1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. 2 He taught them, saying:
3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (CEB)
If you’re anything like me, the Beatitudes have always seemed a little confusing. This was especially so when I was younger because I kind of took them at face value. When you mourn, you’re blessed. When you’re poor in spirit, you’re blessed, etc. And none of the Beatitudes seem to fit me very well; except that one about the pure in heart. After all, my Mom’s friends used to call me “Chris The Good” because I was the only kid who wasn’t getting into trouble. But no, even that Beatitude doesn’t seem to fit me most of the time. None of them seem to fit me all the time. The Beatitudes confused me when I was younger and the confusion lasted through my teens, twenties, and into my thirties.
Part of my confusion came from the fact that I used to read the Beatitudes as if they were imperatives, as if they’re suggestions or commands: I needed to be these things in order to receive the appropriate blessing. If I want to inherit the earth, I need to be meek; if I want to be filled, I need to hunger and thirst for righteousness; if I want to be a child of God, I need to be a peacemaker.
It’s easy to fall into thinking about the Beatitudes this way because we’re used to things having a price tag on them. We’re used to thinking in terms of reward and achievement systems. It happens in our workplaces—if you meet certain goals you’re rewarded; it happens in the sports we watch on TV—those who score the most points win (and that’s why I don’t watch golf because it’s completely backwards), it happens in the video games we play—if you make it to the end of the dungeon alive you get to open the reward chest. But I didn’t know how in the world I was supposed to achieve what the Beatitudes demanded.
I mean, Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, I’d like to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, too, so do I need to somehow measure my spirit to know if I’m poor enough? Do I need to sell off some spirit at the next rummage sale so I qualify as poor? And he says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I mean, I’m usually a fairly happy guy. So, if I want to be blessed, do I need to go find some creative ways to be sad?
Maybe I’ll mourn that I have too much spirit. That way, I might not receive the kingdom of heaven, but at least God will comfort me. Can you imagine God telling me, There, there, now, Christopher, it’s all right. Look at the bright side, you almost made it! How about a hug? Okey dokey, have fun in Hell. I mean, seriously, how do you do the Beatitudes?
For one thing, since my youthful confusion I have since learned that the Beatitudes are not written in the imperative mood, which is a command to do something; they’re written in the indicative mood, which is a statement of fact. What that means is they aren’t suggestions or commands to be these things or to feel this way so that we can receive these other things as a reward. No, because they’re written in the indicative mood, the Beatitudes are simple statements about the way things are.
Still, though, there was this other thing that I didn’t quite get. It’s this word, blessed. What does that word mean, anyway? Blessed is one of those words that we don’t really use much anymore in our common language. It’s almost exclusively an ecclesiastical word—meaning it’s only used by church people within the church, and even we don’t seem to use it very often—so its meaning is vague enough that most of us don’t really know what the heck anyone is talking about when they actually say it. If we ask someone how they’re doing, and they reply, “I am blessed”, we just kind of nod and say, “Yeah, me too.”
I thought maybe it’s our English translations that confused me by using the word, “Blessed”. So, to address this problem I thought I would do a word study in Greek. That’s what you should do when you’re confused, go study Greek. That’s where the phrase, It’s Greek to me, comes from, because when you study Greek, everything suddenly becomes perfectly clear.
The Greek word which our English translations so often render as “blessed” is “μακάριοι”, which can also be translated as, fortunate or happy because of circumstances, or pertaining to being fortunate, favored, happy, blessed, or privileged. Some suggest it can even mean joyful. And I think looking at the other nuances of what μακάριοι means is helpful because these other words: fortunate, favored, happy, joyful, and privileged actually shed a little more light on the matter and get a little closer to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying—at least for those of us who speak modern English—because we still use these words in our every day.
In fact, if we use the English word that would seem to make the least amount of sense in each Beatitude, I think we might get to part of the point Jesus was trying to make. This is, in some way, about profound reversal. This idea of profound reversal is a part of the Gospel message and I think it’s a part of what Jesus is saying here. No matter our circumstances in this particular time and place, a day will come when all shall be set right. It’s a very apocalyptic idea, and it’s one of the ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted for centuries.
But then that makes me wonder…are the Beatitudes nothing more a random list of comforting words to remind us that there will be pie in the sky when we die? Or is there something more here? What if, instead of looking at them individually, we looked at the Beatitudes as a whole: as words that build upon each other? What might that look like?
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Some scholars suggest that it refers to a lack of hope. Those who are poor in spirit have come to recognize that they can no longer uphold a sense of hope in the world because the world is full of evil, and people’s lives are torn apart each day. In fact, the Common English Bible that I read today renders the first Beatitude this way: “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (CEB). When we are poor in spirit, the only hope we have left is in the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (NRSV). Those who are poor in spirit—who lack hope—because of the workings of evil in the world, mourn because of it. We mourn every time we hear of a school shooting. We lament the injustices in the world: that in every 24 hours, thousands of women are raped, thousands of children die of hunger and neglect, thousands of people are victimized by other forms of violence and have no way of receiving justice. We mourn when refugees are denied access to our shores. When we see the workings of evil in any form of exploitation, injustice, and violence, we mourn. Yet, Jesus promises that we who mourn shall be comforted. And the word here includes a nuance of strengthening and encouragement. We who mourn don’t simply receive comfort, but we are empowered to lift up our heads and our hands and work against the evil that we see each day.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (NRSV). Those who mourn the workings of evil tend to recognize their own insignificance in being able to fix this mess. The meek humble themselves before God in recognition of God’s sovereignty over the earth. Meekness is not being timid or passive. It’s not about hiding in a corner. Being meek is about trusting that God’s coming kingdom will ultimately win the day because “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too” (Psalm 24:1, CEB). The meek will inherit the earth because the earth belongs to God, has always belonged to God, and is God’s to give.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (NRSV). Those who are meek seek after the desires of God’s heart rather than their own. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness seek to do good on behalf of others. Righteousness is the way of life for people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find fulfillment, contentment, and deep satisfaction in a way of life that is self-giving in service to others.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (NRSV). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness live in such a way that showing mercy to others is something they do in every moment. The merciful are self-giving, compassionate, and ready to show kindness. The merciful are more willing to forgive than to punish because the merciful know that they are recipients of mercy. Being merciful grows out of a closeness to and intimacy with the God of mercy. The merciful will receive mercy because mercy is something God loves.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (NRSV). Those who show mercy are living out one of the very attributes and greatest values of God. The heart describes the inner person: the true self. Psalm 24:4 tells us that only those with clean hands and pure hearts can enter into the Temple and worship. The pure in heart have genuine faith in God and, therefore, see God everywhere: in each person they meet, in every place they go, in everything they see, in every circumstance they encounter.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (NRSV). Those who are pure in heart live peaceably with others. The way they live compels them to make peace in all places, at all times, in every way they can. Peacemakers seek peace in all arenas of life: from calling for an end to wars between nations to seeking reconciliation in broken personal relationships. The peacemakers are called children of God, because peace is the very thing God seeks to bring to a creation that seems to be at war with itself. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who came into the world to restore our broken relationship with God. The peacemakers are God’s children because they are doing the same work that God is doing: bringing peace.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). One of the cold realities of our world is that people rarely love peacemakers. Those who are doing God’s business of bringing peace are often singled out and hated because the hearts of people can be hard. Hard-hearted people would rather hold on to their hate, wallow in their resentment, and seek a way to satisfy their desire for revenge than make peace with their enemies. Sometimes these pesky peacemakers get in their way, and it’s the peacemaker who pays the price, who is reviled, who is vilified for daring to speak a word of forgiveness and peace. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of seeking what is good, and right, and pleasing to God. That’s what righteousness is.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV). The ninth Beatitude seems to continue the message of the eighth. Yet, I think it actually points to and wraps up all the Beatitudes that precede it. It reminds us of the reality that if we live, or even attempt to live, according to the righteousness of God we will face obstacles from those around us.
In Matthew’s first century community, persecution wasn’t some remote hypothetical possibility as it seems to be for us Christians in America. For them, persecution was a daily reality, as it is for Christians in other nations. So, this is the Beatitude that becomes personal. The eight Beatitudes before it began with “Blessed are those…” This Beatitude begins with Jesus saying, “Blessed are you…” Blessed are you! I don’t want to get into the argument of whether or not Christianity is being persecuted in The United States, yet, there remains for us the reality that if we are living according to and seeking after the righteousness of God, if we are living for Jesus and obeying his commandments, our lives will meet with resistance. We will come face to face with evil and injustice. The world has done it before. It’s nothing new. The same thing happened to the prophets who were before us.
In the Beatitudes, I think Jesus describes for us a way of life that is intended to shape our community, to mold us and make us into the body of Christ. Because all of the attributes mentioned in the Beatitudes are attributes of Jesus. If we want to be like Jesus Christ, if we want to be God’s people, this is how we’re to live with each other in this community, and in the midst of the not-so-friendly world by which we are surrounded. The Beatitudes may not be imperatives, but I can’t help wanting to live into the indicatives they describe. I want to be like Jesus. And for those who want to follow Jesus, the Beatitudes show us the way.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!