On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s 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. As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.” Banu and I 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 were to die today, where would you spend eternity?” I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!
The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course. There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.
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. I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public. Why is that?
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 a terrible 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. 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 that he considers to be blessed. (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)
Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.
Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two. Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law? Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed? It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus. He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.
Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses. He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse. That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.
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). Seriously? The meek will inherit the earth? That’s not what the action movies tell us. Is Batman meek? Is James Bond meek? For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek? What does our economy say? Are we advised to be meek? 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 holding the levers of power?
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.” (You do realize that’s in the Bible! I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)
What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?
Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas. As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order. Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”
That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now. In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17). So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.
He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.” It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.
When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well! However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!
On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing: technical and adaptive. I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this. Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order. Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”
Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.
Here’s an example. Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection. Numerous accidents have happened there. There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed. What is the answer? One idea would be to put up a traffic light. This is an example of a technical problem.
He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.” With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it… Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities. Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.” (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)
Let’s look at a different example. Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist. He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box. She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic. What is the answer? Should she avoid taking the elevator? Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive? Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?
In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful. He said he had two words to cure her fear. Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!” Stop being afraid. Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!” At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her. These ten words would resolve her problems. Maybe she could write them down. Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”
That is an example of an adaptive problem.
Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes. They require new learning.” We must learn to adapt. With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes. Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve… Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”
In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem. He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it. But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!
Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30). This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments. Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor… This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew. Jesus also healed on the Sabbath. He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code. He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”
With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination. It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them. Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions. We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do. We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it. Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!
We are called to use our imagination. We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before. We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes. We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved. As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control. The most important parts are the least presentable parts… Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”
We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us. Talk about adaptive problems! Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems. As I suggested earlier, we also do that.
I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation. We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s. This requires changing bylaws and standing rules. It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job. But that technical fix isn’t enough. We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.
The same is true with congregational policies. They also are important; they help us to be on the same page. They help guide us. But we also hear the words of Jesus. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7). No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8). No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.
This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion. It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.
This interim time is a gift for all of us. It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have! But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other. We are called to be a Beatitude to each other. We are called to bless each other out!
 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1
 Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.
 Steinke, 127.
 Steinke, 127.
 Steinke, 133.