Ripe and Ready for the Picking
A sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 1/29/17; Matthew 5:1-12.
This morning we’re given one of the best known passages from the Gospel of Matthew, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… the meek… the merciful… etc.” And for those of us who walk a Christian path, a Jesus-centered path, this is one of our most central texts, where Jesus lays out the conditions for a truly awakened, engaged, God-centered life. This is one of those passages to take to the tattoo parlor!
So first of all, we’ve got to get a better sense of this word “blessed” that opens each beatitude. The Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, much like Hebrew and Arabic today, was multivalent—words were based on a system of roots and could have multiple layers of meaning. So, for example, the word for “spirit” (ruha) means both breath and spirit. And the Aramaic word underlying our English word blessed is tubwayhun which literally means “ripe” or “ready for the picking”—a word from the agrarian culture Jesus grew up in. And when that word is used in reference to people, it can mean integrated, whole, complete, mature.
So we’ve got a basic, primary teaching right here in this word alone—we human beings can be ripe, mature, or we can be unripe, immature. And this is good news—that within us is the potential to become ripened human fruit, to become mature, fully human beings. This potential exists in all of us. Now the flipside of the teaching, of course, is that most of us aren’t there yet, and so Jesus is laying out the conditions for our own ripening.
And so he begins, “Ripe and ready for the picking are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of [God].” So this first condition for our ripening, poverty of spirit, has something to do with emptiness and humility—that we must be emptied out inside, poor inside, in order to make room for God.
There’s a story that captures this perfectly about a wannabe Zen disciple who goes to the Zen master and he’s granted an audience. And this potential student begins going on and on about himself—his qualifications, who he’s studied with, all of the philosophies he knows and the spiritual experiences he’s had. And as he’s talking, the Master begins to pour tea, and as he pours the student goes on, and he goes on pouring until the tea is overflowing the cup, and finally the student notices what’s happening and shouts, “Stop pouring! The cup is full!”
“Yes, and so are you,” says the Master. “How can I possibly teach you?”
Ripe, mature, says Jesus, are those who are poor in spirit, who have emptied themselves of self-importance, and made room for humility and for God; the first condition for our human ripening.
Next comes “Ripe and ready for the picking are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” It’s very easy and natural to want to close our hearts to the suffering of the world and even our own personal suffering. To just shut it out and not feel it. But Jesus says here that part of authentic maturity is authentic mourning, that our pain cannot be bypassed. And I don’t think he’s talking about sentimental, over-the-top emotional drama, but simply allowing yourself to stay close and attentive to the suffering of the world and to experience the actual grieving and mourning that that calls forth from your soul. You won’t be fully human without it. And somehow the comfort, the medicine, is present in the connection that allows you to actually feel the pain. We cannot be mature human beings until we can open our hearts and mourn, and mysteriously in our mourning, the seeds of comfort and healing are already sown. This is the second condition Jesus gives for human ripening.
And then he says, “Ripe and ready for the picking are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The Aramaic word here for “meek” literally means “those who have softened what was rigid.” It can also be translated “those who are gentle” or “those who have become gentled”—who have tamed their rigid, defensive ego. So often we move through life rigid and contracted and on-guard. We move through the world as isolated entities cut off from one another and the earth. And the word here in this beatitude for earth can also refer to all of nature. And so, Jesus says, when we are softened, gentled, we can again inherit, reconnect, with all of creation. This is the third condition for human ripening.
And then comes: “Ripe and ready for the picking are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” At the heart of this teaching is longing. Mature are those who long, who hunger and thirst, for righteousness, for justice, for God. Passionate longing. So often we think of longing as a sign of lack, of an immaturity in ourselves. But Jesus says that no, this longing is a sign of our maturity, and already present in our longing is the fullness for which we long.
There’s a story told about a dervish who longed for God and would sit under a tree day and night crying out, “Allah, Allah!” Until one day a cynic passed by and said, “O you foolish dervish, why do you waste your time crying out night and day like this to God? Has God ever once responded to your cries?” Well this sent the dervish into despair, because no, God had never once responded. And he went on like this, in despair, until finally a messenger was sent from God with the words, “O servant of God, your Lord would have you know that your crying out, your longing, is His response.”
Our longing for God is God’s longing through us. They are one and the same longing. And only when we open ourselves to that longing for God’s kingdom, God’s dream, and let it take and shape our lives and our world, only then will we know fullness
Mature are those who long for righteousness, for their longing is God’s fullness within them; this is the fourth condition for human ripening.
And then: “Ripe and ready for the picking are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The Aramaic word for mercy—and the Hebrew word and the Arabic word—are all connected to the root R-H-M, which means womb. And so mercy is the all-embracing womb-love, womb-compassion, of God. And when we are filled with that compassionate, generative quality, we are also receiving that compassion from the womb of God.
Mature are those who are merciful and compassionate for they are born from the womb of God; the fifth condition for human ripening.
And then: “Ripe and ready for the picking are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The Christian mystics talk about this saying in terms of “opening the eye of the heart” or even polishing the rust from the mirror of the heart so that it can fully reflect God. And the understanding here is that when we have purified our hearts, when we have opened the eye of our hearts, we see God, here and now, in all things. We see, as St. Paul says, “the One in whom we live and move and have our being.” And so the teaching here is that we don’t have to wait until we die to see God—we just have to open the eye of our hearts, and then every face we see is the face of God.
Mature are those who have purified their hearts of all selfishness and greed, for wherever they look, they will see God; the sixth condition for human ripening.
And finally: “Ripe and ready for the picking are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” When we have done the work of each of these preceding conditions, when we have emptied ourselves, when we have opened ourselves to the suffering of the world, when we have gentled and tamed our egos and purified our hearts, then we are ready to become peacemakers. There’s a saying in the Bhagavata, an Indian scripture, that “One in whose heart God has become manifest brings peace […] everywhere they go.” Only when we have done this work on ourselves can we effectively work for peace in the world. And this, Jesus says, is the natural outcome of all this inner work—that we move into the world as peacemakers, as children of God, born frorm the merciful womb of God.
And in the final beatitudes, he gives something of a warning. The world does not understand this way. Those who are unripe, driven by greed and selfishness, cannot comprehend this seemingly foolish path. Letting down your defenses? Making yourself vulnerable? This is a threat to my power. And so Jesus warns that those who become peacemakers, who work for justice and transformation in the world, open themselves to persecution.
And this, too, he says, is a sign of your maturity: “Ripe, mature, are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of [God].” Ripe was Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus. And all of them knew persecution, often unto death.
These, these taken together, are the conditions for human maturity, Jesus says, and this is where they can lead. And so this text, these beatitudes, are a map of the work we have to do within ourselves and in the world. They lay out a risky path, not without danger. But the only path to our own ripening. And so may we all pray and work to become mature, ripe, and ready for the picking.