A book written by Norman Vincent Peale entitled The Power of Positive Thinking has sold more than five million copies. The Mayo clinic has found that some studies show that positive thinking is associated with many health benefits. Diana is working at her school on a play, Spamalot, which has as its theme song: “Always look on the bright side of life.” So if positivity is so good, why is Jesus being such a Donnie Downer in St. Luke’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount? Instead of staying positive, talking about the blessings, Jesus appends to those blessings a series of “woes.” The beatitudes as St. Luke records them are about a reversal of fortune. Woe to you if you hit six good numbers and blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are fat and sassy and blessed are you who are now hungry. Woe to you who are partying all the time and blessed are you who are grieving. Woe to you when people think you’re the top, you’re the tower of Pisa and blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, insult you. That is not the way we ordinarily look at things. We are accustomed to think it’s a blessing to be rich, happy, well-nourished, praised. Jesus reverses our expectations. Why does the conventional wisdom we live by differ so dramatically from what Jesus holds up as desirable? How can we learn to see what the world perceives as negative to be blessings as Jesus teaches? Maybe the key is found in the first epistle that St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. We read in the 15th chapter today: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” If we are seeking blessings for this life only we are the most pitiable of people. We don’t know what is in anyone’s heart but Bill Gates is pitiable if all he wants is more riches. Donald Trump is pitiable if all he wants is more power. Oprah is pitiable if all she wants is to become more famous. No matter how much we’ve got or how great we are, if our efforts are for this life only we are pitiable. Jesus turns the world upside down by having us understand we are at the underside of eternity! Genuinely positive thinking happens when we learn to see things in this life in light of the next.
However, Jesus is careful, church, in describing the state of being blessed. He does not say “Blessed is poverty” or “blessed is hunger” or “blessed is hatred.” Jesus is not telling the poor and the hungry to be happy with their lot in life for they will get their reward in heaven. Those conditions are deplorable and the followers of Jesus must work to overcome them. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats: “When I was hungry you gave me to eat… Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.” The blessing is not pronounced about a condition but addressed to a person. “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated.” Jesus wants us to understand that no matter what our condition in life, even a negative one, we are blessed. When we see things from the perspective of eternity whatever we are going through can be the opportunity to live more fully for God. The followers of Jesus can find a blessing in anything once we realize that this life is preparation for the fuller and richer life that is to come.
Since the Bible teaches us how our story comes out – once we have “fallen asleep in Christ,” as the epistle puts it, we will be raised from the dead as Jesus was – we can make sense out of the evidence of our life, all the blessings and the woes that come to us. What we have to do is read the clues in the light of eternity, in light of life on high with Christ Jesus. Take the example that Jesus uses: being rich or being poor. From the perspective of eternity it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a big fine house, you’ve got a heavenly mansion awaiting. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the latest fashions to wear, you’ll soon be putting on the robe of glory. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fancy hat to put on, you are destined for a heavenly crown. In the perspective of eternity even if you’re hungry now you’ll soon be sharing in the heavenly banquet. In the perspective of eternity even if you are weeping over something as dreadful as the loss of a loved one, you’ll soon be re-united when the saints come marching in. And yes, in the perspective of eternity you can rejoice and leap for joy when you are hated and insulted because God has called you precious, God has named you beloved, God is well pleased with you. Things look different when seen in the context of the life to come.
Jesus gives us the beatitudes so we will understand ourselves as blessed no matter what. We experience ourselves as blessed when we open up our minds to see all things as God does. We’re not limited by these bodies of ours that get sick, by the short span of time allotted to us on earth, by the inabilities and failures we are only too aware of. We have an eternal destiny that colors all that we are and all that we do. There is a blessing in store for us. There is a story about one time that the bishops were meeting in Washington. The hotel was running a promotion which had as its theme: “There are no problems, only opportunities.” One of the bishops approached the front desk and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but I have a problem.” The desk clerk, wanting to be a good employee smiled and said, “There are no problems, only opportunities.” To which the bishop responded, “Call it what you will but there is a woman in the room you assigned to me.” Church, it is true. There are no problems, only opportunities. If you are poor you have the opportunity to be rich in grace. If you are hungry you have the opportunity to be satisfied by justice. If you are weeping you have the opportunity to hope in the power of God to make all things new. If you are insulted, you have the opportunity to turn the other cheek, to love unconditionally. Racism is the opportunity to experience that we are all the children of God. Sickness is an opportunity to have faith in the divine physician. Even death is an opportunity, the opportunity to enter into a new and fuller life. Church, in all things and through all things we are truly blessed.