Just a few years after I graduated from college, I went to Central America to participate in a summer program in Nicaragua. This was during the time after the dictator Somoza had been defeated and the Sandinistas were in power. There was great hope among many in the country that this would usher in a time of economic development, justice, literacy, better health care, education for children and so much more. I spent two months in the town of Esteli and lived with a family with little economic means, although the mother was a teacher so they were better off than others. I slept on a small cot in the front room of their wooden house, eating beans, rice, and tortillas three times a day and studying Spanish. I was particularly interested in Christian Base Communities, because I wanted to understand how people were integrating their faith into the day to day struggles and hopes of their lives. I received some invitations to meet and pray with several communities in that town and I can still remember that visit today. Let us pray, O Holy One,
This one morning, I walked down the dusty, dirty roads through the barrio where I was living to cross the Pan American highway to get to an even dustier, dirtier barrio on the other side of the road. There, the poorest of the poor lived in small houses, wooden shacks really. As I made my way through the back roads, I recall looking for rocks along the way on which to step so that I could avoid the mud and pot holes filled with water which were the state of the roads in this area. I passed people in their yards along the way, some of whose faces I recognized from church each Sunday, for I had discovered that the most vibrant worship took place far from the walls of the Cathedral at the center of town and inside a small building in this very neighborhood. Finally, I came to the house.
Inside were about ten women gathered in a circle in the main room. Many wore old cotton dresses; their hands showed signs of years of hard work. Chickens ran across the dirt floors and children played with squeals out in the yard. I was the youngest one there; the oldest was perhaps in her nineties. They welcomed me and we sat down to read scripture and pray.
One of the women began, ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.” This was Luke’s version of the beatitudes, not Matthew’s from which we read this morning. I had heard this reading many times before, but it took on a new meaning that day. I finally understood and so did they. For them, it was Gospel; it was the real good news. They knew that they were blessed, not they had to be poor to earn God’s love, but because they were poor, God’s heart reached out to them in a special way.
When I was in seminary, I remember loving Luke’s version. It seemed purer somehow, more direct. Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are you that hunger for righteousness,” seemed less concrete, for I believed and I do believe that Jesus came to announce the kingdom to those who are poor, particularly in a material sense, to those whose basic needs are not being met.
But where does that leave the rest of us those who are well fed and sheltered and have adequate clothing to keep us warm on these cold winter days. It has been over the course of my own life and in conversation with friends, family, and many whom I’ve met in my ministry over the years, that I have come to a much better understanding of the full breadth of Matthew’s words as well.
Both versions of the beatitudes give us an important understanding of the Kingdom. What God desires for us is to be in right relationship with God, to be faithful to a loving covenant with God by being loving to one another. From Matthew’s Gospel, we know that Jesus spent some time traveling through Galilee teaching and preaching and healing. It was in his travels that people began to follow him so it was on one such occasion that Jesus went up to the mountain to sit as a rabbi, as a teacher and share the good news to those most in need of healing. As we know, his message was radical in a sense, reversing the norms of his time and we can imagine the sundry group of folks who had gathered out in the countryside to sit and listen. But as he spoke, he offered real hope to these people. They heard themselves and their lives in his words. They found themselves among the blessed.
We too are among the blessed and maybe that is why Luke and Matthew offer two slightly different versions of this reading. Perhaps they understood as Jesus did that people are broken and in need of healing, both in the physical and spiritual sense.
There is no monopoly on suffering in the world and there is no monopoly on God’s love. Our hope is that we may gain strength and confidence from that love and in turn express that love by helping create the kind of world of which Jesus spoke…by comforting each other when we weep and mourn, by challenging each other to live in right relationship with God by being in right relationship with one another. We can be the stepping stones along that difficult path for one another. Our lives are not fresh-paved, tree-lined highways on which we can easily travel. More often, we encounter deep potholes of water and muddy pathways. And what is most important are those who accompany us on the journey. We might ask ourselves, who are the people in our lives that help us to feel blessed. To whom can we be blessings?