On Blessings Offered and Blessings Received
January 29, 2023
Micah 6: 6-8
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Matthew 5: 1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
At the beginning of every meal, I do not always remember to bless my food, but I often catch myself somewhere between bites and manage to at least think those two words that are among
the most powerful words I know, “thank you.” The oldest record we humans have of acknowledging food as a gift is traced back 30,000 years ago in Indonesia to the second oldest cave paintings in the world. I like to think that humans have been offering thanks and saying blessings since time before mind. These days, blessings are part of our most significant events in life. At the birth of a baby, we shower them with gifts and well-wishes, we bless one another on birthdays, at weddings and at funerals. Blessings are a beautiful way to begin things and blessings are a beautiful way to end things, too.
When we find Jesus in the scriptures today, he is beginning his public ministry and he begins it intentionally, with a blessing. I cannot help but to wonder if Jesus may have had the words of the prophet Micah on his heart, as he considered what the people most needed to hear. The words of the prophet Micah sought to liberate those who were weighed down by the sacrifices
they thought God expected from them. Micah sought to get to the very heart of devotion to God, writing, “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Like the prophet
Micah, Jesus sought to restore hope and offer reassurance to his people, people struggling under the weight of foreign oppression and corruption.
Of all the places Jesus could have chosen, he chose to begin his public ministry in Galilee, a place where the people are much in need of comfort, of reassurance, of hope. Galilee is a region roughly 13 miles long and 8 miles wide (about the size of Dublin and Peterborough combined) or (about the size of Harrisville, Chesham, Nelson and Dublin combined). The fertile region is
home to what historians estimate to be a population of between 2 and 3 million people. The population of Galilee, more than any other area in the region, is characterized by a predominance of intercultural marriages. Because of this eclectic cultural mix, Galileans are judged harshly by other Jews in surrounding areas. Galileans are regarded unfairly as outsiders of the Jewish community. As if that was not bad enough, Galilee is surrounded by hostile neighbors: the Syrophoenicians to the north and west, the Bedouins to the east and the Samaritans to the South.
Of all the places Jesus could have chosen to teach, and of all the people he could have chosen to teach, he chose the most vulnerable. Jesus begins with a blessing that we know as the Beatitudes (from the Latin beatus, meaning blessed). These verses may be familiar. They are commonly
chosen for art pieces in calligraphy or needlepoint or cross stitch. Because these verses are some of the first recorded words spoken in Jesus’s ministry, they have profoundly influenced Christian doctrine but, in my opinion, they have been taken out of context and in order to even begin to imagine Jesus’s intent, we must consider the following three things: the location, the audience, and the fact that this was the first recorded event where Jesus speaks to a large gathering.
Jesus has just returned to the region of Galilee. He had been in Judea, to the south where he was baptized in the Jordan river by his relation, John the Baptist. John the Baptist had amassed quite the following and the miraculous events surrounding the baptism of Jesus had caused quite a stir among the people of Judea and this did not escape the notice of neither the religious elite in Jerusalem, nor the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. The natives were not only restless, but they were also inspired by the rapidly spreading news that a prophet had risen up among them, a prophet that was healing the sick and gathering a large following. This was threatening and unsettling for those in power in the temple and in the local government.
John the Baptist had just been arrested and thrown into the prison in Jerusalem. Jesus, upon hearing the news of John’s arrest and imprisonment, left Judea and traveled back towards his home region of Galilee. Galilee was the outpost of sorts with its multicultural mix of Jew and Gentile, and Galilee was also known for the highest resistance to Roman Rule. Just one hundred years before Jesus, Galilee had been invaded by the Assyrians who laid waste to the fertile land and the Jews who had made their home there. Over the decades, the area had been slowly repopulated and replanted but, as I explained before, there was an uneasy peace at every border and the people of Galilee were unfavorably regarded by other Jews and under constant threat of another invasion because of the fertility of their land.
Jesus chooses this most vulnerable place. Jesus chooses these marginalized people. And he begins his work among them with this blessing. This blessing is not meant to be an imperative about how the people should be living; this blessing is meant to comfort, to reassure, to provide hope for people who were undervalued, insecure, and held there by the power of the Roman politicians. Among the Galilean people, the people carrying the heaviest weight of prejudice and the heaviest weight of insecurity, Jesus offers these words that could have been translated as follows*:
“To the poor in spirit, I offer my blessings to you; in the reign of God, you are appreciated. “To those who mourn, I offer my blessings to you; may God’s love be a comfort to you. “To the meek, I offer my blessings to you; you will live on fertile ground.
“To those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, I offer my blessings; you will be filled. “To the merciful, I offer you my blessings; you will receive mercy.
“To the pure in heart, I offer you my blessings; you will see God.
“To the peacemakers, I offer you my blessings; you will be called children of God.
“To those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, I offer you my blessing; yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus began his ministry among those who knew the pain of poverty, the pain of loss, the pain of prejudice, the pain of being denied a representative government. Jesus knew that among them there were those who were merciful, those who were pure in heart, those seeking peace and those living a righteous life. Jesus knew that these people needed his message more than anyone, so there in Galilee, he began to teach. There in Galilee, he began to offer his message of assurance, his message of love, his message of hope.
In closing now, I want to lift up the wisdom of a teacher and the humility of a leader who would begin with a most gracious blessing, offered as a gift. He is Jesus, he is Rabbi, he is Teacher, he is the embodiment of the Christ consciousness, he is the spirit of God in human form and we, my brothers and sisters, we are among those blessed. May we be open to receive blessings and eager to bless others, in turn. So be it. Amen.
*various translations of the Beatitudes, both from Greek and Aramaic, may be found here:https://theeffect.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/The-Beatitudes.pdf
God of the stillness, we thank you for the quiet spaces in between. Help us to push back the world and create a safe harbor for ourselves where we can reflect and rest. When problems and
concerns are looming large in our minds and hearts, Lord, remind us to begin within, to seek your calm and your peace. From this centered place, we can see the world, and all our brothers and sisters in a new light…a light that comes from you. From this centered place within, we find a depth of understanding and a clarity of purpose that reshapes us in your divine image. From this centered place, we can lay down our expectations and learn to trust that through your grace, we will have all the love we need, even in grave adversity. Help us, Lord, to feel deserving of such grace, so that we may fully receive what you intend for us. Bless us, Lord, as we pray this prayer that Jesus gave us… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Psalm 91
“To his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways; upon their hands they shall bear you up.”