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The Beatitudes: Blessings or Curses?

by Brant Pitre February 14, 2020 0 Comments


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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.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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