When the Beatitudes Aren’t Meant for You: Learning from Impoverished Nicaraguans and a Faithful Centurion
When I was 23 years old, through circumstances that still seem like some strange set of miracles or angel-nudges, I ended up living for a year with my husband in a village at the top of a Nicaraguan mountain. A Nicaraguan family we had known in the United States made the introductions that landed us there, two white 20-somethings without job descriptions. As we wept, laughed, vomited, hiked, sweated, machete-chopped, and tortilla-pounded through that year, I found myself in an intensive training school on what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Lk 6:20). But even as I learned what Jesus said to those who are poor, I learned that Jesus had something else to say to me. To Nicaraguans, I was wealthy, white, and from a nation that had militarily occupied their country in the early twentieth century. It took turning the page in my Bible to find what Jesus had to say about that.
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I must have read the Beatitudes several hundred times during that year. These “blessed are you” poetic lines at the opening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 are not for the faint of heart. To this day reading these passages gives me the kind of gut-wobbling vertigo I get on carnival rides as Jesus spins the world I know.
The Poor Who Are Blessed
In that year in Nicaragua, the village lost nearly half their annual income when the world coffee price dropped to the lowest it had been in over fifty years. Then an NGO backed down on their agreement to pay for their many back-breaking hours repairing a road, and a drought destroyed much of their bean and corn harvest. We watched families go from having just a handful of coins to not one single coin. The shelves of local shops sat empty as even shopkeepers ran out of money to restock. We watched children’s bellies grow large with hunger. At Christmas we spent a night wiping my husband’s head with wet rags to keep his malaria-induced fever down, and at Easter several men drank so much moonshine they lay passed out along the dirt road. “And blessed are you who are poor,” I read again and again. Oh, the audacity of Jesus.
But as world-overturning as the passage is, that year taught me to know in my bones that it was true. I sat late into the night by the light of handmade diesel fuel lanterns hearing the life stories of people like Carla, who was raising a massive pig to hold a village-wide celebration in gratitude for God sparing her family’s life during a hurricane. Every day Carla opened a Bible so worn it was missing half of Revelation and all of Genesis. She pointed her finger along one word at a time, reading with the sparse literacy gleaned from a village school reaching only to fourth grade. Another woman taught me songs from The Misa Campesina—a Catholic Mass once banned by a Nicaraguan dictator for its liberation themes. One song began, “You are the God of the poor, the God human and simple, the God who sweats in the streets.” Amid unrelenting struggles, people’s faith endured far beyond what I had known humanly possible.
No magic solution to their poverty came, but the interwoven joys and sorrows of that year revealed remarkable blessings unfolding for those who were presently poor, mourning, or insulted by the world. There’s nothing quaint about grinding poverty, and there is no indication anywhere in Jesus’ ministry that he desires suffering for suffering’s sake. Rather, he offers relentless reminders that suffering is not a landing place forever. In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us the end of a story before we arrive so that both now and in that future scene we will know what a good story it is.
Woe to You
But the blessings to those in poverty, mourning, and persecution are only half the story—what about those to whom Jesus offers “woe?” And what if that was me?
My husband and I came to Nicaragua with intentions to live “alongside” and not “above” the village. We brought just one suitcase and spent less in a year than many Americans my age spend in a month. But still, I was undeniably wealthy. We had savings accounts in America and relatives who could bail us out at a moment’s notice. I had to ask myself, what about Jesus’ words to the wealthy, “woe to you” (Lk 6:20, 24)?
And then there were our very bodies. Children beside me on buses reached out to touch and adore my light brown hair. My freckled light skin sent messages so deeply entrenched in history that we could barely consciously name them, much less unravel them all. People sent us to the front of queues and seated us on stages in front of church congregations. We were spoken well of even to the point of embarrassment. Our undeserved esteem was the product of a racial sorting system designed and reinforced by Europeans and European-Americans across more than three centuries. And it was designed for the precise purpose of accruing wealth and power by making sure people of other races were looked down on. Being raced as white is not in itself a mark of guilt, but it presents daunting challenges. Being raced as white made it possible for my ancestors to pass down to me wealth accumulated through morally suspect and outright immoral means, including stealing from indigenous caretakers every piece of land I’d lived on.
If we were forced to choose which words of the beatitudes applied to us, it would be “woe to you when all people speak well of you” (6:26).
Plus there was that line about “peacemakers.” Sure, we could in some sense say we came to build peaceful bridges across our cultural worlds. But it was also true that we came from a nation that had militarily dominated theirs. Many men in our village had been conscripted into war in the 1980s when my government spurred conflict by supplying weapons and money to the side that fought against most of them. Further back were two decades at the start of the twentieth century when the U.S. military occupied their nation. People would not be unjustified in seeing me as a representative of a nation that left a trail of violence in their country.
What does the Bible have to say to people whose social positions include wealth, whiteness, or warmongering? This question stayed with me for over two decades, and recently I conducted research on ways Christians come together to foster healing, justice, and unity across race and class. As I considered what works—and what doesn’t—I noticed something peculiar in a story that appears just after the Beatitudes sermon. It’s far from the only passage dealing with this question, but coming on the tail of this sermon, it’s likely that observers had those “woe to you” warnings fresh in their minds. And like the Beatitudes, it shows us something about how to connect a present broken reality to a world-overturning future hope.
The story begins with one very ill enslaved person, and someone who requests help (Lk 7:2, Mt 8:6). We don’t know either person’s name, only their positions—enslaved and centurion. The story focuses on the latter—a Roman military commander who is wealthy, warmongering, and a member of politically and militarily dominant ethnic group. Jesus had just prepared his Jewish followers to turn the other cheek and walk an extra mile for the likes of this man. And yet at the end of their interactions, Jesus says this man has greater faith than anyone he’s found in Israel.
What could this man of privilege have done that exemplified faith? It must have been more than mere trust in Jesus’ healing power, since the leper that Jesus just healed believed the same (Mt 8:1–4). We do not know whether everything he did was right, but there seems to be something uniquely faithful in how this centurion handles his social position.
Handling Status Faithfully
Centurions were an elite rank, earning three to twenty times as much as ordinary soldiers.1Michael Grant, The Army of Caesars (New York: Scribners 1974). As a Roman, he was of an ethnic group that had demanded that Jews look up to them, and his wealth stemmed directly from that unequal power. Today’s racial categories of white and Black would not exist for another sixteen centuries, but we see dynamics of wealth, power, and violence in this story that parallel many of the class-based, violent, and racialized injustices in our world today.
We can also see that the centurion made intentional choices that bumped against the usual dynamics of the social hierarchy. Luke tells us he valued the servant highly, suggesting he regarded the enslaved person not as a disposable resource but as a human of inherent dignity. Rather than barge into Jesus’ group, in Luke’s account the centurion sends word through a messenger, likely knowing that a Roman commander’s presence would be unsettling to Jesus’ followers.
We learn that the centurion has been giving money to the Jews for some time, and the Jews cite this as a reason Jesus should help him. The centurion’s consistent generosity has forged a rare trust across their cultural and religious divides (Lk 7:4) But perhaps their motivations are more complicated. Perhaps the Jews regard the centurion with both terror and a misplaced desire to be like him rather than like Christ. As Willie James Jennings says of a present-day situation, people can unknowingly come to look at a white man “longingly and lovingly, admiring his poise, his confidence, seeing in him what they longed to be, and seeing . . . what they thought the goal of our shared project of formation ought to be.”2Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging: Theological Education between the Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 24. Jennings warns, “Not all bullies are hated. Some are imitated because we see in them an efficiency and clarity of action that fit the way we see the world.”3Ibid, 92.
Jesus surely can see through their motivations, but he agrees to come, and here the story gets shocking. The elite centurion turns Jesus away. The centurion says he does not deserve to have Jesus enter his home, and he trusts Jesus to have the power to command the illness to heal from a distance. If anything, the crowd could likely imagine the reverse—that a centurion would not consider them, the Aramaic Jews, worthy to come under his roof.
The centurion seems to know all too well how the social system works. Perhaps he has felt trapped by it, too. But instead of ignoring the human-made hierarchy, he reads into it a lesson about the true hierarchy in which God has dominion over all humanity and creation.
What’s remarkable about the centurion’s faith is not just that he trusts Jesus’ power to heal bodies, but that he expects Jesus’ power to heal social systems. He lives into a society-overturning kingdom where the last will be first, gentiles will be full members of the family of God, and peace will replace terror.
The servant was indeed healed, but Matthew adds one more piece to the story. Jesus offers this final word: “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 8:11).4Actually, there’s another sentence after this. It’s more than I’ll unpack here, but worth noting that not all is rosy. Jesus also gives warning, apparently to those who don’t have faith in an overturning kingdom: “The subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12). Here Jesus is filling in an ending to the story that hasn’t yet arrived. Just as the blessings of the poor, the mourning, and the peacemakers might not have arrived in the present reality, the centurion never sits down to eat with the Jews here. Divisions between Jew and gentile, police and policed, oppressed and oppressor are still present then and now. But just as the Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of telling the coming end to the story, his commentary tells us that the centurion’s story has not yet reached its conclusion. People from east and west will sit down to together at a feast in the kingdom of heaven, and that’s where faith leads us. Jesus saw in the centurion someone acting in the present out of a faith that this ending could come.
In my year in Nicaragua, I saw glimpses of that coming ending. Sitting at Carla’s house on buckets for chairs, eating hot tortillas we’d made together, and savoring the goodness of God in our lives, I could imagine sitting with people from north, south, east, and west in a beloved community with the damage of hierarchical oppression finally undone, and it fueled a desire that has shaped my life ever since. It’s not here yet. But to have faith means to be preparing for that ending to come.
1. Michael Grant, The Army of Caesars (New York: Scribners 1974).
2. Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging: Theological Education between the Times (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 24.
3. Ibid, 92.
4. Actually, there’s another sentence after this. It’s more than I’ll unpack here, but worth noting that not all is rosy. Jesus also gives warning, apparently to those who don’t have faith in an overturning kingdom: “The subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12).
Image created by Rubner Durais
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