In an odd coincidence, I happened to be preparing for a class on the Sermon on the Mount at the exact moment when CNN, playing softly in the background, replayed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s celebrated final briefing on the War in the Gulf. I tried to continue studying but could not; Stormin’ Norman proved entirely too engaging.

After watching the briefing, I turned back to Matthew, and it was then the irony sank in. I had just seen the Beatitudes in reverse. Blessed are the strong. Blessed are the triumphant in spirit. Blessed are the liberated. Blessed are the conquering soldiers.

By no means do I mean to disparage General Schwarzkopf, who embodies perfectly the qualities of strength, leadership, and confidence that our world honors. Rather, the juxtaposition served to remind me of the shock waves the sermon must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine. To a downtrodden people obsessed with emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice. If a Roman soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Rejoice in persecution.

“Happy are the bankrupt and the homeless,” Jesus might as well have said. “Blessed are the Kuwaitis under Iraqi rule, and the Kurdish refugees.” “Happy are the unhappy.”

We could dismiss such sayings as rhetorical excess except that they lie at the heart of Jesus’ message and express themes that many of his parables merely expand on. Blessed is Lazarus (the poor in spirit), and the Good Samaritan (the merciful), and the Publican and the Prodigal Son (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), and the mongrel guests at the wedding feast (the meek). To put it mildly, Jesus was a master of contrarian thinking.

The paradox of the Beatitudes has long puzzled me, and as I reflect back, I can see that my understanding of them has gone through three stages.

Dangled Promises

I once viewed the Beatitudes as a kind of sop Jesus threw to the unfortunates. Unlike medieval kings who threw coins to the masses (or modern politicians who rant about the poor and homeless just before elections), Jesus had the advantage of dangling before his audience real rewards. He who came down from heaven knew well that the spoils of the kingdom of heaven would easily counterbalance whatever misery we might encounter here on earth.

Among many Christians, an emphasis on future rewards has gone out of fashion. My former pastor Bill Leslie observes, “As churches grow wealthier and more successful, they’re less likely to sing ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through’ and more likely to intone ‘This is my Father’s world.’ ” Perhaps we’ve grown so comfortable that we no longer identify with the earthly conditions Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes.

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Yet we dare not discount the value of hope in future rewards. One need only listen to the songs composed by American slaves to realize this consolation of belief. “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.” “When I get to heaven, goin’ to put on my robe, goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.” “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

Over time I have learned to respect, and even long for, the future rewards Jesus promised. Even so, these rewards lay in the future. Dangled promises do not always satisfy immediate needs.

The Great Reversal

The Beatitudes describe the present as well as the future, neatly contrasting how to succeed in the “kingdom of heaven” versus the “kingdom of this world.”

Visit any magazine rack and you will see a vivid display of the values honored in this world. Fortune, Money, European Travel and Life, and their clones present the advantages of wealth and economic success. Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Body Builder, Swimsuit, and several rows of soft-porn titles flaunt our obsession with image and physical appearance. Then come the racks of true crime stories, Gothic romances, and soap-opera digests that satisfy our society’s thirst for unrighteousness.

The Sermon on the Mount expresses quite plainly that God views this world with different lenses. One could almost subtitle the sermon, “Survival of the Least Fit.” Strength, good looks, connections, and the competitive instinct may bring a person success in a society like ours; but those very qualities may block entrance to the kingdom of heaven. Dependence, sorrow, repentance—these are the steps to God’s kingdom.

The Beatitudes reveal at once God’s “preferential option for the poor” and the poor’s “preferential option for God.” Underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, they just may turn to God. “Blessed are the desperate” is how one commentator translates “poor in spirit.” Human beings don’t readily admit desperation. But when they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near. God, great enough to be humble, accepts us however we come.

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Psychological Reality

More recently, I have come to see a third level of truth in the Beatitudes. A book like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals sets out in convincing detail what all of us know to be true: the people we laud, strive to emulate, and feature on the covers of those popular magazines are not the fulfilled, happy, balanced persons we might imagine. Although Johnson’s subjects (Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht, et al.) would be judged successful by modern standards, it would be difficult to assemble a more miserable, egomaniacal, abusive company.

True greatness, paradoxical as it may seem, grows from different soil. As I look back over the people in my own life who have manifested the greatest wisdom, they include the following: a patient at a leprosarium in India; a civil-rights worker who worked out his theology in a jail cell; a mother who lost two children to cystic fibrosis; a priest who took a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience and now works at a home for the severely disabled; a minister-turned-innkeeper who runs a hotel for the homeless. At one point in my life I pitied such people. Then I came to admire them. And now I envy them.

I am beginning, I think, to understand the Beatitudes. They still jar me every time I read them, but they jar me because I now recognize in them a richness that unmasks my own poverty.

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