Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blesses are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. — Matthew 5:3-6
I have often thought of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 as a description of the good news Jesus proclaims in Luke 4. They are an expression of God’s upside-down kingdom. Jesus explains who is blessed — and it’s not the clever, the good-looking or the well-connected. The traits our society admires are not the ones Jesus favors. Rather, Jesus says the poor, the hurting, the humble and those who seek what is right are blessed.
This is good news, because the dispossessed are welcome in God’s kingdom. Jesus is not calling in the mighty, or the influential. He is calling in those who are suffering.
At the beginning of his ministry, as described in Luke 4, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah when he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
When I was young, I thought Jesus’ good news could be for me — even though I grew up in poverty, the member of a diaspora, a member of the despised or invisible underclass. As a teenager I contributed to my household’s income by cleaning houses and hotel rooms. The harsh chemicals in cleaning supplies caused my skin to rash and blister. I did not have the protection of parents. I was not beautiful or popular or loved. I was vulnerable. My daily business was survival.
Jesus did not call out to me despite my weakness but because of it. In the reverse logic of Jesus, where the blessed are the poor, I could be chosen.
On Father’s Day, I attended a missionary church on the reservation where I live with my family. This ministry caters to young people, picking up mainly Native American children and teens from the area by bus and transporting them to Sunday services and ministry activities.
The youth pastor began the service by acknowledging Father’s Day can be a tough holiday for those of us who have been hurt or abandoned by our dads. Then the lead pastor preached a sermon about sin, through the lens of the Beatitudes.
He said we can claim the blessings in the Beatitudes only if we confess our personal sins. He said “blessed are those who mourn” refers to those who mourn because we are sinners. The blessing is that we are forgiven. “Poor in spirit” means those who acknowledge we are sinners will earn the kingdom of God.
This struck me as a lost opportunity to preach the gospel — a gospel of hope for the hurting, with inclusion and even preference for the poor.
The focus on personal sin is often the message in Indian Country. Individual sin is the cause of suffering, and confessing it is the cure. This view reduces the message in the Beatitudes to striving for personal piety, where we are worthy based upon how repentant we are.
This view subtly places the responsibility for colonization squarely on the shoulders of the dispossessed. Our sins cause our suffering; we have brought suffering on ourselves.
This is a mainstream message that justifies colonization, poverty and suffering. It justifies the “Christianization” imposed by boarding schools. It justifies condemning grieving and abandoned children on Father’s Day, making them responsible for their own hurts.
Is it possible that Jesus simply claimed the poor, the humble and the suffering as his people? I believe so.
Perhaps it is time for us to challenge mainstream theology that focuses on personal piety and acknowledge the collective sin that has caused colonization and its legacy of suffering.
Perhaps it is time to call for collective repentance, consistent with the message of Isaiah that Jesus embodies in Luke 4.
Perhaps it is time to decolonize our reading of Scripture.
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