Have you heard the expression, “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”? It does not originate from Jesus or from Monty Python’s cult classic Life of Brian, for that matter; rather, it originates from journalism. According to blogger Tim Stewart, journalists referenced it in terms of the
“watchdog” role that they felt newspapers were obligated to have. To journalists, the “afflicted” were the victims of crime or corruption in the big city. The “comfortable” were the fat cats in business and politics who were dabbling in crime and corruption behind the scenes. The journalists saw their dual role in the media as both comforting the victims of corruption and also calling the sleazy fat cats to account for their crimes.
Stewart remarks that the expression was created by Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne, not Joseph Pulitzer or H.L. Mencken, as others have claimed. Dunne referenced it in his column using a fictional character Mr. Dooley to speak of the events of the day in the colloquial voice of the common man:
Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, conthrols th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward (Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902) 240).
See Stewart’s discussion of the origin and evolution of the expression at “Dictionary of Christianese,” including his claim that Martin Marty was the first to contextualize the phrase to religion in a 1987 article (a respondent stated that there is an earlier religious application of the imagery in a tribute to Dorothy Day at Notre Dame).
Regardless of the interesting origin and evolution of the expression, it bears upon our present reflection on Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4; ESV) This biblical expression, which many believe originates with Jesus, often devolves in our present context to read, “Blessed are the comfortable, for they will never mourn.” If we are honest, many of us—including me—are tempted to prize consumer comfort in the religious and secular domain over most anything.
Jesus spoke in the voice of the common person to the all-too common concerns of people’s heart passions and imaginations in his day and our own. Those who are spiritually comfortable and smug do not mourn their true spiritually state. As the preceding beatitude in Matthew 5:3 indicates, those who are poor or bankrupt in spirit are blessed; they realize their desperate need for the God revealed in Jesus (See my blog post titled “‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’—not those with spiritual bravado”). They mourn over their true spiritual condition and the spiritual darkness in the world.
Jesus calls those who mourn blessed; he promises that they will be comforted. Mourning is a mark of the true disciple. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted…. With each beatitude the gulf is widened between the disciples and the people, their call to come forth from the people becomes increasingly manifest.” Jesus’ disciples do “without what the world calls peace and prosperity.” They do not “accommodate” themselves to the world’s “standards.” “While the world keeps holiday,” Jesus’ disciples “stand aside.” “And while the world sings, ‘Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,’ they mourn.” “The Comforter of Israel” comforts them through His cross. He is their comfort and rest as they align themselves with him, throwing themselves upon him, taking up his yoke. The rest Jesus promises is the rest of sharing in his burden, carrying his yoke. It is indeed rest, for when Christ is Lord in their place he bears the brunt of the burden (See Matthew 11:28-30).
The disciples are not absorbed in self-pity. They do not hate their neighbors and fellow citizens. In fact, as Bonhoeffer argues in this context in The Cost of Discipleship and models with his life, no one loves humanity more than Jesus and his true disciples. As Bonhoeffer argues in Letters and Papers from Prison, Jesus is the man for others, and the church is Jesus’ community for others—all others. The church bears witness to Jesus, who is the ultimate watchdog who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Bonhoeffer mourned his own spiritual condition as well as the state of the German Christians, whom he opposed in their alignment with Hitler. He grieved for the extreme sorrow of the Jewish community and others whom Hitler exterminated, and he gave his life to try and bring an end to the Nazi menace. For Bonhoeffer, one cannot sing or rejoice in Christ who does not cry out for the Jewish community in their suffering: “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
Jesus’ comfort and joy does not entail silliness and sappiness that ignores the plight of the world bound up with sin and evil. Nor does Jesus’ mourning entail sourness; those engulfed in bitterness and morbidity readily forget the comfort that he alone brings. Those who grieve will be comforted, for the crucified and risen Jesus will bring an end to suffering.
What do you and I mourn over? Where do we find comfort? Do we mourn over our desire for comfort, which so often entails or ignores the suffering of others? Do we find comfort in the fact that the Jesus who was afflicted calls us to mourn with him so that we can find comfort in the joy of his resurrected presence that upholds us and makes all things new? Not unlike journalists who have a watchdog role to comfort the victims of corruption and afflict the victimizers, we must watch over our own hearts and bear witness to Jesus who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 2d ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1959), page 121.
See Bonhoeffer’s discussion of these themes in Letters and Papers from Prison, new greatly enlarged edition (New York: Touchstone, 1997).
See Michael R. Marrus, ed., The Nazi Holocaust, Part 8: Bystanders to the Holocaust, Volume 3, De Gruyter, page 1401.