Last week’s lectionary Gospel showed us Jesus calling his first disciples. This week we jump ahead a few verses to the Sermon on the Mount.
What did we skip over? A quick summary of Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee: he did a lot of healing and he became enormously popular. No surprise at the popularity: in Matthew’s account Jesus embodied a sort of universal health plan.
The verses framing the Sermon on the Mount make it a little ambiguous who Jesus is talking to. Here’s the setup for Matthew 5:1-12:
When Jesus saw the crowds,
he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down,
his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1 NRSV)
It sounds like Jesus left the crowd behind to give his disciples some concentrated private teaching. Only Peter, Andrew, James, and John have been named as followers, so I imagine a small group sitting close and listening.
Then come all the familiar and challenging teachings of chapters 5-7.
When he finished up, check out what Matthew says happened:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things,
the crowds were astounded at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV)
So… apparently either the crowd was listening in while Jesus addressed the disciples, or Matthew considers the whole crowd to be disciples.
But today’s text is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount — those lovely and rather inscrutable sayings we call “the beatitudes.”
They really are entrancingly beautiful, these meditations on what it means to be “blessed.” We love them, right? In some churches (I’m thinking of Orthodox Church of America parishes I’ve visited) they are sung movingly at every Sunday service.
But like so many things in Scripture, once you start looking closely they become more and more mysterious — not to say “confusing,” or “contradictory.”
This becomes all the more the case if you use a translation that instead of “blessed” says in each verse “happy.” (For examples see JB Philips New Testament, the Living Bible, or the Good News translation.)
Then what ordinarily seems like paradox sounds more like contradiction, especially when verse 4 says
happy are those who mourn.
That sounds a lot like “happy are the unhappy,” which on the face of it makes no actual sense.
The Blessed Life
It might be useful to think through this question of being “blessed” or “happy” with a bit of help from St. Augustine (d. 430). Indirect help that is — I’m going by memory rather than looking him up.
Augustine is always a worthy thinking companion. He’s the single most influential thinker in the history of Western Christianity. If you don’t like his answer to some big faith question, you can still bet that his views are worth wrestling with — thoughtful, biblical, and deep. You can also bet that either his question or his answer to it have been influential.
One of Augustine’s insights I’ve always loved is his sense that the two great commands (to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves) are more than imperatives by which we are judged. They are descriptions of how God designed our lives to be lived.
If we were able to really live our lives according to these commands, we would be living “the blessed life.” Which is to say, we would be happy the way a fully-inflated well-balanced tire is happy rotating its axle.
It is the deep rightness of living in the groove.
Note that I didn’t say rightEOUSNESS, but rightNESS. This sense of the blessed life is more about living as intended, as designed, in ways that are true to who God is and who we are. Rightness.
(Of course “righteousness” is correct too, but it is a loaded term. It seems to always be heard as “SELF-righteousness.” Which, if one is actually living according to the great commandments, shouldn’t be possible. Loving God with all, and neighbor as self, embodies humility. But I digress.)
So maybe the kind of “blessed” or “happy” life Jesus was talking about is something like what Augustine was thinking of. It’s worth considering. You can be “in the groove,” and in a sense happy, like a well-balanced wheel spinning along effortlessly, even in life’s rougher seasons.
Actually I’m not entirely sure that Augustine’s insight helps us with the mysteries of the beatitudes. But I still wanted to mention it as it has been grist for the mill as I meditated on this text.
The best I can do, I think, is group them in categories.
Some of the beatitudes are affirmations of character qualities, or the behavior that flows from a right character:
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7 NRSV)
In this case the blessedness is a future where one receives the same good one gives — which sounds almost like a Christian version of karma.
And honestly, couldn’t our world do with more mercy? Generous giving of what is needed, instead of what is deserved, is in ever shorter supply in our culture.
Another character quality:
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9 NRSV)
Here the blessedness is not karma, but a particular relation to God — adopted into God’s family. The blessedness is now, but being God’s children seems to happen in the future.
I like this one too. Blessing comes to the helpful people, those who bring peace in a world full of conflict.
A third blessing for character:
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8 NRSV)
This one is not about behavior, but is directly about an inner quality. Purity of heart is to be considered blessed now because of a future gift in relation to God — the vision of God which is said to be fatal for mere mortals.
Or perhaps we are to keep in mind Matthew 25 where we learn that, if we only knew it, all our kindnesses to people in need have been done directly to Jesus. If we had pure enough hearts we would actually see Jesus in those around us.
I think the blessing on those who long for righteousness is also in the category of character qualities.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6 NRSV)
The desire to live as God intends us to live is a life orientation. Or perhaps we should say it describes people who know their own failings and have drawn close enough to Jesus to know what is possible by grace.
One last beatitude that may be in this category of character is
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5 NRSV)
Meekness, as a character quality, is not highly prized in our culture.
(I think of the Sermon on the Mount scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” where one bitter onlooker grumbles, “What Jesus plainly fails to appreciate is it’s the meek who are the problem!”)
One must do some mental stretching to see why it would be so rewarded.
Meekness, however, is not something Jesus is the first to praise. He’s actually quoting Scripture.
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.” (Psalm 37:11 NRSV)
Other beatitudes are less about character and more about circumstances.
In fact, the beatitude I just mentioned may be more about circumstances than character. Isaiah equates meekness with poverty (see Isaiah 11:4, 29:19), and promises the meek/poor relief through God’s justice. And in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, “the poor,” not the “poor in spirit,” are called blessed (see Luke 6:20). So perhaps we should place verse 5 under this heading as a reference to the poor.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5 NRSV)
As in Isaiah, these poor are promised a different circumstance in the future. They have nothing now, but will have abundance eventually.
The case of the promise to those in mourning is similar:
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 NRSV)
It’s a challenge for those mourning to consider themselves blessed right now, in the midst of mourning, when the promise is about the future being different. Perhaps we are to insert an implication:
Blessed (if you keep the long-term picture in mind) are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
The opening beatitude is also of this kind.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)
Matthew’s version emphasizes the spiritual, or perhaps emotional, circumstance of these people — unlike Luke’s which is simply about the state of poverty (Luke 6:20). But in both Gospels, Jesus makes the most lavish promise: the kingdom of heaven itself it to be their new and better future state.
The same promise is made to those who suffer in the world for living as God intends:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NRSV)
Same promise, different condition.
Why? I suspect it is because the kingdom of heaven is the ultimate promise of all the beatitudes — the true state of blessedness or happiness Jesus offers. Everything in his work is about the kingdom of heaven, really. His message is the the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. His parables are about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
True happiness, the lasting state of being a well balanced wheel spinning smoothly on its intended axis, is about being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. The whole of the Gospel, in all its mysterious ways, is trying to get that point across.
The final, and most lengthy, beatitude is perhaps a test case. It falls in the category of circumstances — the state of being persecuted specifically for following Jesus:
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.” (Matthew 5:11-12 NRSV)
He is describing the sufferings of the martyrs which would happen in the coming centuries.
And if you read the accounts of the tortures and deaths of the martyrs, particularly those accounts rooted in eyewitness testimony, you see that they experienced that blessedness.
They did rejoice, and they were glad, even as they suffered, looking toward being with Jesus in heaven.
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