The yellowing notebook for my college philosophy of religion class contains this plaintive inscription: Sunday school was never this complicated. Similarly, the Beatitudes are more complex than they first appear. They are (like all of Scripture) inexhaustibly rich. The deeper you dig, the more they yield.
It’s hard to say that a beatitude means anything apart from a context in which that meaning might be practiced, and apart from lives in which the Beatitudes might mean something. The Beatitudes are best understood in their wider narrative contexts in Matthew and Luke: They only make sense as part of a wider story about God and God’s Son, Jesus.
As Kavin Rowe writes, “We cannot understand the sense ideas or practices have apart from the stories that make them intelligible as things to think/do in the first place.”
Now I also want to make a case that the Beatitudes can be known most fully not by reading about them but through seeing what they look like in human lives. Perhaps it’s better to say not that the Beatitudes mean something but that they hope to transform someone, that they aim to transform us.
I didn’t expect to be changed by writing a book on the Beatitudes, but I was. I thought often about how I experience and express anger, whether I am a gentle person, how I spend money, how I treat people who are poor or homeless, when and how I pray, and whether I ever suffer for a commitment to justice. “How can one communicate the flame of the beatitudes,” wonders René Coste, “if one does not oneself burn?”
Christin Lore Weber writes of the Beatitudes:
If we approach their meaning through analysis we will fail to understand them. Instead we need to receive them with love . . . and hold them within us until they bear fruit in our lives. We cannot explain them; but we can tell stories about finding them enfleshed in the people and situations we encounter.
Taking Weber’s cue, then, I want to share two stories—two performances of the Beatitudes, if you will. The first story is about a girl named Lena.
Helena Jakobsdotter Ekblom (1784–1859) was born in Östergötland, Sweden, the same province from which the Eklund side of my family originated. At an early age she began to have visions of paradise, in which all the promises of the Beatitudes have come to fruition—she saw the poor rejoicing, laughing, and possessing the earth, crowned as sons and daughters of God. She started to preach about her visions, attracting crowds of impoverished peasants, who eagerly received her message, and the authorities, who did not.
Lena declared, in the words of the Beatitudes, good news to her fellow poor. As in Luke’s gospel, this message carried with it an implied corollary: “Woe to the rich who cause poverty, to those whose laughter is bought by tears, to those whose opulence is built on misery, to the mighty and powerful whose strength is founded on injustice, to those who despise and persecute and oppress the little ones of Jesus.”
This implied corollary proved deeply challenging to both state and church authorities. As Jerry Ryan wrote, “Viewed through Lena’s eyes, the existing order becomes intolerable, literally revolting.” Her preaching proved so disturbing that she was locked away for 20 years in Vadstena, in a castle converted into an insane asylum.
Even there, where she found herself among the poorest of the poor, the humiliated and abandoned, Lena continued to preach. She preached of God’s unshakeable love for them, assuring them that even “in their cells they delight in the freedom of the sons of God, that they are the heirs of the promise” (Matt. 5:9–10).
After 20 years she was released, but she would not stop preaching the good news of the Beatitudes—good news for the poor, bad news for the powerful. She was arrested again, but on the way back to Vadstena, she and her escort passed through a town devastated by plague, and the guards fled in terror. Lena, however, stayed there, tending the sick, comforting the mourners.
When the plague subsided, she was so beloved by the local people that nobody dared to arrest her again. When she grew old and unable to work, she moved into a shelter for the poor in her home village. Lena performed the Beatitudes in her preaching and in her life—she blessed the poor and was poor; she comforted and she wept.
The second story is about a woman whom I will call Anna. She has been, by turns, a community organizer and a preacher, a minister and a companion of the impoverished. For many years she brought a peaceful, generous, and resilient spirit to a neighborhood riven by gun violence and racial injustice. She also became a mother to two daughters, one of whom was diagnosed with autism after a period of anguished struggle to understand why every stage of her development was fraught with so much difficulty.
As with her other vocations, she has borne this one with grace, gentleness, and strength. Knowing her, I have not had to look far to see what a peacemaker looks like, or how strong meekness is, or what poverty of spirit might be, or how to mourn in a way that calls beauty into the darkness.
When the Beatitudes take root in lives, they flower in different ways. Both of these women live on both sides of the Beatitudes: mourning and comforting, making peace and needing it, offering mercy and receiving it. “So we will honor the humiliated,” wrote Allen Verhey, “and be humble ourselves. So we will comfort those who mourn, and weep ourselves in aching acknowledgement that it is not yet God’s future. So we will meekly serve the meek. We will hunger for justice—and work for it.”
The Beatitudes occupy the same space we do: the time in which it is not yet God’s future. For pastor and theologian Sam Wells, the first part of each beatitude is a description of the Cross (poor, thirsty, meek, merciful, persecuted), and the second half is a description of the Resurrection (comfort, mercy, the kingdom of God).
Wells writes that we live right in the middle of the first half and the second half. We dwell in the comma between “Blessed are you who weep now” and “for you will laugh.” Life in the middle of the Cross and the Resurrection is not easy, but it is joyful. It is deeply painful but also beautiful. And so are the Beatitudes.
I’ve found that the Beatitudes, like Jesus’ parables, are deceptively simple. As Origen says (in the words of Stephen and Martin Westerholm), “the presence of mysteries in the divine text is hardly accidental: . . . The struggle to understand them is one of the divinely appointed means for bringing believers to maturity.”
Perhaps one of the main functions of the Beatitudes is to make us wonder about them. The more you wrestle with the Beatitudes, the more they pull you into their depths. The deeper you dig, the more they yield.
Adapted from The Beatitudes through the Ages by Rebekah Eklund (Eerdmans: 2021). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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