I don’t know exactly why people have such a difficult time seeing the kingdom of God (Gospel of Thomas, log. 113), the more and better life than we ever dreamed of that Jesus offered, the abundant life that is already spread on the earth, but I’m certain it’s not for lack of looking.
Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit priest and spiritual director, told the story of the little fish that swam up to a larger fish and said, “Excuse me. You’re older and wiser than I. Tell me, where can I find this thing they call the Ocean?” The large fish smiled and said, “Why, the Ocean is what you’re swimming in now.” “Oh, this?” the young fish replied, “This is only water. I’m looking for the Ocean.” And he swam off to continue his search.
As Jesus began preaching about the abundant life, crowds of people began to come to him from all over the country (Matt. 4:23-25). “Where can we find the Ocean?” they asked. “Where can we find this blessed life you’ve been talking about?” So he took those who really wanted to lay hold of what he offered, and they retreated to a place where he could teach them how to find the blessed life they were looking for (Matt. 5:1-2). And this is what he taught them.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, he said. Not those who are particularly religious, not even those who are simply and sincerely spiritual. Not the pillars of the church nor the ordinary church members who serve in the soup kitchen. No, God has blessed those who have come to be served at the soup kitchen, the ones who need everything and have nothing to give.
Blessed are those who mourn, he said. Not those who grieve the ordinary injuries and losses that every person suffers in life, but those who recognize that this present life is far from God’s purpose for creation and who yearn for the day when God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven – those who mourn the passing away of this present life and who haven’t yet laid hold on a better one.
Blessed are the meek, he said. Not the ones with enough strength and confidence to overcome adversity and climb the ladder of success, but those who have never conquered or overcome anything, not even their own fears, and who know it.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he said. Not those who are righteous but those who have been mistreated, shunned, bullied by society, even by communities of faith. Those who have suffered injustice because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, socioeconomic level, and political or theological background, and who long to be made whole. Blessed are the migrant workers whose green card status is in jeopardy, or the refugees who have been turned away at the border, who long for the kind of welcome God says they are to have.
Blessed are the merciful, he said. Not the perfect and the proud who live in gilded towers in Midtown Manhattan or the pillared palaces of the political elite. But God has blessed those who know their imperfections, their terrible mistakes. Those who know their desperate need of forgiveness and so have room in their hearts to forgive others; those who show compassion and mercy because they know they need compassion and mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, he said. Not the ones who seem to have it all together, who look good and dine in the best restaurants and live in the right neighborhoods, who are unburdened by the troubles and limitations of the common world. But blessed are those whom the world views as worthless and who are unsullied on the inside by the world that tries to claim their loyalty.
Blessed are the peacemakers, he said. Not those who have found peace for themselves but those who labor to make peace for others, wherever and whenever they can. Those who lack the fullness of life they hunger for but who seek it with all they’re worth for those around them. Those who know that as long as anyone lacks the fullness of life God promises, no one can enjoy the fullness of life God promises.
Jesus is not painting a picture of how things will be one day or could be if we play our cards right; he’s describing how things are. He’s not raising a vision to aim for; he’s raising the curtain on what already is.
It’s not spiritual fullness that’s a sign of God’s blessing but spiritual emptiness; not the fulfillment of your hopes but your unfulfilled hunger; not success in the struggle with life’s challenges but weakness and defeat; not a life of grace and beauty but one of brokenness and rejection; not wealth enough to satisfy all your needs but poverty enough to keep you mindful of them. How can these things be blessings? As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know we’re the chosen people, Lord, but once in a while couldn’t you choose someone else?”
The Sufi poet Rumi told the story of a man who quit praying because he never got an answer back from God, and he fell into a deep depression. An angel came to him in a dream and told him that his unfulfilled longing was God’s answer to his prayer. Listen to the moaning of a dog for its master, the angel said; that moaning is the connection. Your deep hunger is the golden cord that binds you to God.
Poverty of spirit; soul-deep mourning; acceptance that you’ll never be successful in the world’s eyes; suffering in the way you’re treated by society; recognizing your need for forgiveness; a freely embraced poverty; genuine solidarity with the least, the last, and the lost of the world – these are the things that crack open our hard shell of independence and self-sufficiency and make us available to the God who searches us out and draws us into a holy, life-giving embrace. These are the places where life is to be found, the places where life stops us, and breaks us open, and makes us available to the Ocean we’ve been looking for and swimming in all along.