Thursday, September 17, 2015

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

Yesterday, we read 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.  Ten He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going 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 through 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:  . . . "  By this time, Jesus' ministry is well-known and people are coming from all over to follow Him.  My study bible tells us that in the Old Testament, only a select few were chosen to hear God directly (see Exodus 19:3-13), but here Jesus -- who is God Incarnate -- speaks to the multitudes face to face.  In Scripture, a mountain is a place where divine action enters human history, where God reveals Himself to man.  It's an 'elevated place.'  The traditional position for a rabbi to teach with authority was seated, as Jesus is here.  Some early Christian preachers followed the same tradition (like John Chrysostom, for example), while their hearers stood in the church.  My study bible also tells us that Matthew's mention that Jesus "opened his mouth" shows that this teaching is a one-way declaration, that Jesus has come to speak with authority.  This isn't a discussion or a debate; the disciples are there to listen and to receive His word.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  My study bible says that blessed in the context of the Beatitudes indicates heavenly, spiritual exaltation as opposed to earthly happiness or prosperity.  In Hebrew, "poor" can mean both the materially poor and the faithful among God's people.   The poor in spirit, it says, are "those who have the heart of the poor, the same attitude as the poor, and are totally dependent upon God."  In the Old Testament, the words "poor" and "needy" are often used simultaneously, and this gives us an understanding of this teaching:  those with a deep need for God.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  To mourn is to sorrow over the sufferings of this life (9:23) and also the sufferings of others (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 19:41), and one's own sins (Luke 7:36-38), says my study bible.  All of these are comforted by the power of God both in this world and in the age to come.  Holy sorrow is by tradition a part of repentance, conversion, and virtuous action, the firstfruit of infinite joy.  This is distinguished from an ungodly sorrow, something that leads to despair (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  My study bible tells us that an attitude of meekness is one of being content with both honor and dishonor.  This is an imitation of Christ, who told us to "learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart" (11:29).   It reminds us that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).  My study bible says that the meek are God-controlled who have mastery over their passions, especially anger.  Meekness isn't a passive weakness, rather it's a strength that's directed and under control.  The earth inherited by the meek isn't power or possession in this world, but rather the new earth which is everlasting (Revelation 21:1).  In this sense of meekness, we perhaps may read the word "acceptance."

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  My study bible says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness see the presence of God and His Kingdom as the most important thing in life.  In this way, it's similar to those who are poor in spirit.  This is, says my study bible, "a desperate craving for what is right before God, comparable to a starving person's craving for food (see 6:33)."

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  My study bible says that mercy is love set in motion, expressed in action.  Christ expressed God's mercy in taking our sufferings on Himself so that we may be given His Kingdom and be set free from captivity to the evil one.   In view of God's mercy to all, we are in turn to be merciful.  This teaching tells us of the importance of that practice.  The epistle of James tells us to "speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:12-13 NKJV).

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."   To be pure is to be unmixed with anything else, unadulterated.  The pure in heart are devoted to the worship and service of God, says my study bible, and accept no compromises in such devotion.  With the aid of the Holy Spirit, it says, those who achieve purity "practice all virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and live in temperance."  This is a level of spiritual not attained by multitudes, but everybody may strive for it.  My study bible reads, "When the soul's only desire is God, and a person's will holds to this desire, then that person will indeed see God everywhere."  To be pure in heart is a heart that's unstained, without ulterior or hidden motive, truly sincere.  Jesus will teach that we can only serve one master (Matthew 6:24).

"Blessed are the peacemakers,  for they shall be called sons of God."   My study bible teaches that as Christ is the source of peace, He found no price sufficient for peace than the shedding of His own blood.  In doing so, He reveals Himself to us as the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  The Holy Spirit gives peace to those who imitate Christ.  Therefore, peacemakers share God's peace with others, imitating Christ's sacrificial love and thereby participating in His work.  A note says, "By God's grace, peacemakers become sons of God themselves."  Sons of God doesn't imply gender; rather sons implies heirs to God's kingdom.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."   My study bible tells us that children of God uphold truth, refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  We can see how all of the Beatitudes are interrelated, as this touches also upon pureness of heart.  It says that like Jesus, these will be persecuted for righteousness' sake (see John 15:18-20).  Christ's kingdom is the crown that awaits the righteous.

Here we have what is the great crux and beginning of the longest sermon on record in Christ's words, the Sermon on the Mount, which we will be reading through in chapters 5 - 7 of Matthew's gospel.  Jesus teaches us about the kind of life we must lead if we're among those who seek the Kingdom of God.  My study bible says that this homily could properly be called, "The Righteousness of the Kingdom."  The Beatitudes, which we read today, and will continue in tomorrow's reading, describe the joys of true discipleship, the blessed way of life.  Those who form the people of God await the rewards He promises.  What we find is that in discipleship, these Beatitudes come to be revealed to us by experience.  The strange feeling of blessedness even in persecution is not something we can write off or think about only as a theory.  We come to find this is so through the practice of faith.  We come to understand what it means to be pure in heart, as choices come up in life where we really have to choose our intention, our love of God and Christ over other things.  We start to learn an attitude of being "poor in spirit," where it doesn't matter what else we may have or not have, we have a depth of need or dependence upon God for our choices, for a life worth living and full of meaning.  We may come to mourn all kinds of things we leave behind, and yet it is a blessed mourning, somehow knowing in an inner reassurance a path that is steadfast within, and full of riches we may not even know but somehow sense.  We come to identify with a hunger and thirst for righteousness we may not have understood was so deeply rooted within us.  This is the life of discipleship.  Through the time of our lives, even years or decades of faith, we can come over and over again upon these Beatitudes and understand the "embroidery" of life experience coming around and around again upon them.  Whether our experience is six months old or sixty years, we will discover these truths within our own hearts and life of faith.  This is where it begins, and this is what He teaches, if we can but receive and learn.  Let us go forward, assured in the ways He teaches and the things we come to know, like so many others before us.  Each is on a separate journey of faith.  We will discover on our own how true these simple words are, over and over again.  We will learn just how we are blessed.  And it will always surprise us.