simple. It takes someone with a true gift from God to achieve such things. Peacemakers need a deep understanding of people’s hearts and an ability to put things in perspective. Establishing peace doesn’t mean eliminating disagreement. It means establishing an environment (external and internal) where disagreements and differences don’t result in anger, fights, and hatred. Free will and varying personalities ensure that problems will arise but that doesn’t mean we can’t live together peacefully. That’s the way God intended humanity to live in the first place before our own sin messed everything up. Peacemakers bring about this intended state, if only partially. That’s why this beatitude calls them the children of God: they work to restore what their Father originally created.
When I hear the term “pure in heart” I think of innocence and sweet little children. Someone who has a pure heart is a loving person whose motivations are totally good, someone who sees the world from a simple, honest perspective. That’s what Jesus meant, right? I actually think he meant a great deal more than that, largely because of how people viewed the heart thousands of years ago. In our culture, the heart is unquestionably linked to emotion. While this is a holdover from ancient beliefs, ancients placed even more importance on the heart. For the most part, the brain was ignored. The heart was considered the seat of intelligence as well as emotion. The two were not considered totally separate. As I thought about that idea, I found that the ancients were correct. Even though they attributed them to the wrong organ, these ancient people understood something we have lost sight of. With all our emphasis on science and reason, we have somehow come to believe that thought and emotion operate apart from each other. While the two aren’t identical, they are inextricably linked. If I’m sad, my thoughts tend to be darker. If I’m thinking of things that amuse me, my mood improves. If I think something is wrong, I will feel angry when I see it. If I have convinced myself a sin is “not that bad,” then I won’t feel guilty about it (at least until God readjusts my thinking).
So, what is Jesus actually talking about in this beatitude? What is it he is saying I should be? I think being pure in heart is another one of those seemingly impossible tasks because it means my thoughts and emotions are holy, all the time. I’m not talking about just at church or Bible study but also at work and when someone cuts me off in traffic. I don’t know about other people, but I’m not anywhere near that level of holy. Thoughts come into my head that have no business being there. I get ticked off over little things. There was a time in my life when I thought I was doing good simply because I usually didn’t act on those thoughts and feelings. God didn’t allow me to keep that delusion for long. The Pharisees could lay claim to correct action but Jesus rebuked them often for their internal thoughts and feelings. So, how do I become pure in mind and emotion? I can’t stop thoughts from popping into my mind but I don’t have to let them linger. I can’t control my initial emotional reactions to every situation but I don’t have to let them fester. Is that enough to be pure in heart? Though it is necessary, I don’t think even that discipline is enough to qualify. Why? Because I am not holy in my own right and those are actions that stem from me. The only way I can be pure is to be purified from an outside source. In other words, I can’t be pure unless God makes me pure. If I place my focus on Him, His purity will cleanse my impurity, allowing me to see Him more clearly until I can indeed see his face. “For they will see God” is not just the reward for having a pure heart; it is the natural result of it.
Mercy seems like an obvious trait for someone to desire. After all, we always want to be shown mercy from those in power over us. When mercy is actually shown, however, we often think less if that power. We think that person is too soft for the position or too weak to enforce the rules. We consider them suckers and fools, gullible and weak-minded. Some people have “Show no mercy” as their life motto, even going so far as tattooing such prominently on their bodies. This view is even held by many Christians, at least until they talk about God. Then, they say mercy is a good thing. I’m never sure that they mean it though, that they don’t still view mercy as a weakness even in God. This negative view of mercy originates in humanity’s deep-seated arrogance. We desire to feel powerful so we twist our perception of mercy as something we have done. We want to believe that we have pulled one over on authority, manipulated the situation somehow. That way we don’t have to admit our own weakness.
This perception tragically prevents us from seeing the strength mercy requires.Punishing someone is easy. Letting someone face the “natural consequences” of his/her actions is easy. Strictly enforcing enforcing the rules is easy. Showing passion and forgiveness takes true strength because people often view those merciful acts as freebies instead of opportunities to change that they really are. God bestows mercy to give us the chance to grow. It is an act of love. Let’s face it. In many ways, it would be simpler for God to just wipe us out. Humanity is, after all, an awful lot of trouble. Instead, God’s love gives us those second chances we so desperately need. This beatitude is pointing out the obvious: If God shows us mercy, we can do no less for our fellow man.
The fourth beatitude involves those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. I thought this one was pretty straightforward until I started thinking about definitions. Jesus isn’t just saying that this is a good thing. He clearly identifies a desire for righteousness as a vital need for our survival. How does he do that? By the imagery he uses to describe it. He doesn’t use words like seek or want. He uses the words hunger and thirst, words that identify the two most basic needs for physical survival—food and water. What does this comparison mean? It seems to me that Jesus is saying righteousness is a basic survival need as well for he is praising the fervent pursuit of it, a desperation for it.
That leads to another question. What is righteousness? The definitions I explored all boiled down to either “following divine law” or “free from guilt and sin” which, in a practical sense, come down to the same thing really, something the Bible says no human is capable of doing: being perfect and blameless. So, why is Jesus presenting us with an impossible task? Simple. It isn’t impossible for God. The only source of righteousness is God Himself. To truly pursue it is to pursue God. To hunger and thirst for it is to hunger and thirst for God. In doing so we desperately seek to become who God alone can make us, to become who God always intended us to be. Can we ever be righteous in our own right? Of course not. But, we don’t have to be. The only righteousness that matters is that which Christ granted us through his death and resurrection. Jesus is not extolling the obtainment of righteousness, only the hunger and thirst for it, that desperate hunger and thirst for the presence of God. The best part of this beatitude is that it guarantees our success. Our hunger and thirst will be satisfied.
Next up in the traits of people Jesus called blessed are those that mourn. Wait. What? People who mourn have suffered loss. They are in pain. God wants this for us? Surely not. If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t even want to be around people who are mourning. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say or do most of the time. You can’t fix grief so being around it makes us feel helpless and we don’t like that. So, initially we surround the mourners but quickly go our own way. Do we really think mourning ends a week or two later? Of course not, but those who mourn are usually left alone to figure out how to keep going. Why, then, does Jesus call those who mourn blessed? Their reward seems obvious: comfort from the only One capable of comforting wounds that go soul-deep. But, what about them makes them blessed? I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure; however, it seems to me that the defining characteristic isn’t that they are mourning but that they are capable of mourning. People who mourn are people who love, truly and deeply. The suffering is not what we should aspire to do. We are not called to weep and wail in some great show or to make the suffering the new idol of our lives. We are called to love though with such depth that loss will be unavoidably painful. If it isn’t, we didn’t really love.
Third on the list is meekness. The image that comes to mind when most of us hear someone described as meek is a shy, painfully quiet mouse of a person who lacks the backbone to stand up for himself or herself. We perceive the meek as people who will always be trampled on, taken advantage of, and shoved to the side by people strong enough to take charge. All this may be what the word brings to life in our head but it is not what it truly means. A meek person is calm and patient, not inclined to be angry or resentful. Think about what it takes to stay calm when everything around you is in chaos, to be patient when nothing is going the way you think it should. Doing that takes an unmeasurable degree of strength. Becoming angry and resentful may be the more common reaction but it is the easier one. Being truly meek requires a strength of character that can only come from God. It is no wonder that such people inherit the earth. They are the only ones strong enough to handle it.
The verses known as the Beatitudes are nothing new to me. I’ve read them before, heard sermons about them, discussed them with others, remarked upon the beauty of their imagery. This time, though, I approached them differently, demanded more of myself as I pondered them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I’ve been reading and rereading these same verses for over two weeks. At first, I couldn’t see beyond the familiar words to get to the meaning. God brought several things to me that got my brain and heart going though and I realized that I needed to begin with the very thoughts and ideas that were preventing me from digging deeper into this passage. I discovered that I was subconsciously viewing the Beatitudes kind of like a menu. You wanted to be comforted, then you have to mourn. You want to inherit the earth? You have to be meek. I viewed each verse as describing a different group of people who were given something in response to their needs or wants. In other words, I was totally missing the point. Jesus wasn’t listing behaviors and what they would earn you. He was describing the personality traits Christians should all share. And he did so in a very profound way. He took traits that are considered signs of weakness or even insanity and elevated them above what the world promotes, equating them with unimaginable happiness and blessings.
So, what are these traits we should be fostering in ourselves? First we have “poor in spirit” to consider. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who truly wants to be poor in anything. We are raised to aspire to have more. We may be told to be happy with and grateful for what we have however, no one ever tells us to not try for more. Well, no one does except for God. In the last two weeks I have heard/seen the phrase “poor in spirit” interpreted to mean “broken” and to mean “having no sense of self.” At first, I thought, “Wow. That’s quite a difference in definition.” After thinking a while, however, I realized those definitions aren’t really different at all. We are born with a drive to possess. One of the first words most children speak is “mine.” We rapidly fixate on our things, protecting our stuff, preferably getting more than everyone else. As A.W. Tozer says in The Pursuit of God, our desire to possess things “is so natural it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is; but its outworkings are tragic.” It is not until we are broken that we are able to understand that the objets in our lives are gifts on loan from God. They are entrusted to us but do not truly belong to us. God has made available to us what we need to achieve His purpose for us. It is only after we are broken, after we are released from the chains binding us to objects, that we are free to become all God intends us to be. Only then are we able to truly comprehend all that God is offering us. The kingdom of heaven is, after all, more than our natural state can grasp.
It didn’t take long for great crowds to start following Jesus around. I don’t know for sure what motivated all those people. I’m sure some were just curious about the new preacher. Some probably were hoping Jesus would give them something they wanted. Some were probably desperate enough for healing that they were willing to try anything. There were likely some that came just because everyone else seemed to be going. Others came seeking something they may not have even been able to describe. Some were responding to their soul’s acknowledgement of who was in their midst. Did they consciously understand? I don’t think so, but our souls often understand things our minds refuse to accept. I think that is why people responded to the person of Jesus the way they did. If they truly desired God, they were drawn to Jesus and could not be turned away. If they only wanted the parts that fit with their lives, they were drawn but found reasons to dismiss what he said. If they were content in their self-righteousness, they scoffed and fed their hatred. Whatever their reasons for coming to him, Jesus did not turn them away. He ministered to them all. He taught them. He healed them. He loved them. If they rejected and abandoned him, it was by their own choice, through their own unwillingness to be changed by the truths Jesus revealed. This is the way it is with salvation. God freely offers it to everyone. It all comes down to our response to the offer.