Wife: “Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so special about the cheesemakers.”
Husband: “It’s not meant to be taken literally – it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
That’s one of my many favorite lines from one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python and the Life of Brian – which happens to be my favorite Python film.
This sequence, where Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) and several other Pythons and hangers-on are trying (and failing) to listen to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount, is absolute genius. It’s hilarious, for one thing – the Michael Palin-Eric Idle bignose interplay is guffawstic for me every time I think about it.
But the funniest part of the scene for me is actually how ridiculous it isn’t.
I’ll bet all sorts of people heard Jesus’ most famous speech and didn’t grab hold of any of it. Like so much of what He said and did, the message probably sailed right over the heads of the people who experienced it – they were probably just as wrapped up in their petty squabbles and busyness as the Pythons were in the movie. Only on the other side of the Cross, and with the 20-20 God Goggles of Hindsight did the First-Century Near Easters begin to understand what and Who they’d seen.
I’m pretty sure that if I’d been there for this pivotal moment, I’d have been just as distracted and oblivious as the hapless, pitiable characters in Monty Python’s satire masterpiece.
I’ve spent my whole life on this side of the Cross (obviously), so I live in a world that supposedly knows how significant Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are. I’ve had access to all sorts of analyses of what He said and who He said it to and why He said it, etc. And for most of my life, (perhaps unintentionally, but perhaps not) I sidestepped the full weight of the Beatitudes.
Why, you ask?
I’m embarrassed to admit it, to be honest.
But here goes: it’s at least partly because the Beatitudes are spoken in third-person. They’re worded like they’re descriptions of other people, not commands for you and me. It’s a subtle distinction, but look what it did to one of Brian’s fellow Sermon attendees…
Judean Man: “Blessed are the Greek? Apparently they’re going to inherit the Earth.”
Judean Woman: “Oh, it’s the meek – blessed are the meek! Oh, that’s nice, innit. I’m glad they’re getting something, cuz they have a helluva time.”
Later on in the film, Reg (John Cleese) famously remarks that, “What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.”
But back to the Judean woman. The idea that Jesus is calling her to become meek, so she can inherit the earth, never occurs to her. But to her supposed credit, she’s glad to hear that the meek will eventually get some sort of consolation prize for all their hard knocks. What prize?
Just the earth.
Incidentally, what else is there?
* * *
Because Jesus gave this part of the sermon in third person, I allowed myself to stay inside a delusional bubble, where the Sermon on the Mount was mostly for someone else. Now, it doesn’t take a lot of cerebral bandwidth to convert Jesus’ third-person perspective to second person. (You don’t even have to do it yourself: check out how Eugene Peterson restates the Beatitudes in The Message.) But neither the Judean Woman in Life of Brian nor I (and we can’t be the only ones, can we?) picked up on the fact that the Beatitudes are a call for us to re-imagine ourselves in God’s image – they hold up an ideal for us to strive toward.
So why didn’t Jesus speak more directly? Why did He leave so much to chance? Why didn’t he make it crystal-clear he was talking to all people, not about some people?
Simple. He botched it. His communications director was on a flex day that day, and wasn’t there to manage the message properly. That’s why Jesus belatedly came to His senses and switched to second person in Verse 11: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Yup. He screwed up, and Saint Matthew didn’t have the gumption to correct his Master (but Eugene Peterson did? Hmm…).
Either that, or Jesus knew exactly what He was doing – and He deliberately delivered this message to us in a passive, subtle form. Maybe He doesn’t want us to adopt a Beatitude Attitude merely out of because-He-said-so obedience to our Lord; maybe He wants us to choose His way – freely and fully. If it’s not a command, the default position is that we’ve opted out and we have to actively opt in. Or not.
Let me tell you – when He finally whacked me on the head with the proverbial two-by-four and I realized Jesus is (not was) talking to me here, and that I have the power to say Yes! (or no), and that not saying yes is the same as saying No! – the epiphany was exhilarating.
All at once.
If I am poor in spirit, I can take comfort that I am blessed – the Kingdom of Heaven is mine. When I mourn, I will be comforted and it will be a blessing. If I am meek (a tough one), I will be blessed; I will inherit the earth. When I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I will be filled, and it will be a blessing. When I am merciful, I will be blessed with mercy (a very tough one – do these two really have to be inextricably linked?). If I am pure in heart, I will see God and that indeed will be a blessing. If I am a peacemaker, I will be blessed as a child of God. If I am persecuted because of righteousness, I will be blessed with the Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s a long list of things to do and be, and not a lot of room for error (It doesn’t say blessed are the people who are meek-ish, some of the time, unfortunately). Entire sermons could be (and have been) written about each of these attributes and what they look like on this planet in this century. I’ve read and heard a lot of these homilies and I still don’t fully grasp some of the concepts.
I’m not sure I’m up to it all, quite frankly.
Good thing I don’t have to do it alone.
Peace be with you.