I suggest reading this passage from The Message translation, for a couple of reasons. One, there is something about the way that Eugene Peterson and his team of scholars translated the Scriptures in this version. Instead of taking the Greek in Matthew and translating a word at a time, then putting these words together in a way that made sense, Peterson and this team looked at a paragraph or a chapter at a time. Then they asked “what is at stake here?” “What is the overall message?” and “how might the same thing be said today.” It is called a dynamic equivalence version because it has a more dynamic – instead of static – approach to translation. And if read alongside of more traditional translations, there is a newness to the hearing. Which is the second reason I want to read it to you again from the Message. I think that certain passages, like the Beatitudes for example, are so familiar that we shut our brains off because we think we have heard it all before. The Message gets us out of that preconceived thinking….
5:1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Let’s take a moment and examine what Jesus was doing here. Remember that this passage takes place at the beginning of what is perhaps the best known sermon of all time – the Sermon on the Mount. It is the opening paragraph of what is Jesus’ primary teaching moment. And so, it acts as kind of a curriculum for how to live the Kingdom life. Just like Luke 4 is the opening mission/vision statement for Jesus in Luke, in Matthew, it is the Beatitudes. So Jesus stood up near the beginning of his ministry, and preached this sermon, beginning with this repetitive phrase “You are blessed.”
Now, the definition of the word “Blessed” here is critical. It is sometimes translated “happy,” but our English word happy assumes that life is easier or filled with positive feelings, and that simply isn’t the case with someone who is being persecuted, etc. Or sometimes the word blessed means “given possessions or reward,” but again, the Beatitudes seem to be saying the opposite. So instead, I think that scholar Earl Palmer is onto something when he says that Jesus was likely harkening back to an older Hebrew word: “ashar.” It is one of the words that is often translated “blessed” in our Hebrew Scriptures, and is potentially what Jesus is talking about when he uses the word blessed. Because the best translation for “ashar” is not blessed as in “given possessions” or even “Happy” as it is sometimes translated. The best translation for Ashar is “you are on the right road.” Each of Jesus’ blessings tells us that when we exemplify one of these attributes, we are on the right road. That doesn’t mean that we are necessarily blessed from the world’s standards, or even happy for that matter. But it does mean that we are doing something right.
“You are on the right road.” I am sure I have used the example before about the difference between hiking in the Appalachians and hiking in the Rockies. In the Appalachians, you know you are on the right trail because it is where the trees are not. You just follow the open space in the trees and you’ll be fine. Sometimes, you have to determine which open space to follow, but usually it is pretty obvious. Hike in the Rockies, though, and you will often begin a trail that suddenly opens up to a vast expanse of options. You are hiking along and then all of a sudden you clear the treeline and then you are staring at all of the Rockies at once, with no discernable path. So, the best trails make advantage of what are sometimes called cairns: little piles of rocks that mark the path. You walk a little until you see a cairn, and then you look for the next cairn, and so on and so forth. They are the only thing that tells you “you are on the right road.” Well, in today’s passage, Jesus is saying, “here are your cairns. Here is how you know you are on the right path. You are living the kingdom life if these things are happening. You are a citizen of my Kingdom if…you are on the right road.”
But unfortunately, some of these beatitudes, this cairns, are downright vague. Pretty open-ended. If this is all we had, it might be pretty tough. So this is where I want to come back to the theme that we have been attending to today in this All Saints Day. This is the day where we are aware of the people in our lives who have been our saints. Common, ordinary, everyday relationships, that have shown us what the Kingdom looks like. Remembering those saints that we have lost this year, we are reminded of the incredible blessings that God puts in our path. Saints to show us, “you are on the right road.” Or, from time to time, to tell us, “get back on the road.” Or even “you have no clue what the road looks like, do you?” They are the curriculum of our lives, the cairns of our journey that reminds us of the way to go.
And I want to take one more minute to study that curriculum together today. Retrieve now that beatitude that happened to be the most meaningful for you in today’s reading. And I want you to attach that blessing to one in your life who has been an example of that beatitude. I want you to think back on your life and name one of those cairns that has shown you “you are on the right road.” Who in your journey has been a peacemaker, a meek individual, one who has shown you how to hunger and thirst for righteousness?
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Many of us have lost the one most dear to us, or at least one who was significantly important to us. And so, on this All Saints Day, we remember the impact that they had on us. We celebrate the person that they have helped us to become. And we thank God for the cairns in our lives who have made a difference.