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A few years ago I was researching the Beatitudes for a sermon when I came across a quote by St. Francis de Sales who lived in the early 1600s. After repeating the first beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), he adds this commentary: “Cursed then, are the rich in spirit for the misery of hell is their portion.” By reversing the saying of Jesus, he shed new light on the original Beatitude. Here’s the way I understand his statement. People living in poverty always know what they need. They need to eat, they need a roof over their heads, they need clothing. They simply need someone to help. In the same way, the poor in spirit recognize they need help. They depend on God and the they find themselves in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The rich, however, are self sufficient. Only the rich are described as “self-made.” They don’t have to ask for a thing and depend on no one. Thus, the rich in spirit never ask for anything related to their spirits because they’re so sure they already have what they need. They never depend on anyone else and, as a result, their portion is to be alone. While Scripture often refers to Hell as a place of burning it also refers to it as a place of loneliness and outer darkness where we are by ourselves (see Matthew 22:13 and Jude 13 for two references). Following De Sales logic, the poor in spirit ask God for help and get the kingdom of heaven. Needing nothing for their souls, the rich in spirit ask for nothing of anyone and get to be by themselves. Hell is their portion. Only those who have never been lonely could miss what a curse loneliness is.
De Sales’ statement started me thinking about turning around all the Beatitudes. Can we see the truth of what is blessed by seeing what is cursed? If those who mourn are blessed by being comforted, what about people who don’t care about their spiritual condition? Cursed are those who don’t care what their heart is like because they get no relief.
Denying sinfulness is a bit like denying you have a physical disease. If you deny that you have an illness and never go get treated for it, that disease can damage, if not kill you. Sin works the same way. Left “untreated,” sin will kill you. Those who mourn over their spiritual condition are blessed by God’s forgiveness and comfort. Those who don’t care never mourn – never repent – thus, they don’t receive the blessing of peace and forgiveness. What a curse.
Let’s take “Blessed are the meek. Meek is a word that no one likes. Who has meekness as a goal in life? We think of the meek as people who are afraid to stand up for themselves, afraid to demand their place at the head of the line. In the land of assertiveness training, which personality test lists meekness as a strength?
Yet, meekness is, if we understand it correctly, self-control. It’s deeper than being well-mannered, but well-mannered might be a good image to convey its meaning. Add a dose of chosen humility and we may have an accurate picture of meekness. The meek do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time. They can put others first because they have the self control to put themselves last. The meek are blessed with inheriting the earth because they know how to be satisfied. (See “Hobart and Manners” for a post on a meek man.)
So what is the opposite of meekness? Is it the need to be in control constantly? The anti-meek demand that their lane move the fastest, that their children’s “C” be changed to an “A,” and that life gives them more. The people who try to control life instead of themselves find that life never pays off as they expect it to. They can never control enough of life to get what they want; they come up empty-handed every time. Cursed are the demanding because they never get enough.
Do you see how the anti-Beatitudes work? It is very easy to see how certain things are cursed. If those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied then those who have no moral bearing whatsoever will never be satisfied. If the merciful shall obtain mercy, then the hardhearted will find that what goes around, comes around. If the peacemakers are called children of God, what are the troublemakers called? We can even turn around the beatitude on persecution: cursed are people who don’t have anything beyond their own lives to live for because that must be the most empty and barren of all lives. Cursed are those who never have to pay any price, because there isn’t anything they care enough about paying the price for.
When we stop and realize that the opposite of the Beatitudes are really places in life that we don’t want to be, we begin to understand better the blessings of Jesus’ original teaching. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know that there’s poverty in their hearts that only Christ can answer because once they realize that poverty, the kingdom of heaven is available to them. Blessed are those who mourn over their sins because they shall be comforted with forgiveness. Blessed are the meek, for they will have all they ever need. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they will grow in the direction of their hunger. Oh, they shall never be perfect, but they will become more Christ-like. I would feel blessed if I became more like Christ today.
We find that Jesus did not simply utter beautiful words on the hillside beside the Sea of Galilee, but he gave a road map to all who seek God’s blessing. It is a map that any of us can follow.