The Gospel passage on the Beatitudes is one of the most familiar. Yet the Beatitudes are difficult to understand because many of them are paradoxical. We do not usually refer to the poor as blessed, but rather the well-off; we do not typically call those who mourn blessed, but rather the joyful.
The word “beatitude” itself means “supreme blessedness.”
First, it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we achieve; rather it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The use of the indicative mood in the passage should be taken seriously; we should not transform it into an imperative. In other words, the Beatitudes are more of a description than a prescription. Jesus is not saying that we should be poor or meek and then God will bless us. Rather, He is saying that this is what the transformed human person is like; that this is what happens to us when He begins to live His life in us and transform us; that this is what our life is like when His grace and the power of His cross bring about in us a greater meekness and poverty of spirit; that we will experience being blessed.
Beatitude is a work of God and it results when we yield to His saving work in us.
With this understanding we can see the Beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do, but a description of what a human being is like who is being transformed by Jesus Christ.
Second, we should consider the Hebrew roots. The Greek word makarioi in today’s text is rendered as “blessed,” but it also corresponds to the Hebrew word asher, which is more of an exclamation. It could easily be translated, “O, the blessedness of ….” When translated this way, it emphasizes that something is being described rather than prescribed.
Third, we must examine the Greek linguistic roots. Makarioi, (blessed) literally means “to make long or large.” We are enlarged or enhanced as a result of God’s blessings. Thus, the term “blessed” as used here describes a kind of stable, serene, confident joy that one receives because of God’s blessings.
Fourth, we should look at the Greek cultural roots. In pagan times, makarioi (blessed) referred especially to the happiness of the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. They lived in some other world away from the worries and problems of ordinary people. In taking up this term to translate the Hebrew asher, the New Testament teaches on the stability of beatitude, if it is from God. To a large degree it is a stable, deep, and serene beatitude not greatly affected by the vicissitudes of this world; because the world does not give it, it cannot take it away.
There is an old saying that happiness is an “inside job.” Too many people try to find happiness in the world, which is fickle and unstable. The Lord wants to confer on us an inner beatitude that is deeply rooted, stable, and not easily swept away by worldly conditions. In the Beatitudes, the Lord paints a picture of this state of blessedness.
This helps to explain the paradox of some of the Beatitudes. We are still blessed even when poor, mourning, or persecuted. Further, we are confirmed in blessedness by such realities, because they serve as reminders that we are not at home in this world and that God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.
Let’s explore the Beatitudes and remember that Jesus is saying, “When I begin to live my life in you and put the sinful flesh to death, you will experience the following blessings.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of God is theirs.
Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who, by God’s grace, have their true treasure increasingly in Heaven rather than earth. They are poor to this world but rich to God. They have learned to depend on God.
All of us are dependent on God, but we may not realize it. The poor in spirit are those who have come to peace in the knowledge that they depend on God for every beat of their heart, for every good thing they have. Humans strongly resist any such sense of dependence or lack of control. Many strive to acquire wealth, power, and resources in order to create the illusion that they are in control—they are not. Ultimately this whole system will fail. It is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.
Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need in order to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider, for example, modern medicine, through which we can control things we never could before: are all our fears gone as a result? No. Humans have never lived so long and been so healthy, yet, we have never been so anxious about our health. Our medicine cabinets are filled with prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. And still we worry! Control is an illusion, an addiction all its own. In the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel sufficiently “safe.”
How blessed are those who delight to depend on God, who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift and that everything they have is from Him and belongs to Him! Not only do they realize this; they delight in it. They are blessed because they are free of the countless fears that flow from the endless quest for illusory control.
Now Matthew adds “in spirit” to “the poor” because not all who are materially poor are thereby freed of the obsession with wealth, power, and the need to control. To be poor is not necessarily a measure of what is in my wallet, but what is in my heart.
This world is not the Kingdom, but Heaven is. How blessed are those who delight to know and experience that there is a Heaven! They may be poor in the eyes of this world, but who needs most of it? They already have the Kingdom by faith and that Kingdom is growing for them. The kingdom of this world, however, is passing away.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Who are those who mourn? They are those who, delighting in the Kingdom of Heaven, see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see that so many do not know God or why they were created. They see others willfully locked in sin and darkness. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. And because of this they mourn, and moan, and pray. This beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because I mourn, I pray for the world.
The object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If my car gets scratched or the stock market goes down and I may mourn, but that’s not the type of mourning referred to here.
How blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray! God will console, strengthen, and encourage them. He will cause their mourning to bear fruit in prayer and action for others. To mourn is this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good,” because we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and His Kingdom.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Anger is a difficult passion. It can be frustrating, but it is a necessary zeal for what is right. Aristotle spoke of meekness (praotes) as the proper balance between too much anger and not enough. Sometimes we merely vent our anger, but at other times we fail to be angry enough, allowing evil and injustice to go unaddressed and un-resisted. How blessed are those who, by God’s grace, have authority over their anger! They do not vent their anger unnecessarily or excessively. They have the zeal and courage to stand up for what is right and to express righteous indignation at sin and injustice.
The meek have authority over their anger and other passions and thus will inherit the earth. Self-control conserves resources, using them appropriately; unrestricted passions dissipate resources, squandering the gifts of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Many fight God and ridicule the values of His kingdom. Chastity, forgiveness, and mercy are objects of particularly derision today. Many hunger for anything but God; wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad—anything but God.
How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of His Kingdom! God will satisfy them with the joy of living under His law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways. They hunger for God’s word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.
Blessed are the Merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
We live in a world that often prizes revenge and the destruction of one’s enemies, but Scripture teaches that the measure that we measure to others will be measured back to us (Matt 7:2). We are also taught that if we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven (Matt 6:15), and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12). It is misguided and just a bad idea to go around condemning others and “throwing the book” at everyone.
How blessed are those who, by God’s grace, have experienced His mercy and share it with others! They are able to leave most vengeance to God. Though they correct the sinner, they do not feel the need to exact revenge. By showing mercy, they will experience mercy from God. They are blessed indeed.
Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.
The Greek here is better translated as “single-hearted.” It is so easy for feel torn by contrary drives and wishes. The Book of James says that the man of two minds is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).
Blessed are those who can say, with St. Paul, [T]his one thing I do. … I press on to the prize marked out for me in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13), or to say with the psalmist, There is only one thing I ask of the Lord: to dwell in the courts of the Lord and behold his face (Psalm 27:4). How blessed to be single-hearted, to be centered on one thing, to have but one purpose, to be undivided and uncompromised!
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God.
Everyone loves peace but only some are really working for it. True peace can only be based on the truth. Being a peacemaker is more than being a nice guy and overlooking things. True peacemakers announce the Kingdom and bring souls to Christ; they strive for righteousness and justice and announce its demands. How blessed are those whom God inspires with a dedication to such work! They are indeed sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
In life we are going to suffer, so it might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they love God and His kingdom, are hated by this world! At least they share a common lot with Jesus. They know that only false prophets are loved by all (Lk 6:26). There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution because it is a sign that we are no longer of this world, that the world has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn 15:19). Forsaking this world and hated by it, they are blessed because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.
In all these ways, the Lord paints a kind of picture for us of the transformed human person. He says, “This is what begins to happen to you as I live my life in you.”
One of my mentors over the years has been Fr. Francis Martin, a great scholar of Scripture, teacher at the Dominican House of Studies (among many other places), and author of numerous books and articles. He has also had a great ministry to priests over the years, through the giving of retreats. Here are some of his reflections on today’s Gospel: