Re-reading the Beatitudes
Last week I read again the Beatitudes – Jesus’ famous pronouncements of blessings in his Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure why I had failed to see it before, but this time it was staring me in the face: The Beatitudes fall into two very disparate groups.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5: 1-10)
The smaller group (Beatitudes 1, 2 and 8) offers a promise of hope to those who are victims – of suffering, violence and greed. The other five present, instead, a challenge to all of us to take on attitudes that counter our dominant cultures of violence and greed and to become part of the solution rather than the problem.
Seeing the Beatitudes in this light seems to me to address one of the fundamental problems thrown up by these sayings – that they just don’t seem to be true. The reality is that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted just aren’t blessed in any of the usual senses of the word. And even those who are meek, merciful, pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (justice), and the peacemakers far too often seem to be trampled on or taken advantage of rather than blessed.
But if we see the Beatitudes as holding out a very real promise of hope for victims, and a very pragmatic challenge for the rest of us, they start to carry a very different meaning.
The promise of hope
In speaking to those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted, Jesus seems to be speaking directly to those who are the victims of suffering, violence and greed:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit: those who are broken, crushed, weighed down; the victims of abuse, those who have had their spirits trampled on, who have been fed the lie that they are worthless, unloved and unlovable; those suffering with mental illness, depression or fatigue; those who are lonely, hurt by broken relationships; the disabled, the homeless, those with addictions; those rejected by society as somehow unworthy.
- Blessed are those who mourn: the grieving, those who have lost loved ones; those who mourn the loss of their own innocence; those suffering from physical illness; those who have lost their homes or possessions; those made redundant or who have lost a sense of their own purpose or significance in life.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness (justice) sake: the innocent victims of violence and war; the displaced, refugees; those who are unjustly exploited or oppressed; the victims of racism or other prejudices.
And, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus seems to go even more directly to the point, pronouncing blessings on those who are the victims of inequity, exploitation and injustice:
- Blessed are you who are poor
- Blessed are you who are hungry now
- Blessed are you who weep now (Luke 6: 20.21)
And to all of these, Jesus seems to proclaim the promise of a future hope: that their present lot is not the last word: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they will be comforted; they will be filled; they will laugh. Jesus offers the hope of something far better to come – of a time when there truly will be ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Revelation 21: 4)
The Praxis of hope
Which brings us then to the second group of blessings – those which challenge us to a new way of living, the praxis of hope – in which we adopt attitudes of non-violence, sacrifice and humility, attitudes which counter the suffering, violence and greed of our world.
And so Jesus challenges us to be meek – to stand up, non-violently for truth; to hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, to speak out on behalf of the oppressed, to challenge the injustices of our society; to be merciful not judgemental; to be pure in heart, not hypocritical or duplicitous; and to be peacemakers.
By creating and maintaining our cultures of individualism, consumerism, fear and blame, we all (me included) carry responsibility for those who are harmed by or cannot cope with the inequalities and pressures they create.
None of that is easy – I know that I am so bound up in our culture that I too contribute to the ongoing injustices of our world and exploitation of the earth’s resources, that I enjoy the blessings and privileges of education, wealth and power, while others go hungry, are displaced and exploited. But the alternatives seem to be either that I continue to buy in to our individualistic, consumerist mentality, and remain a part of the problem, or I strive, continually to live Jesus’ way of non-violence (Satyagraha) and become a blessing to others – part of the solution, the praxis of hope.
It may be a hard path to take, but it is the only way that we can see the kingdom of heaven, that we can be filled, to see God in other people and in our world, to receive mercy and for all of us to become children of God.