We are drowning in words today. I sometimes wonder if words have ever carried less value than they do at this particular moment in history. The internet allows just about anybody to publish words publicly, and most of us spend too much time scrolling through thoughtless, meaningless words from family, friends, and frenemies. It takes almost no effort to say something these days, so we “speak” without restraint or meditation. And with so much meaningless utterance in the air, we don’t tend to give much weight to anybody’s words.
But these words that Jesus speak carry weight. The pronouncement of blessing is not haphazard. Think back to Jacob and Esau. Trusting you know the story, think back to the moment that Esau shows up with his meal of fresh game to serve Isaac, expecting to receive his blessing as the firstborn son. Both Isaac and Esau are horrified to realize that Jacob (just moments earlier, with the help of Rebekah) has tricked Isaac into offering his word of blessing to the wrong son. But there is nothing to be done. The blessing pronounced by Isaac upon Jacob was binding. It carried weight. It could not be taken back, even by the one who pronounced it. The words were spoken, and the blessing was bestowed. And today we worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and… Jacob, not Esau. Jacob is renamed Israel, not Esau, and it is Jacob’s sons who come to be the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. The line of promise follows the word of blessing. A word that carries weight. A word that matters.
Jesus’ words here are even more potent and binding than those words of Isaac. God’s words, of course, are potent enough to create all things, and as the Son of God, the words of Christ have creative power. They declare what will be. So when Christ says “blessed are…”, they are blessed indeed.
This pronouncement of blessing can help correct our often poor understanding of what it means to be blessed. Most folks would not look at someone who is in mourning, or someone who is persecuted and reviled, or someone who is particularly meek, and call them “blessed.” But blessing is more about bearing the promises of God than it is about physical circumstance. Blessing, especially in the age of Christ, is about an eschatological hope, not about material success. This must be so if we are to believe that folks heading toward crucifixion are blessed.
To be blessed is to be claimed by God, to be brought into the work and will of God, and to find yourself in God’s future. At the outset of this sermon full of very difficult teaching and instruction, Jesus is claiming his “people.” Jesus is bringing them into the work and will of God. Jesus is promising them a future. Jesus is making a pronouncement that changes reality. God has chosen these folks to carry the work of God into the future. And these are not the folks that most people would expect him to choose.
It’s worth noting that these blessings are pronounced on the front end of Jesus’ teaching. These folks are not blessed because they responded to the high calling of the sermon on the mount in a particular way. They are blessed at the outset of the sermon, before the nearly impossible call to obedience is laid out. They are blessed, and then they (and all of us) are challenged to be perfect as our Father is perfect. The blessing is not dependent, it is what orients the rest of the sermon. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is what begins to disorient Jesus’ listeners as their assumptions about blessing and holiness are upended. It isn’t your obedience that will initiate the coming kingdom of God, it is the unmerited blessing of the Lord who has found you in your state of need and proclaimed a blessing over you.
This is not new, by the way; it is how God blessed Israel to begin with. Abram was called and blessed long before Moses received the law at Sinai. Even within the story of Moses itself, the people of Israel are chosen and delivered from slavery in Egypt and into the will of God before receiving the covenant law at Sinai. God claims and delivers God’s people, bringing them into God’s work and future, and then God calls to obedience.
This is part of why it would be a mistake to see the beatitudes as a sort of “to-do” or “to-become” list. The point is not to make yourself fit into these categories. It isn’t about goal setting. It is a pronouncement, a proclamation of what is and what will be.
So what do we do with it? Maybe it depends on who we are. If we find ourselves described by these words of Jesus, maybe we should find encouragement and hope in the fact that Jesus has pronounced a blessing over us even as the rest of the world overlooks us. Hear the good news and rejoice! Whatever the world thinks of you, God has declared you blessed. God has promised you the kingdom, comfort, the earth, fulfilment, mercy, and the opportunity to see God. God has not forgotten you. God has blessed you.
For those of us who do not see ourselves represented here, it should reorient us in a certain way. We have this tendency to cozy up to those we think have special status in the world. Just out of college, I once tagged along on a car ride with a friend who had been asked to pick up Stanley Hauerwas from the airport. Why? Because Hauerwas seemed important. I had a strange desire to be near him. We do this in conscious and unconscious ways all the time. Whether it’s someone who can advance our career at work, a celebrity friend or family member, or someone flush with cash, we find ourselves gravitating toward people who are “important.” Maybe we should gravitate toward the ones who have been blessed by Jesus. Maybe we should turn away from the rich and famous and instead cozy up to the meek, and the poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The pure in heart rarely get themselves or anybody else ahead in the world, but maybe they are the ones who will help us find an “in” with God.
However we relate or fail to relate to the people blessed by Jesus at the outset of this sermon, this reveals something significant about the coming kingdom of God that Jesus spends so much time talking about in Matthew. This kingdom belongs to those who would never dare to claim it. The kingdoms of this world are ruled almost exclusively by the strong, the savvy, and those who would bend their integrity to get the power they seek. The kingdom of heaven cannot be claimed or conquered; it can only be received as a gift through the grace and love of God. So it doesn’t belong to those who claim and conquer, but instead comes as a gift to those who do not.  Even me, right now!  According to NT Wright, the Pharisees’ obsession with strict Torah observance was rooted in the belief that they could hasten the eschatological restoration of Israel by drawing Israel into faithfulness. N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in its World (London: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 125.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are desperate for righteousness, meaning they do not have it. Righteousness can also be translated at “justice,” so those who are desperate for justice can trust that they will be filled.