Monday, April 18, 2016

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 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 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: . . .    Today's reading begins the Sermon on the Mount.  In it we are given the Beatitudes.  My study bible tells us that in the Old Testament, only a select few were chosen to hear God directly (for example, see Exodus 19:3-13).  Here, God Incarnate speaks to the multitudes face to face.  The mountain is a place where "divine action enters human history," says my study bible, the place where God reveals Himself to human beings (17:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 3:1, 19:2; 1 Kings 18:20).  To be seated means that Jesus is in the traditional Jewish position for teaching with authority.  Various early Christian preachers would do the same; for example, John Chrysostom -- sitting while the people stood.  Matthew tells us that Jesus opened His mouth.  This emphasizes a "one-way" teaching.  Jesus speaks with authority (7:29); the disciples are there to listen, not to debate or discuss.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  In the context of Jesus' teaching in today's reading, to be blessed indicates a heavenly, spiritual exaltation.  This is in contrast to earthly happiness or prosperity.  In Hebrew, "poor" means both those who are materially poor and also the faithful among God's people.  Thus, the poor in spirit are those who have the heart of the poor, the same humble attitude, totally dependent upon God.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  Those who mourn are they who sorrow over the sufferings of worldly life (9:23), the sufferings of other people (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 19:41), and also their own sins (Luke 7:36-38).  They are all comforted by the power of God in this world and in the age to come.  My study bible reminds us also that Holy sorrow is part of repentance, conversion and virtuous action, "the firstfruit of infinite joy."  Ungodly sorrow, by contrast, is a sadness that leads only to despair (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).  This word, comforted, is in the Greek directly the same root as Paraclete, the Comforter; literally it is the one who is close and comes at one's call.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."   Meekness, says my study bible, is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor.  It is an imitation of Christ, who taught, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart."  (11:29).  The meek are those who are God-controlled and exercise mastery over their passions, especially anger.  Meekness, my study bible teaches, is not passive weakness.  Rather it is strength directed and under control.  The earth that the meek will inherit is not power or possession in this world, rather rather the new earth, an everlasting world (Revelation 21:1).

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."   Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those whose desire for the presence and Kingdom of God is the most important thing in life.  This is a deep desire for what is right before God, which Jesus equates here with a starving person's craving for food (see 6:33).

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  My study bible calls mercy "love set in motion," love which is expressed in action.  God's mercy in taking our sufferings on Himself -- becoming human -- in order to grant us His Kingdom sets us free from captivity to evil, to the "evil one."  In view of God's mercy, we are to be merciful to all.  This teaching is expressed throughout the Gospels, in several teachings.  It will be reflected in the Lord's Prayer, given later in the Sermon on the Mount (6:12).

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  In the context of Scripture, that which is "pure" is unmixed with anything else, unadulterated.  The pure in heart are those who are completely devoted to the worship and service of God, who accept no compromises.  Purity of heart is a particular kind of honesty, one without mixed motives, a simplicity of desire or intention.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, says my study bible, those who achieve purity practice virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and live in temperance.  All may strive for this, even if all do not attain this level of spirituality.   When the soul's only desire is God, and a person's heart is set on this desire, one may see God everywhere.  Let us make note of intention; this is about the reality of the true depths of the inner life, a state of spirituality, not some athletic feats of asceticism.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  Christ is the source of people.  My study bible tells us that He found no price sufficient for peace other than shedding His own blood in bringing His Kingdom to human beings; He is the Reconciler, the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  The Holy Spirit gives peace to those who imitate Christ; it is a kind of peace that passes understanding and not dependent on events around us.  By God's grace, peacemakers become sons of God themselves.  In Greek, the word peacemaker seems to indicate the creation of peace where there was none, one who is willing to "work peace" as an effect of grace.

"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, they refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and they give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Such people, it says, like Jesus, will be persecuted for righteousness' sake (see John 15:18-20).  The kingdom of heaven is the crown of the righteous.  The "meek" who pursue righteousness even at the cost of persecution are those also poor in spirit.

 What can we make of the Beatitudes?  So often one hears of worldly comfort, worldly goods, worldly success as the fruits of our faith.  This is popular to believe.  But the state of blessedness referred to by Jesus is like the peace that passes all understanding.  It is a state of holy blessedness, something that is with a person when their circumstances are seen by others as either high or low, even "happy" or "sad," fortunate and unfortunate.  This is a state of faith, the place of active citizenship in this kingdom, a state of being that exists at the same time as our "worldly" condition but is not necessarily correlated with it.  If that sounds perplexing, consider the kinds of blessings or "happiness" that Christ speaks about here.  These are things that don't depend on how the world happens to be responding to us:  one can be mourning and still be comforted, persecuted for righteousness' sake (a deeply unjust circumstance), and still feel blessed in the kingdom of heaven -- a sense in which one participates in that kingdom and feels its love and blessings even in the midst of worldly persecution.  These blessings -- the word in the Greek would even lend itself to be translated as "happinesses" -- are like the light shining in the darkness.  They exist within our worldly lives, not merely "after" it.  They are co-existent with the worldly state we find ourselves in, just as the Kingdom works within us and through every aspect of our lives.  If we take this to its strongest and furthest point, we must see it in the Crucifixion; in which the Incarnate Christ, in going to the death the world demanded, also "destroyed death by death."  God working through all things makes the impossible possible; even an unjust and cruel death of the ultimate Innocent becomes the greatest and most powerful furtherance of the Kingdom.  Life does not work merely by observation, by the sheer material facts we gather up, but also by the internal realities and meanings given in this Kingdom that works in us and among us at the same time, actively in our lives.  Let us remember the great paradox of such mysteries, that God's blessedness for us is something that works in and through all things.  The great quest is for our realization, by grace, of this state, these blessings, this great happiness.