Monday, May 12, 2014

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

In Saturday's reading, we were told that Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee, their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.  And 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.

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: . . .  My study bible has notes on today's passage for nearly every verse.  Here, it says, "Seated is the traditional position of Jewish rabbis while teaching.  Some early Christian preachers (St. John Chrysostom, for example) sat, while the people stood.  To understand this sermon is to recognize this Rabbi is the one true Teacher of Israel."

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  A note reads, "Blessed in this context indicates heavenly, spiritual blessedness rather than earthly happiness or prosperity.  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 are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  My study bible says, "By means of holy sorrow, we can keep watch over our hearts and learn self-control.  Those who mourn over their sins and the suffering of mankind are genuinely repentant, to be comforted in the new age.  Holy sorrow is part of conversion, the consummation of repentance, the firstfruit of infinite joy.  It is distinguished from ungodly sorrow, a sadness which leads to despair (see 2 Cor. 7:10).  Personally, I think that "mourning" covers a lot of things . Sometimes there are things we lose in life that are precious to us.  But turning to God reveals a better treasure, and comfort -- a different perspective on life that gives us true spiritual gifts for our lives.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  My study bible notes here:  "Mourning can extinguish the flame of anger and make a person meek.  Meekness is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor.  It is an imitation of Christ who said, 'Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart' (11:29).  The meek are God-controlled, and through their prayers God gives them mastery over their passions -- especially anger.  Meekness is not passive gentleness, but strength under control.  Jesus' promise of future blessings is not for the powerful, the rich and the violent, but for those who are meek and humble:  they will inherit the earth, the new earth which is ever-lasting."  The kind of "meekness" that Jesus is talking about here is centered in a reverence for God and God's will, an acceptance, as my study bible says, even of "dishonor."  This isn't an acceptance of human injustice and bad behavior, but one that places God first in accepting the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and that God is there for us, even if others are not.  There is a way to properly endure and go through those times.  A purely human perspective on "justice" isn't the important thing, but God's perspective on who we can be and become.  It's about caring for the praise of God, more than the praise of men.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  My study bible says, "Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Gr. dikaiosune, also translated 'justification') see the presence of God and His Kingdom as the most important thing in their lives (see 6:33)."

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  "Mercy," says my study bible, "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 lovingkindess (Luke 6:36), we in turn are to be merciful to all others."

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  A note tells us that "to be pure is to be unmixed with anything else.  The pure in heart are devoted to the worship and service of God.  With the aid of the Holy Spirit, they (1) practice all virtue, (2) are not conscious of any evil in themselves, and (3) live in temperance -- a stage of spirituality attained by few in this life.  When the soul is not dominated by sinful passions nor its energy dissipated by the things of this world, its only desire is God.  Then the heart - holding fast to the new life in Christ and contemplating the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:18) - shall see God, through communion with His Son."  To be pure in heart, to my way of thinking, isn't about perfection in some worldly sense of never making a mistake.  It is more about "making your eye [truly] single" (which we'll read in chapter 6), the devotion to God that trumps everything else, even any sacrifice we'd make for this love.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  My study bible says, "Being Himself the source of peace, the Son of God found no price sufficient for peace but that of shedding His own blood.  In doing so, Christ reveals Himself to us as the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6; Eph. 2:14-16).  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."  A peacemaker is also someone who is reconciled within themselves; as one dictionary puts it, a person who "bravely declares God's terms which makes someone whole."  This is the "peace" that is shared with others.  This noun for peacemaker (Gr. eirinopoios) seems to be coined for this verse, and is found only here.  Its ending suggests a peace-creator, someone who "makes peace," a true work.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for their is the kingdom of heaven."  A note says, "Children of God uphold God's truth and refuse to compromise with the ways of the world.  They give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; 1 Cor. 6:19-20).  It is not surprising then that they, like Jesus, should be persecuted for righteousness' sake.  for Christ's kingdom is the crown awaiting the righteous."

In some sense, what we read in the Beatitudes, these first verses of the Sermon on the Mount, reflects Mary's song at the Annunciation, otherwise known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  (We also reflected on this in the previous reading, on Saturday, as Jesus chose the unlikely for the mission of Apostleship.)    In the beginning of her song, Mary also proclaims herself to be "blessed."  We know her life will be one of hardship for this mission, of great distress and suffering.  Yet, what she proclaims is God's lovingkindess or mercy, and the surprising nature of God's work:  God lifts up the lowly, scatters the proud in their conceit.  "He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty."  So today, we read in Jesus' most famous sermon, these beginning declarations of Blessings, seemingly contradictory:  those who mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, the pure in heart will see God (in contrast those who scheme for themselves as they flatter those with power), the poor who have the Kingdom of God, those who hunger and thirst and who will be filled, the peacemakers who are the true sons of the Most High God, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, who also inherit the greatest kingdom.  These are the things we take with us, even as Mary's song is in a certain sense a reflection of other songs of other women in Jewish history, such as Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Mother's Day was yesterday, and I invite everyone to think about mothers and sons, how Mary's song reflects themes in her Son's preaching, and consider how this human woman contributed to Jesus' persona, and the nurturing of the God-man who is our Savior, both divine and human, even as He grew as a human child.  Clearly, the lessons of God's great power to lift up the lowly are here, but also there is so much more:  the promise of the divine Kingdom, a heavenly life here in this world, the presence of this Kingdom in which we may participate and know is with us, right here and right now, even as He promises what is to come with its ultimate fulfillment.  Let us think about the divine insight in these words, the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in His human incarnation in this world.  Let us consider the one chosen to be His human mother, and the heart that made her fitting and right for this particular Son.  How do we play our role in this Kingdom, whatever is chosen for us?