Jesus upends the lives and thoughts of the Pharisees, and they respond with anger. He sees that they’re angry, but instead of trying to assuage their anger, he ignores it and continues in his world-altering actions and teaching. He chooses disciples, and although he’s surrounded by a crowd of people, he begins his Sermon on the Plain by addressing them directly. And what he says is almost a repetition of the Magnificat. Those of us who wish to be disciples should hear these words directly addressed to us. We have a choice when we hear them. We can respond with the anger of the Pharisees, or we can give ourselves to Jesus’ message, even while admitting that discipleship is going to be hard.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” We know that Jesus has been preaching about the Kingdom of God in the synagogues of Capernaum, but this is our first chance to hear the content of that teaching. We’ll hear about the Kingdom of God more and more as the Gospel goes on. It will never be exactly defined, just described in a myriad of different ways. This first description isn’t really about the Kingdom, but about those who have access to it – the poor. Why the poor and not anyone else?
Mostly because they’re the ones who can see it. The Kingdom of God is that sense of divine reality that pervades all things. Anyone can see it, but only if you stop to look for it. God sees it all of the time, and in order to see it we must align our sight with God’s, and see reality as alive with a shimmering beauty and goodness, free of contest and envy and anger, humble and simple, yet abundant in its riches. We can’t see it when we’re full of the kind of pride that wants to convince us that we control the world and know what its like. The concerns of power and prestige have no place in the Kingdom of God, and if those are our concerns, then we’ll reject the Kingdom when we catch a glimpse of it. Jesus addresses this first phrase of the Beatitudes to the disciples as a way of telling them what their training is going to be like. As followers of Jesus, they will learn to set aside their need for control and power, their fears and their jealousies, and embrace both physical and spiritual poverty.
At the same time, he acknowledges that this is going to be difficult. You will be hungry. You will weep. But he also reassures. You will be filled. You will laugh. And his third acknowledgement and reassurance is both the most frightening and the most humbling. People will hate and revile you for rejecting the things that they feel are so important. But you will experience joy.
As I said at the beginning of this study, Luke believes that joy is central to Christian spirituality. And since we’re describing the undefinable, let’s spend a moment with C.S. Lewis, one of the great describers of joy. He calls it “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy, for him, is
a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might also equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
Lewis is very nearly equating joy with longing, a kind of holy longing that is given to us by God. Anyone who has ever experienced this longing knows that it’s better to have it than to not have it. Without it we pursue our pleasures but they feel ashen, we acquire but the things we own are merely junk, rather than loved possessions. Such longing is like a kind of swooning romantic love, with all its risk and fears. And if you can experience that kind of love generally, if you can swoon over trees and buses and people’s faces, then you’re very close to experiencing what its like to see through God’s eyes, and with God’s heart. This can easily become painful, because if you love the world, you don’t want to see it suffer. And that’s why there’s a strong note of social revolution within Jesus’ spirituality. Once you’re truly looking, and seeing the glaring and amazing divinity in everything, you can’t turn your back on suffering. You are hurt with those who hurt, you are poor with those who are poor. And you want those who are closing their eyes and closing themselves off from this dangerous joy to get to experience it, too, even if that means that they have to give up their wealth and their illusions of power and control to do so.