Yesterday we climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes, where the gospel of Matthew had Jesus delivering that famous speech about who’s blessed:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
We read those words aloud in front of the church that’s built up on the hillside, and then we walked around the gardens that surrounded it, and just looked and thought and listened. The wind was blowing strongly, and the Sea of Galilee reflected golden light off its flat blue surface, a few hundred feet below. Swallows swooped crazily through the air, and flowers bloomed in the January sun.
And in the garden, there was a thorn bush. I’m sure it has a good reason for being there, some spectacular blooms in the right season perhaps, but apparently January was not its season, because all it was was green foliage and surreptitiously sharp branches that narrowed to points.
The birds of the air had planted a wild grape by this bush, and it was growing up all over the thorns. I could recognize wild grapevine right away because I’ve lost an entire herb garden to it. One plant slowly became many, and has won the majority of territory even from the lemon verbena and applemint that were rampaging before. It takes a lot to overcome applemint, believe me. It’s an impressive feat.
Especially considering the look of the wild grape. The young vine is soft and tender, easy to nip off with your thumbnail. The leaves are flat and thin, easily torn. And the plant reaches and climbs by means of the most delicate-looking tendrils. But given time, it can take over oaks, leaving deep marks behind in iron bark.
It doesn’t feel strong to be meek, or mournful, or poor in spirit. On the contrary, it feels weak, and deeply sad, like you’re a disappointment to yourself and others because you’re not happy, well-adjusted, prosperous, and joyful all the time.
It’s hard to keep an appetite for righteousness, when pragmatism gets the job done so much faster, and selfishness satiates more quickly, if less lastingly. It’s hard to thirst for justice, since even when you get a sip, the thirst is never fully slaked.
It is terrifying to mourn, when surrounded by a culture so phobic about death that the very idea of opening oneself up to the darkness and tears and sadness of grief is debilitating.
But just such people Jesus called blessed. I remember one of my Greek professors telling our class that the meaning of the Greek is even more forceful, something like, “To be congratulated are the poor…”. Can you imagine? Here’s a terrible pastoral care idea: telling someone crying tears for their dead grandma, “You’re so lucky; you get to be comforted!”
I’m 80% Jesus wasn’t advocating terrible pastoral care (the 20% of doubt is down to the whole “outer darkness and gnashing of teeth” thing), but was rather pointing to something else: whether or not you have the option, it is hard to be vulnerable. Whether your vulnerability is economic, emotional, or physical. But the vulnerable are double-blessed:
First, because it is only by opening ourselves up to pain, hurt, and suffering that we are able to grow. Do you know what happened to that wild seed grape to get it planted by the thorn bush? It got eaten by a bird, and shit out. Literally, the biggest break in the life of that grapeseed was the stuff of my most Dali-esque nightmares.
Second, because God shows a preferential option for the poor and oppressed, those whom the brokenness of the world consumes and shunts aside. Though I rather think that we don’t talk about that nearly enough in our parishes, 3000 years of finagling with the text hasn’t done away with the fundamental biblical witness that God prefers the company of the poor and oppressed more than that of the rich and successful.
So blessed are those who gently strive, for God, too, is reaching out.