For most of my life I read the Beatitudes as instruction, a mild if not righteous scolding. What if, instead of new commandments for people to follow, the Beatitudes are a description of the people Jesus sees gathered before him?
If we shift our perspective, this is what we discover: God’s community, God’s kinship, begins now, in the intertwined lives of those who sit on the hillside eavesdropping on this talk Jesus gives to his disciples.
It’s fascinating how different versions of Scripture translate “blessed” in the Beatitudes. One says “happy are those.” Another “you’re blessed.” Or “blessed be.”
But another way to translate “blessed” is “congratulations!” Or “good on you!” The Greek is meant to communicate something celebratory and affirming.
And so it could be that these are not future behaviors expected of the people who hear them but the acknowledgement of their current reality.
Their whole lives, the peasants before Jesus — fishermen and farmers, beggars and widows — have experienced a world where who they are makes them weak and unworthy. The lives into which they were born keep them at the margins of political, social and economic power.
Jesus comes to them and says, “You are exactly as you ought to be. You, you alone, are the ones who make up the kingdom of God.”
The invitation to follow Jesus isn’t to accept the way things are but to see that the poor, the dispossessed, those on the margins, are embedded in the grain of God’s justice.
These are the people creating a form of life that is good and should be celebrated.
The order of the universe will no longer be about important people with money bossing everyone around, deciding what is best. Instead, Jesus invites us into this good life. You’re welcomed into a life where how much you make or who you love or what you do for a living doesn’t decide your worth.
A few months ago, our church book group read The Hidden Life of Trees. The author, Peter Wohlleben, is an arborist who tells the story of trees that live interconnected lives, not in survival-of-the-fittest competition but in kinship systems.
Older mother-trees will deprive their saplings of sun so that they don’t grow too quickly and shorten their life span. Some trees protect one another by emitting warning gas. Through “chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals” they communicate alarm and distress.
It’s a remarkable book, and it pulled me out of the biological lesson ingrained in me by my meager scientific training in high school. I was taught that the way the world survives is by one creature clobbering another, sacrificing the weakest so that the strong can populate the Earth.
Wohlleben says trees would just shake their heads at that, because “their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well.”
Deeply embedded in the Earth is a quiet form of a life echoing back the words Jesus speaks.
This is a good life: to look out for one another, to see the weakest and most vulnerable as necessary for the good life.
It’s a good life to forge ahead toward forgiveness in a world that demands revenge.
It’s a good life to let go of oppression, not to throw your weight around.
It’s a good life to seek reconciliation instead of persisting in your rightness, looking for a window to exact retribution.
If you do this, you’ll start to look different from everyone else. It may even get you into trouble, Jesus tells the people listening to him. But the people who need to find you, can. You’ll be like a lit-up city on a hill.
“A city on a hill.” In a world poisoned by light pollution, it can be difficult to understand what this metaphor means. But a Nicaraguan campesino named Macelino helps us understand what it meant to see a city like this from his vantage point in the 1970s on Lake Nicaragua, far from the large industrial centers where light is plentiful.
“A lit-up city that’s on top of a hill can be seen from far away, as we can see the lights of San Miguelito from very far away when we’re rowing at night on the lake,” he writes. “A city is a great union of people, and as there are a lot of houses together, we see a lot of light. And that’s the way our community will be. It will be seen lighted from far away, if it is united in love.”
Matthew writes these words for the ones who have been told, “There’s no place for you here.” Jesus sits beside them and says, “You are in the perfect place.”
When these people are united in love, Jesus’ love begins to unfold all around us. We discover that we, too, are in the good life. Blessed are you.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).