Dangerous Devotions: Our Cheshire cat problem with the Beatitudes: So, how should the advantaged hear the Beatitudes?
So many common cultural values, which came from the appearance and presence of Christianity in the world in the first place, exist today as noble virtues and ideals in and among our society, so much so that the intent of Jesus’ Blesseds are now tempered, eased, toned down, dulled, softened; their bite is taken out; their edge taken off—so that their radical, self-righteousness slaying, Christendom destroying, idol bashing, social leveling, culture reversing power is dismissed by much of the church and ignored as simplistic platitudes by the modern crowds to whom the church is supposed to be preaching the gospel of the kingdom.
We exist at a time when the Cheshire cat smile of these Beatitudes exist (in vague social and cultural forms and weak values and even as political correctness), but the cat (i.e., the intent Jesus had in the first place) is all gone.
These verses, Matthew 5:3-12 (above), were the most oft quoted, referred to, and referenced NT texts in the first 150 years. They were the call (invitation) to the faith, the test of the faithful, and the bane and annoyance of existing powers. You want to know how Christianity spread so rapidly and the church increased beyond imagination in the first 150 years--they actually believed the Beatitudes.
The early believers, mostly poor and lacking resources, small and powerless and often hidden, lived the life they (that is, the Beatitudes) described, endured attacks against the message they implied, and as a result out-lived an empire. Our problem now, is we like the smile but care not the cat has disappeared. We've turned much of the Beatitudes 180° degrees from their original intent that they no longer slay us nor confront the culture (or the church) with all its social hierarchy and status, its vertical world. The Beatitudes are interpreted and used in ways so that the rich, famous, elite, the educated, the privileged and advantaged are comforted to think that they are, as well, “poor in spirit," so they get to keep their advantage (as long as they recognize their spiritual poverty) and continue in the culture and social structures that gave them that advantage. Heck, theirs is the kingdom! Now and in the future. Who wouldn't want that deal?
The Beatitudes are not a platform for your fame, celebrity, or power . . . they are to disturb everything that made you, that enabled you to have social status, to destroy every advantage you have had to enjoy the privileges you have . . . the Beatitudes level, they turn (for those who believe the kingdom of heaven has come) the verticalization of this social and cultural world (with all its advantages) and horizontalizes everything. If the Beatitudes don't do this to you, then you are seeing just the Cheshire cat smile. The cat is gone.
How do the rich, affluent, powerful, and wealthy break and destroy the idols that blind them and make them deaf? They accept the invitation to a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where the poor in spirit (the actual poor among them, the outcasts, marginal, uneducated, the sick, infirmed, and afflicted, and mentally unstable; cf. Matthew 4:24-5:1), those who mourn for lack of recourses, and the meek, that is the powerless, have the kingdom, will be comforted, and shall inherit the earth. This is the kingdom to which the rich, affluent, wealthy, the advantaged, that is the powerful and resource-rich are invited.
Of course, these lines in the list of Beatitudes are for all who seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. I am here just focused on the powerful and resource-rich who hear this gracious invitation to the kingdom of Heaven. This is the kingdom to which the powerful and resource-rich are invited, a kingdom where they thirst and hunger for justice [yes, that’s exactly how I believe Jesus meant it]; where they will extend mercy because it is the merciful that will receive mercy; where the clean in heart make room for the unclean, because they see God; where they will be peace-makers, because they will be called Sons of God.
This is an impossible invitation: for those who have been made blind and deaf and immovable because of their idols, these need the gospel, the power of God unto salvation. This is why Jesus died on that cross. This is the way in which God changed the world—really, the way in which he brought into existence, the reality of his recreated world, his kingdom of heaven. Yet, still, these words of the Beatitude are an invitation, waiting for you, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, to accept. In the end, both at our death and at the end of time, this is the kingdom that matters, the only kingdom that will remain. It is the kingdom of heaven to whom God, the Most High, will give to his saints (Daniel 7). This is why it makes sense that “the poor in spirit” are blessed, “because theirs is this kingdom.”
In light of Mark’s association of the kingdom with the gospel (1:14–15) and the gospel’s programmatic association with the Exodus land-laws [in particular see the connection in the opening (Mark 1:1-3) references to Exod 23:20 and Mal 3:1-5 and the texts surrounding context], I propose that biblical social action is a means to ensure that the blessings and benefits of living in society reach to the poor. Stephen Mott, former Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, points out that the Bible speaks of what is called “social action” in terms of carrying out justice and caring for the needs of the weak. In her book, Social Justice Handbook, Mae Cannon affirms a similar understanding of the biblical concept of social justice:
The resources that God provides were made available to his people from the very beginning. Justice is expressed when God’s resources are made available to all humans, which is what God intended. Biblical justice is the scriptural mandate to manifest the kingdom of God on earth by making God’s blessings available to all (Mae Elise Cannon, Social Justice Handbook, 22).
*Adapted from the introduction ("Evangelism and Social Action: An Exegetical Argument") and the 2nd chapter of Wasted Evangelism, "Wasted Evangelism (Mark 4): Social Action Outcomes and the Church’s Task of Evangelism."
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.