The Beatitudes (a 9-part study)

When I look at the direction in which the world is going, I do not feel optimistic and I find no solace when I see the emerging new society in Ireland that is more and more tolerant of what offends God. Moral boundaries, of thought and action are being moved or dismantled. We are beginning to resemble those whom the Apostle Paul described in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: a people who rejected God and whom God eventually abandoned.

The poor Jesus is referring to in Matthew 5:3 are not those who live in material poverty for there is no virtue in poverty itself. Furthermore, Jesus is not endorsing poverty as a superior way of life. The poor are not more favoured by God than others, though God constantly reminds us of our obligations to care for those who are poor.

Jesus is not addressing those who mourn the loss of a loved one in Matthew 5:4. Bereavement is not the point, rather it is mourning because of sin - our sin and the sins of others. This beatitude follows from the previous one, which speaks of our impoverished state before God, our spiritual bankruptcy and need of divine mercy. The response to that condition is to mourn.

Meekness is generally not associated with someone of strong character, but with someone who is weak and timid instead, someone who will bow to pressure. This is the very opposite of the true meaning of the word Jesus used when he said, "Blessed are the meek." (Matthew 5:5)

To hunger and thirst after righteousness is far more than desiring to be good. A pagan can desire to be good, to be a caring, to look out for others, but Jesus disciples hunger and thirst after righteousness. The righteousness we pursue is not the legalistic righteousness produced in the life of some Pharisees. Jesus had no time for that and exposed those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else (Luke 18:9). What then is it that Jesus wants from his disciples He says, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20) Are we to out-perform the Pharisees by doing more than they do? No. If we were to do that we would produce the type of legalistic righteousness Jesus condemns.

There is a shift in emphasis in this beatitude: What we have seen so far has been inward looking poverty of spirit, mourning for our sins, etc. Jesus now speaks of the disciples' attitude and behaviour towards others. This beatitude is outward looking. "Blessed are the merciful," Jesus says, "for they will be shown mercy."

We should approach this beatitude with a sense of awe and wonder knowing that one day we will see God. This blessed privilege will not have transpired through our own achievements, no matter how noble and honourable our efforts have been, but through the gracious love of God. What is interesting about this beatitude is that it appears, not first on the list, but in the middle. Why What is it that Jesus is emphasising There is a logical progression in what the Lord is teaching us: He moves from poor in spirit to pure in heart. For centuries religious people have conformed their lives to rules and regulations in the hope that one day they will see God. Yet their ardent devotion was undertaken without reference to what it means to be pure in heart. Just as in spirit tells us the kind of poverty Jesus expects of us, in heart tells us of the kind of purity he expects.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9) This beatitude, if isolated from the rest of scripture, could be used in a manner never intended by the Lord. Jesus is not presenting a formula on how to become sons of God. The beatitudes are for those who are already God's children.

Jesus never promised his disciples an easy life, but he did promise them life. He never concealed the dangers involved in following him; in fact, on occasions he seemed to be discouraging people by telling them the personal cost they would pay for being numbered among his disciples. This is one of those occasions. "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12) This beatitude contradicts the world’s values: the persecuted are counted as blessed or privileged.