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The Beatitudes

by Michael Madere October 16, 2020 0 Comments

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Okay, so a couple of questions.  What would the Beatitudes have meant to Jesus’ first audience?  Remember, all of his disciples — this is to whom he is speaking here — are Jews.  So his first disciples are all Jewish disciples, they are coming out of a Jewish worldview.  What would these Beatitudes have sounded like in their ears in the first century A.D.?  Second, what do they mean for us today?  What's the meaning of each one of these expressions?  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  What does Jesus mean by calling people to be meek?  What does that word meek even mean?  What does he mean when he says pure of heart?  So what we are going to do is we are going to look at each one of these passages and try to at least briefly make a comment.  Now a caveat here, you could write a whole book just on the Beatitudes, so we don’t have time for that.  I just want to give you at least a few insights into each one of them and also show you how the Catechism interprets these very important texts.  So let’s begin.

The first point is the setting of the Beatitudes.  It's not insignificant that Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount on the top of a mountain.  The reason that this is important is that any first century Jew would have immediately thought about Moses going to the Mountain of Sinai in order to receive the old law.  So when you look at the Gospels, there are lots of clues that Jesus — especially in the Gospel of Matthew — is being depicted as a new Moses.  So for example, he's rescued when he's a baby from a wicked king who wants to kill him and all the boys — sounds like Moses and Pharaoh.  He goes out into the desert and he feeds people with miraculous bread from heaven — sounds like Moses in the wilderness.  Well the same thing is true about the Sermon on the Mount.  Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai in order to get the 10 Commandments, the old law, so now Jesus, the new Moses, goes up to the top of this mountain in Galilee in order to to give his disciples the new law, the law of the Gospel.  So Jesus is a new Moses here.  However, it's important also to note though that there's both a difference and a similarity.   The difference here is significant.  If you go back to the book of Exodus in Exodus 19 and 20, Moses, when he gets the 10 Commandments, the old law, he brings it down to the bottom of the mountain and gives it to the people at the bottom of the mountain.  But when it comes to Jesus, the new Moses, with the new law of the Sermon on the Mount, he actually doesn't deliver it at the bottom of the mountain, he gives it at the top of the mountain.  So he's bringing the disciples up to a higher law, a higher commandment, because Moses’ law was ultimately oriented toward the kingdom of Israel, toward the earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, but Jesus's new law is going to be ordered toward the kingdom of heaven, a heavenly kingdom.  So there's a similarity but there is also a big difference here with regard to Jesus as the new Moses of the new mountain giving the new law.  That is the first point.

Now for the second point.  The first part of the new law — I mean Jesus could have started anywhere — the first thing he does is he gives this list of beatitudes.  That shows you just how important the Beatitudes are.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1716 calls them “the heart of Jesus’ preaching.”  So these eight Beatitudes are literally the the center of all of Jesus’ teaching and they give life to Jesus’ teaching —  just like the heart gives life to the body — so we really want to pay attention to them.  But one of the first problems that we deal with is that the translation of the Beatitudes doesn't quite get at their deeper meaning.  So for example, most English translations of the Bible — like the one I just read, the Revised Standard Version — says “blessed are the poor in spirit” or “blessed are those who mourn” and “blessed are the meek” so on an so forth.  But the actual Greek word here is not the standard word for blessing.

The Greek word being translated as blessing here is actually makarios, which means happy.  That is the literal translation of the word.  So when you read the Beatitudes it's not just a list of blessings, it's actually a description of how to be happy, it's the secret of happiness.  And you can see this much more clearly if you read a Latin translation of the Bible like the Latin Vulgate, because the Latin word is beatus, which means happy, and that's where we even get the word beatitude from.  You might have wondered, why do we call these Beatitudes?  Well it's not because we are supposed to be this attitude — that's what I thought when I the kid, in catechism I thought “okay, well this is the attitude I am supposed to have.”  That is partly true, but that is no what the word means.  Beatitude means happy or happiness, and so these eight beatitudes are a description, given to us by Jesus, of true happiness, of how to be happy.  Which, before we even look at them, just think of that for a second.  Everyone, every single human being created, desires happiness, seeks after happiness.  So the first part of the first sermon Jesus gives…what is he going to start with?  The desire of every human heart, with happiness.  So now he is going to describe to us how to be happy.

Here is the list.  Now, as soon as I say that, these are strange statements about how to be happy.  So let's walk through them together and see if we can unpack these kind of paradoxical mysteries.  There are eight Beatitudes traditionally  — the way they are counted — and these are they:  First and foremost, the “poor in spirit.”  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  Well as St. Augustine and other commentators have pointed out, this is a reference to people who are spiritually humble.  The Greek word ptōchos that is used for poor here literally means “dependent” or “needy”.  It's the kind of poverty that places you in a position of absolute dependence on others.  So Jesus, when he says poor in spirit. what he's describing is someone who recognizes their own spiritual poverty.  In other words, in terms of spiritual poverty, I have nothing in the bank, I'm completely dependent on God.  That is the essence of humility.  It's the opposite of spiritual pride, which takes place when someone thinks that, from a spiritual point of view, they are very wealthy, that they're filled with virtue and they are filled with goodness and they are filled with magnanimity and they are so much better than everyone else.  So the first key to being happy, according to Jesus, is recognizing one's own spiritual poverty.  Being poor, not just in material wealth, but being poor in spirit.

Number two, the second group: “Blessed are they who mourn” or “happy are they who mourn.”  Here St. Augustine and other commentators say that Jesus is describing those who lament the sufferings, the sin and the death that are part of this present life.  So someone who mourns is someone who is experiencing the pain of loss, whether lamenting their own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others, lamenting their own suffering or the sufferings of others, and especially of course the primary expression of mourning is mourning for those who have died.  What does Jesus say?  “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  He points to a promise of comfort beyond the sufferings of this life.

The third group he describes: “happy are the meek.”  This one often throws people off.  We don't use the word meetk very much anymore.  What does the Greek word mean?  The Greek word for meek here is praus, and it literally means “gentle.”  This is the description, St. Augustine says, of those who yield to insults and who conquer evil with good — we are going to see Jesus describe that later on in the sermon itself.  So a person who is gentle is someone who is patient with others and who doesn't retaliate whenever they experience insults, persecutions, slander or other forms of harm from other people.  “Blessed are the meek.”  Why?  Well “they shall inherit the earth.”  Well that is a very paradoxical thing to say.  If you look at our world, who is it that inherits the earth and inherits the land?   Well it is the powerful, it's the violent, it's those who engage in war in order to take over other people's lands.  But Jesus is saying “no, no, no, happy will be the meek, they're going to be the ones who inherit the earth.”

The fourth category: “happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Who is Jesus describing here?  Well he's describing those who literally are starving or thirsting for righteousness and justice.  The Greek word here for righteousness. dikaiosuné, has both those meanings: righteousness, in the sense of holiness, being right with God, but also justice, in the sense of doing right towards others.  Obviously if you look around the world, there are innumerable acts of injustice, an unimaginable amount of sin and a lack of holiness, and so what Jesus says here is that those who hunger and thirst, who are starving for justice in the world, they will be satisfied, they will be filled.

The fifth category: “happy are they who are merciful.”  This one I think we can understand pretty well because we still use the word mercy today.  What does it mean to be merciful?  It means to forgive others faults, to forgive others sins, even when they don't deserve it, in fact especially when they don't deserve it.  That's the quintessential aspect of mercy.  And so what Jesus is saying here is that people who are merciful are happy, because they shall obtain mercy from God, they shall be forgiven by God even when they don't deserve it.

The sixth Beatitude: “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  What does this mean?  Well again, the Greek word kind of helps us here.   Katharos is the word for pure and it means clean or undefiled.  So what Jesus is describing here, according to St. Augustine, is that people who act with integrity and who avoid compromise in their hearts, who keep their hearts and their minds free from sin and free from the defilements of the world, they shall see God.  So he is talking about a certain purity of heart, a certain cleanliness of heart, that prepares us to see the one who is all holy, to see the one who is completely free of all evil, in whom there is no darkness at all, namely to see the face of God in the beatific vision.

Number seven: Jesus says “happy are the peacemakers.”  Who are the peacemakers?  This is pretty easy to understand.  It's those who reconcile, who seek reconciliation with others, who seek peace with others, and also those who seek to foster reconciliation between others as well.  This is a very important idea in first century Judaism.  The word shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is to this day still a standard Jewish greeting.  So when you greet someone you don't say hello, you say shalom, which means peace to you.  So Jesus here is taking something very common in Judaism and making clear that those who make peace with others and who foster peace, they shall be called sons of God.  So they have a special way of imaging God in seeking peace in this world.

Then finally the most paradoxical, strangest and surprising of all of Jesus’ Beatitudes is the eighth Beatitude, when he says “happy are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  So this would describe any group or any person who is slandered or falsely accused or reviled specifically for either the sake of righteousness, in other words for doing the right thing, or, Jesus goes on to say, for his sake, in other words, for bearing witness to Christ, for being a disciple of Jesus.  If you are reviled or slandered or falsely accused because of your righteousness or because of being a disciple of Jesus, then you should count yourself happy because “yours is the kingdom of heaven” and because that's what they did to the prophets in the Old Testament.  So one of of the signs of being a true prophet is that people speak falsely against you, they speak ill against you, they speak evil against you, just as they did Jesus himself.

Okay, so that's the basic meaning of each of the eight Beatitudes.  Once you have that basic meaning clear, you can actually see the rationale behind the two Old Testament readings for this particular Sunday.  I’m just going to treat this very briefly, but if you go back to the first reading it's from the book of Zephaniah in the Old Testament — everybody's favorite book, Zephaniah…this is one of the minor prophets so it is one we are not often as familiar with.  In Zepheniah 2:3 the first reading says this:

Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the wrath of the LORD.

So you see a confirmation there of what I was talking about with regard to the first Beatitude.  When Jesus speaks of poverty of spirit, he's really speaking about the virtue of humility.  And what Zephaniah goes on to describe here is this group of Israelites that are referred to as the remnant of Israel, and they are characterized precisely by their humility.  That's the chief virtue that they have.  They are humble and they seek after righteousness.  So for example, in verses 12-13, the second part of the first reading, it says:

For I will leave in the midst of you
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD,
those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no wrong
and utter no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
a deceitful tongue.
For they shall pasture and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid.”

So basically that is just an Old Testament prophecy describing this small group within Israel who are called poor and afflicted and humble, who are lowly and weak, but who seek after righteousness.  Those are, in a sense, going to be the true Israel.  That's what Jesus is doing when he calls the disciples to the top of the mountain.  He's establishing the prophesied remnant of Israel, the small group that would begin with him and his disciples, who are going to exemplify the spiritual poverty, the humility that the prophet said would characterize those who sought after righteousness.

And again, the same thing is true of the Responsorial Psalm in this case.  Psalm 146, I am not going to read the whole Psalm, but the basic theme is that the Lord raises up the lowly.  He cares for the oppressed.  He cares for the hungry.  He cares for the blind, the strangers, the widows, the orphan.  In other words, those who are meek, those who are gentle, those who are lowly; not the powerful of the world, not the violent of the world, but the meek and the humble and the lowly.  That is his special remnant, that is his special people, and he's going to lift them up.  Even though they are low in this world, they will be lifted up by him in the world to come.

So that's how the three readings go together for this Sunday.  Before I close though, I'd like to make a few final points about the Beatitudes.  The Catechism has a great little section on the Beatitudes that lays out some basic points that are helpful for us to reflect on as we ask the question, “what do the Beatitudes mean for us today?”  Not just what did they mean when they were first heard by the disciples, but would do they mean for us today?  A couple of points.  Number one: the Catechism says that the Beatitudes “depict the countenance of Jesus Christ.”  In other words, the Beatitudes are not just something that he's calling his disciples to, they are something that he himself embodied.  So if you look at each of the Beatitudes, they kind of give you a spiritual profile of Jesus himself.  They depict the face of Christ himself.  So Jesus was humble, he mourned over suffering and sin and even death in this world — like when Lazarus dies in the Gospel of John it says “Jesus wept.”  He knew what it was to mourn over those he lost.  He was meek, in other words he was gentle.  Like he says in Matthew 11, “come to me all you who are weary, for I am meek and humble in heart.”  So he himself shows us what it means to be humble, he shows us what it means to be gentle.  He hungered and he thirsted for righteousness in the world, for justice in the world.  He was merciful toward those who insulted him, who accused him, who crucified him.  He was pure of heart.  He committed no sin all his life.  He sought peace between his disciples and amongst all those people that he came into contact with.  And finally of course, he is the paradigmatic example of the one who was persecuted and reviled — and ultimately crucified — for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  So the Beatitudes are really like a spiritual profile of Jesus himself and we are called to imitate that as his disciples.

So that's the first point.  The second point, the Catechism says, is because the Beatitudes are a profile of Jesus, they also represent the “actions and the attitudes that should be characteristic of the Christian life.”  So I was partially right about that when I was a kid thinking that it meant to be this attitude, to have this attitude, because there is a truth to that.  If Jesus the master displays these characteristics then we as his disciples should try to embody them as well in our own lives.

The third point, and this one that is often overlooked.  I think most people are aware of the first two, but the third point is this: the Beatitudes are not just like moral dictums, they are paradoxes.  The Catechism calls them “paradoxical promises” that are meant to sustain our hope in the midst of tribulation.  Now how are they paradoxes?  Well if you look at them, some of them are rather strange, right?  When Jesus talks about being happy, we don't usually associate happiness with, for example, poverty, right?  “Happy are those who are poor.”  Well no, most of us would think that if someone is poor, whether materially or spiritually, they should be unhappy, right?  Or when he says “happy are those who mourn,” well I don’t know about you but that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Have you ever mourned for someone?  Have you ever lost someone close to you?  That is the precise opposite of happiness.  What is is Jesus talking about? 

You can imagine the first disciples hearing these paradoxes kind of scratching their heads, “what is he talking about…happy are they who mourn…how about unhappy are they who mourn.”  That is a weird thing to say.  What about happy they who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Well if you're starving for righteousness, if you're thirsting for it, that means you don’t have it.  If you're starving or thirsting for justice in the world, why would you be starving for it!?  Well it is because there isn’t any justice, because there is injustice everywhere.  And usually we would say that if you're starving for justice, you are probably unhappy, because you haven't found it.  The same thing — you can go through each one of these — “happy are the merciful.”  Well have you ever shown mercy to someone?  A lot of times what happens to people who are merciful is that they often get stabbed in the back, because the person who they forgave, who didn't deserve it, goes on and hurts them again and again and again, and yet Jesus is saying that if you have mercy, you will find the secret of happiness.  That doesn't make sense at first glance, right!? 

The same thing about being pure in heart.  If you've ever tried to do the right thing and act with integrity when others are doing the wrong thing, what often happens?  You get mocked, you get reviled, you get isolated, right!?  So the pure in heart, the innocent of this world, often get trampled on, joked about, insulted, accused of really being sinful but just pretending to be righteous (holier than thou, that kind of thing).  Think about children here, who are naturally pure of heart, what happens to so many children?  Their innocence, the world tries to rob them of it.  It wants to see them defiled and to see their innocence taken from them.  So the pure of heart, are they happy?  In this world they often get trampled upon.  Peacemakers too, think about Martin Luther King Jr. or other people who are trying to bring reconciliation between warring factions, they are often turned on, they are often persecuted themselves and sometimes even killed for the sake of their pursuit of peace.  And then lastly, it doesn’t take any thought really to realize that the first person who would have heard the eighth Beatitude, “blessed are you, happy are you, when people persecute you,” would have said “are you crazy?”  No!  To be persecuted is the worst thing you can experience.  So think about if you have ever been slandered, for example, or falsely accused, that really hurts.  It penetrates and pierces you in the soul.  It is a deep, deep, deep wound to be betrayed by someone or to be falsely accused.  Yet Jesus of Nazareth gets up on a mountain and says, “oh if someone slanders you, be happy; if someone falsely accuses you, rejoice.”  This doesn’t make any sense, again it is a paradox here.

So how do we explain these paradoxical promises?  Well one of things I try to do when I am teaching about the Beatitudes is to show my students, again, that if you go back to the first century context for just a minute, a first century Jew would've recognized that when Jesus gets up and he starts giving this list of blessings, that that's also what Moses did in the Old Testament.  If you go back to the book of Deuteronomy 28, Moses gives a long list of blessings.  He says, “if you obey the commands of God, you are going to have all these material blessings.  You are going to have fertility, you are going to have good flocks, you are going to have an abundance of food, you are going to to be wealthy, so wealthy that you can lend.  All the other peoples, they are going to borrow from you, because you're going to be blessed with these material goods.  But if you disobey you are going to be cursed, meaning you will be punished.  Those who disobey the law, they are going to have infertility.  You’re going to have famine, their flocks aren’t going to reproduce.  They are going to be in poverty and eventually they will be cast out into exile.  Instead of being those who lend to the Gentiles, you are going to be the slaves of the Gentiles.”

So Moses’ law had blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience  And yet Jesus gets up and he gives the new law and what is interesting — what would've stood out to a first century Jew — is that there are no curses.  It is just a list of blessings, and so something appears to be missing, until you look at the blessings, and you realize, some of these blessings don't sound all that great.  The blessing of being poor or mourning or being persecuted or of hungering and thirsting for justice, with blessings like that, who needs curses!?   This might be the response you have.  What you have got to realize here is that, in a sense, what Jesus is doing at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he is showing us that in the new law, in the new covenant, the blessings and the curses, in a sense — you can put the curses in quotes — are the same.  In other words, they been fused into one.  You can put it this way, at the risk of sounding shocking, in the new law the curses are the blessings, because the way we enter into the blessing of the kingdom of heaven is through the cross, is through suffering, it’s through the mystery of a suffering that is united to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

In fact St. Paul says this in Galatians 3:13 — it is a really important verse here —“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon us [might come upon the Gentiles].”  So what happens is Jesus transforms the curses into blessings through his passion, death and resurrection, and that's really what he is giving us at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  What he is showing us is that the secret to true happiness is to live in accord with these Beatitudes, because we will only ever find happiness when we take up the cross of humility, gentleness, persecution, meekness, seeking after peace and hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  When we take up that cross and follow him through the cross all the way to the resurrection, then will find the secret of happiness and then we will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

One last point I want to make here.  I want to stress that the promises that Jesus attaches to the Beatitudes are eschatological.  In other words, they point forward to the end of time, the resurrection of the dead, and the light of heaven — the life of the world to come.  So for example, when Jesus says “blessed are they who mourn, they shall comforted,” he's not just talking about consolation and comfort in this life.  This does happen, but that's not the main point of the beatitude.  The main point is the consolation and the comfort of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, when all of your loved ones that you've lost and mourned for in this world will be raised up, body and soul, and you will be with them for all eternity, body and soul, with the Trinity, in the Trinity, in the life of the world to come.  When he's talking about “blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the earth,” he doesn’t mean they are going to get a big piece of real estate in this world, he's talking about inheriting the world to come.  That was a standard Jewish image for the new creation, the new heavens and new earth that Isaiah, and other prophets, said would happen at the end of time after the resurrection, that the whole world would be made new through the Messiah.  The same thing, when he talks about “blessed are the pure in heart” what does he say?  “They shall see God.”  That just doesn't mean that they will see God in other people in this life or see God in the beauty of nature, he's talking about seeing God face to face in the beatific vision.  And you can go on through with every one of these and it works that way.  Being called “sons of God,” that means being part of the life of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, being sons in the son in the kingdom of heaven.  You can see that because the first beatitude and the last beatitude have the same promise.  It begins with “they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven” and ends with “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  So the kingdom of heaven frames the promises that Jesus is making.  Everything he's saying here is not that you're not going to suffer in this life,  you’re not going to mourn in this life, you're not going to to be persecuted in this life.  To the contrary, those are precisely what you will experience in this life, but in the kingdom of heaven all of that, all of that, shall be undone in the kingdom of heaven.  As the book of Revelation says, “every tear will be wiped away, there will be no more mourning or crying or pain anymore, because Christ will make all things new.”  That's the kind of happiness, that is the ultimate happiness, that Jesus is describing for us in the eight Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

Michael Madere
Michael Madere


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