This 75-page book, in which Donald R. Clymer reflects on the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3–11), is deceptively simple. There isn’t much traditional commentary, nor any intentional look at historical or literary context. Each chapter simply tells a story from the author’s experience in Latin America, mostly as an MCC worker. Following the story is a paragraph or two of reflection, another few on the conflicting values resulting from the reflection, and then some suggestions how the Beatitude can be lived out. The chapter then concludes with a series of questions. Clymer examines the ten Beatitudes in the same pattern, ending somewhat anticlimactically.
On closer inspection, however, not unlike Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this short book is not so simple. Not if we take seriously what the book is explicitly designed for: meditation.
I was initially annoyed with Meditations on the Beatitudes, wondering if it wasn’t just an overly politically correct polemic intended to smuggle in liberation theology lecturing to a perceived capitalism-ensnared North American readership. But it became apparent that Clymer is attempting to move beyond this caricature, past the polemics, in order to penetrate to the heart of the matter. The aim of these meditations is to take an honest look at our values and our attitudes in light of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, those who thirst for justice, the pure of heart, etc. Essentially, the reader is confronted with the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Embodying the Beatitudes
Through storytelling and reflection, the author challenges us to read Jesus’ teachings from the perspective of the poor and disenfranchised, or, in the words of the book’s subtitle, from the margins. I found some of the stories quite moving without being overly sensationalized. They’re evidently personal, deriving from the author’s own experiences over many years of working, living, and serving in Latin America. Clymer is very transparent about how these stories have challenged and shaped him. This helped me as a reader to reflect on how they might impact me. These stories don’t just illustrate; they’re meant to embody the Beatitude in question. They gave me a better interpretive lens to understand the Beatitudes than some commentaries I’ve read on the Gospel of Matthew.
As much as I found the book meaningful, my suspicion is that the book would best be utilized in a small group setting. When reading it in isolation, I was tempted to skip over the reflection questions. But to maximize the book’s potential impact, one really needs to pause on those questions and process them with others. Especially for a Canadian audience to whom the author’s Latin American examples are foreign, the questions help to appropriate the Beatitudes into our life and community. For example, I couldn’t help but wonder what the children of the Attawapiskat First Nation might teach us about the Beatitudes. The questions provoke readers to identify their own experiences that are analogous to the author’s, and to thoughtfully consider Jesus’ words from the margins in their own culture. Therefore, the book is profoundly ethical. It has the potential to shape the character, values, and lifestyle of the reader, not just in an individual pietistic way, but with the aim of embodying the kingdom of God.
Not every story or chapter is as striking as the other, but Clymer is a clear writer with the rare ability to say more with less. I hope the book will be used by small group leaders to broaden and deepen their practice of discipleship, both by those for whom a social justice perspective is unfamiliar, and by those who already resonate with Clymer’s passion. He understands the Beatitudes – as taught by Jesus – to also challenge those who may be tainted with what he calls “non-Jesus-like attitudes and practices” in their approach to justice. Agreed, but how do we “hunger and thirst after righteousness” in the manner of Christ? Clymer’s book points us in the right direction to answer this question.