Monday, April 30, 2012

The Beatitudes

And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:1-10

On Saturday, we read of Jesus choosing His first apostles. As He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw the brothers Andrew and Simon (Peter), casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. He told them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They followed Him. He found two other brothers, John and James Zebedee, mending their nets with their father. He called the brothers as well, and they left their nets and their father and followed Him. The Gospel then sums up His ministry: Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. This sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount, which we begin in today's reading.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, a series of declarative sentences setting out what it is to live this life of discipleship in the Kingdom. My study bible calls them "the joys of true discipleship, the blessed way of life." It adds, "The people of God await the rewards of the promises Jesus makes." If we look carefully, we can see the hints of the One for whom the Way must be made straight, the valleys brought up and mountains leveled. We have the words of the One who lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. Jesus is seated; this is the traditional position of a rabbi when teaching. My study bible notes, "To understand this sermon is to recognize this Rabbi is the one true Teacher of Israel." In this first teaching in the Sermon, it explains, "In Hebrew, 'poor' means both (1) the materially poor and (2) the faithful among God's people. The poor in spirit, the humble and lowly, have the heart of the poor and their total dependence upon God. These are truly the 'spiritually rich.'" "Blessed," it notes, "in this context indicates heavenly, spiritual blessedness rather than earthly happiness or prosperity." So, for those who rely on God as their true source of security and wealth, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It is this kingdom to which they belong, of which they are citizens and members. Let us consider all that it means to be a part of something, the rights and laws and responsibilities that go with citizenship, what it is to be governed by a good leader, the grace of this kingdom. It sets us at once in a spiritual place, with an orientation toward the spiritual reality of our lives.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." The passage from Isaiah 40, quoted by John the Baptist, which declares "Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert, a highway for our God," begins with these famous words: "Comfort, yes, comfort My people!" Christ will send us a Comforter; He will declare to His disciples that He will not leave them comfortless. Here, the promise is made to all disciples of this kingdom, that no matter what our losses, our sadness and sorrow and grief, even the things we leave behind in repentance, we will be comforted, we will find comfort from our king. Our heavenly blessings will include this comfort. My study bible points out that this type of holy sorrow, a sadness over both sins and suffering of mankind, is distinguished from ungodly sorrow, a sadness which leads to despair.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Meekness or gentleness is contrasted with the violent, manipulative or controlling in the sense of worldly power. It is, says my study bible, "an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor. . . . an imitation of Christ who said, 'Learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.'. . . Meekness is not passive gentleness, but strength under control." In those who wait on God, are God-directed, lies the inheritance of an eternal kingdom: the rightful promise of the age to come.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." Righteousness, in the Greek as well as the Hebrew, is akin to justice or justness. My study bible says it may also be translated into "justification." If we hunger and thirst for a righteous life, one in which we are capable of living with justice and righteousness, then we shall be filled in this kingdom.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In Matthew's Gospel, this is the first of the many reciprocal teachings of Jesus. There is a kind of mutual reality here, that also depends upon our disposition. My study bible says, "Mercy is love set in motion, love expressed in action. God's lovingkindness, His mercy in taking our sufferings upon Himself in order to grant us His Kingdom, sets us free from captivity to the evil one. In view of God's lovingkindness we in turn are to be merciful to all others." Perhaps, in some sense, our own disposition of mercy allows us to receive, to perceive and understand, the mercy of the kingdom and its King.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Here is the great promise. What is it to be "pure in heart?" We are not duplicitous, we don't have two different goals but one. When we "hunger and thirst for righteousness," we are in some sense pure in heart -- with one aim. To be pure in heart is also, as my study bible puts it, "to be unmixed with anything else." That is, a heart that is true, as a person the same on the inside as the out. We can compare this to the "pearl of great price" - as a rare natural pearl, the same through and through. I find that in the ongoing practice of worship and faith, this process of "purification" takes its time in me, pointing out my own conflicts, flaws, things that I need to repent and change or turn away from, leave behind. This is done with and through action of the Holy Spirit, a dynamic living process of discipleship. This promise, it seems to me, is an eternal one. My study bible says, "Then the heart -- holding fast to the new life in Christ and contemplating the glory of God -- shall see God through communion with His Son."

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." It's interesting to consider each of these Beatitudes in the context of relatedness and relationship -- to God first and to one another. As the poor in spirit we rely on God, first. As those who mourn, we leave behind the things God asks us to "lose" for citizenship in this kingdom. As the meek, we rely on God's wisdom and grace for our lives. As those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we ask to be filled with God's justice, discernment, guidance for our lives. As merciful, we seek to be like God. As pure in heart we seek a faithfulness that is true to God and to others. As peacemakers, we shall be called sons of God! In this peace is reconciliation, through the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace. My study bible says, "The Holy Spirit gives peace, the sign of God's presence, to those who meditate on Christ and imitate Him. Peace brings communion with God and concord with all creation, the sign of our sanctity. Thus, peacemakers share God's peace with those around them, participating in the work of God's Son and becoming, by God's grace, sons of God themselves." This is a peace born of righteousness and mercy and faith, another promise!

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Finally, in today's excerpt of the Sermon, in the Beatitudes, we have a summing up of what it is to be like Christ in the world. We accept persecution for righteousness' sake. This is not a promise of a perfect worldly or material life, but rather with all our blessings may come persecution. We belong to another kingdom, not a worldly one, and may be at odds with the worldly kingdom. This may be a part of our loss and mourning too. But we are blessed in that persecution. Christ makes it clear here that righteousness may not always lead to a worldly sort of peace, but even persecution for the sake of that righteousness. Inherent in this statement is the tremendous value of being a part of that kingdom. The statement makes clear that it is persecution for righteousness' sake -- it is righteousness that comes before all things.

Taking all of these statements together, we have a picture of discipleship that is not necessarily easy. It is a road we walk day by day and step by step. The promises are eternal, the rewards extraordinary. The power of this kingdom is in our faith, in how we choose to live our lives, the power with which we understand that righteousness is worth even the price of persecution. The crown of citizenship in this kingdom is one of deep inner peace, a reconciliation with God, a joy in purpose that can't be overestimated, a conviction in the heart of where our loyalty lies. Can we grasp the peace that passes understanding, the peace and joy He offers?

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