On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio between Columbus and Cincinnati, you encounter an interesting billboard. You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well. I remember when we lived in Corning. Approaching from the east on I-86, there was another interesting sign. (I presume it’s still there.) Perched on a hill, it proclaimed, “Jesus is the answer.” Banu and I once wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”
If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion. On one side, we’re asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker! The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments.
Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things. But I wonder about that. Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus? At least, I’ve never seen them. If I’m correct, why would it be we so rarely see them posted in public?
Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow? That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s? It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments. We do an injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual. They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.
Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions. Too often it’s, “Please, just tell me what to do!” I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.
With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different. They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do. They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions. He’s giving us a series of people with qualities who have a blessed life. (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)
If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them? Let’s take a look.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5). Really? The meek will inherit the earth? That’s not what the action movies tell us. Is Batman meek? Is James Bond meek? What does our economy say? Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing. Grab it before somebody else does! Yeah, inherit the earth. It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9). Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.
And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10). Let’s be honest: isn’t it better to be the one calling the shots?
It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:
“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”
So as we move through the Beatitudes of Jesus, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.
There are nine of these “blessed”s. I’ll just focus on two: numbers 5 and 6, that is, verses 7 and 8. “Blessed are the merciful,” and “blessed are the pure in heart.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” She says Jesus is speaking “to the idea of flow.” She notes “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy. And this is not coincidental, for the root of the word ‘mercy’ comes from the old Etruscan merc, which also gives us ‘commerce’ and ‘merchant.’ It’s all about exchange.”
We often think of mercy in the context of something we do not do. We “have mercy” on someone if we don’t punish them. We are merciful if we refrain from bringing down the hammer on their heads. And we usually think of God in the same terms. We pray, “Lord have mercy,” and “have mercy upon us.”
Sometimes it’s an expression of surprise, even a pleasant surprise. “Lawd, have mercy!”
Still, as we’ve been told, “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.” There are acts of mercy. In this idea of flow, “mercy is not something God has so much as it’s something that God is.” Mercy is part of God’s very being. And by extension, when we participate in God’s mercy, it becomes part of who we are.
Bourgeault continues, “Exchange is the very nature of divine life—of consciousness itself, according to modern neurological science—and all things share in the divine life through participation in this dance of giving and receiving.” We are connected; we are connected by mercy. When we refuse mercy, we become separated. We build a wall. We cut off the flow of life. We become hardened. Jesus would have us melt the ice.
Mercy is closely related to forgiveness. They both have a sense of self-effacement. They both have a sense of deference. They both have a sense of respect.
I’ll revisit something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: political campaigns. Election Day is upon us. Can you believe that political differences have brought friendships to ruin? Imagine. “I thought we were friends!” And it’s especially fun when faith enters the arena. “How can you call yourself a Christian and support that guy?” (Or support that gal!) Remember, when the election is over, we still have to live with each other.
Karen Chamis, our Resource Presbyter, has written about this. Here’s how a discussion might go: “You can’t vote for A and say you love me.” “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both.” “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence.”
“One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place…
“Regardless of what the [election] result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee. We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.”
We will all need to engage in a program of forgiving. We will all need a refresher course in showing mercy. With God’s help, we can be mercy. Since this is All Saints’ Day, we’re reminded of that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on—not to mention the saints alive here and now.
Showing mercy, being mercy, flows right into the next beatitude. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” That’s a blessing like none other: they will see God.
What is purity of heart? Too often, it has been limited to discussions of being virtuous, of being moral—especially sexually moral. There is another place in which this purity is addressed. James 4 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8). You can see the focus here. A pure heart, a clean heart, is not divided. It is single.
The New Jerusalem Bible puts it in this light: “The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you. Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers.” More so than any other epistle, St. James’ has the theme of teaching wisdom. Clearing one’s mind, avoiding wavering, is a sign of wisdom. There is a flow that can be detected.
Maybe you will notice how “heart” and “mind” are used interchangeably. The heart is not simply emotion, and the mind is not simply intellect. There is a unity of wisdom.
When a heart is purified, there is a burning away of chaff, of debris, of residue. There is a focus on what is clear, what is lucid, what is holy. Too often, our minds, our hearts—at least, it’s true with mine—run to and fro in a helter-skelter fashion. There is a sense of being torn. Sometimes, it can be paralyzing.
Again, here’s Cynthia Bourgeault. “This Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it’s about cleansing the lens of perception.” I’m reminded of a line from the poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Perhaps that is what it means to see God. Can we see God in others? Can we see God in those folks with whom we disagree, indeed, even strongly disagree? I remember someone I knew years ago when I attended the Assemblies of God college in Florida. He reflected on his approach when dealing with somebody who didn’t like him. He brought to mind that “Jesus Christ died for him.” That might be helpful.
Showing mercy, being mercy, frees the way for clearing our minds, for purifying our hearts. We need that among us, more than we know.
Have mercy, I’m purifying.
 from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”