1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Beatitudes, like the Ten Commandments are iconic. They are in many ways the New Testament version of the Ten Commandments, statements that define the message of Jesus. There is beauty to them, and yet on closer look they seem both radical and impractical. Like the Sermon on the Mount, which they introduce, the Beatitudes turn things upside down. We tip our hats to them, acknowledging their divine origin, but then move on to more practical things. Or, more likely, we spiritualize them in such a way that they define what heaven will be like, but there is no expectation that these prescriptions can take effect in this world. After all, does not Jesus use the word “Kingdom of Heaven”? Even we who are people of faith tend to separate the spiritual from the secular. In our Western vision of religion, spiritual things are to be kept private, while the public square is meant to be secular. This is, of course, a rather modern vision, one that would not have fit with the age of Jesus.
Perhaps, if we’re going to catch hold of the meaning of these statements we need to read further into the Sermon, to the place where Jesus teaches about prayer. In that prayer many call “The Lord’s Prayer,” or “the Our Father,” Jesus teaches the people to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done “on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-11). For those of us who pray the “Lord’s Prayer” weekly or even daily, do we recognize how the spiritual and the secular are brought together in this prayer? Do we see this prayer as a pledge of ultimate allegiance to God and God’s realm?
Even as the Ten Commandments serve to guide the development of Israel, so these nine statements provide the foundation for the realm that Jesus was inaugurating – not only in heaven, but on earth as well. As Jesus went about Galilee preaching the kingdom of God and calling for repentance (Matthew 4:17), what he was doing was calling for a change of allegiance. If this is true, then should we not see the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes that introduce the sermon as a summation of Jesus’ vision of what the realm of God – on earth and in heaven – should look like?
If we see these statements as not just a word to the religious, but God’s vision for the earth, then not only does this seem impractical, but dangerous. Jesus seems to suggest a form of theocracy that is not in keeping with modern Western values. To bring this word into daily life would seem to open up a can of worms that has implications for other parts of this sacred text. How do we discern what represents God’s vision for us today and what we should leave behind?
As we struggle with these issues of interpretation and application, we must return to the statements themselves and ask ourselves, if we’re followers of Jesus, what it means to be blessed? And if, as I’ve come to believe, the mission of Jesus is a continuation of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants the nations would be blessed, what is the vision of blessing that God seeks to offer?
Beginning with the first statement – about the poor in spirit – there has been a tendency to think of this statement in pietistic form. That is, those who are humble in their spiritual life obtain the kingdom. It is a word of encouragement to those who take up the monastic life. But does Jesus have in mind voluntary poverty or those whose life of poverty was not chosen? There likely are blessings to be found in the monastic life, but is that what Jesus has in mind? Or is Jesus saying that as the realm of God begins to make itself felt, it will be the poor who inherit the earth? And if so, as people of God, what is responsibility if we are not counted among the poor?
Since his elevation to the papacy, Pope Francis has called for the church to be the church of the poor. He has demonstrated this in his own acts and lifestyle choices. He has also put the call to the church in official words – words that have raised the hackles of many wealthy Roman Catholics. But is there not something of Jesus vision in the words found in Francis’ Encyclical Evangelii Guadium?
183. Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it unites “its own commitment to that made in the social field by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, whether at the level of doctrinal reflection or at the practical level”. [Evangelii Guadium, par. 183]
I include this entire paragraph because it brings Jesus’ message into clear relief. The vision espoused by Jesus, is a call to build a better world.
Each of these nine statements challenge us to pursue a new vision of life, where the poor stand at the center of our concern as church, where those who mourn receive comfort, where those who resist nonviolently the encroachment of this world’s values inherit the earth rather than being vanquished from it. Hungering and thirsting is something that the satisfied rarely do, but those who suffer will seek after the nourishment from God and receive this blessing. Purity comes, largely through the refining fires of human realities. Peacemaking is something many embrace – we erect our peace poles and celebrate Peace Sunday, but to what degree are we willing to work for peace? And as for braving persecution – are we who have tasted the comforts of this life hesitant to put ourselves in the crucible?
Each of these nine statements deserves to be delved into individually. Each statement has integrity that is worked out elsewhere in scripture. Taken together, however, they offer us insight into God’s vision for this world. As people of God, we are invited to consider what it means to live according to this vision. That is, if we’re ready and willing to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. If we are, then we place ourselves in a position to share in the blessings God has promised to provide, and we become agents of that blessing.