We began reading the Sermon on the Mount during daily Mass this week. One of the flawed ways of reading it is to see the Lord’s teaching merely as a list of moral demands that we must fulfill out of our own flesh or human ability. To do so is to miss the point.
The better way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is to see that our Lord is painting a picture of the transformed human person. In effect, He is saying, “This is what your life will look like and be as I increasingly live my life in you.” The Sermon is description more so than prescription; it is a gift to be received more so than a set of demands to be met.
With this interpretive key in mind, let’s take a look at the Beatitudes, which begin the sermon. What I offer here is a brief pastoral look at each beatitude that states the meaning of each and then ponders an implication or two. My goal is to find the gift that each beatitude describes and see each one as a brushstroke in a beautiful painting the Lord makes of the transformed human person, one in whom He lives.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The poor in spirit depend on God humbly and serenely. They are poor to this world because their treasure is in Heaven. As the Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). With their treasure in Heaven and their hearts focused there, the poor in spirit are not obsessed with this world’s trinkets. Their desires are properly aligned with what matters, with what lasts: God Himself and the eternal joys of Heaven. There is a great blessedness and simplicity to be found when one is freed of obsessions with wealth, popularity, and conformity to this world’s constantly changing and distracting demands.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Those who mourn are those who see the awful state of God’s people. They see that many are lost, basing their lives on what can neither save nor satisfy, living lives that are misdirected and futile. The mournful weep for God’s people, but it is not a depressed mourning, rather, it is a motivational one. By it, they pray and work for the salvation of souls. Their mourning places an urgency in their hearts to reach the lost, fallen, and confused. The text speaks of them as being comforted, but both the Greek and Latin roots of the word “comfort” have more to do with being strengthened and assisted than with being consoled and relieved of burdens. The mournful are given the strength and courage they need in order to address what makes them mourn and be strengthened unto the salvation of souls.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
The meek are those who have authority over their anger. Their anger is directed properly, towards things such as injustice and ignorance of God’s ways. They are increasingly freed from anger over insignificant, egocentric, and fear-based things. Their proper anger is like a creative energy directed toward working for justice and the proclamation of God’s truth. They inherit the land because those who work for justice and truth secure a better future for the land and people they love. Of the meek, Scripture says, And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in (Is 58:12). By using proper anger, they turn it into a creative and healing force; they and those they have healed inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
A common human problem is desiring the wrong things. We often have excessive desire for things that we know are harmful for us while being rather disinterested in things that are demonstrably good for us. For example, things such as prayer and moderation seem burdensome and difficult to us while overindulging in liquor and spending our time viewing immoral or trivial material comes easily. What a gift it is to see our desires come into conformity with what is actually best for us, with what God really wants to give us! Those who attain to this gift of properly ordered desires are satisfied because righteousness and all it entails is are what actually satisfies. These are the things with which we are designed to thrive and thus they give a deep satisfaction.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
To be filled with mercy implies that the Lord has filled us with His mercy. The merciful are first and foremost happy and blessed because they have profoundly experienced how merciful, kind, and good God has been to them. Having been filled with mercy, they have a joyful gratitude that in turn makes them blessed and happy. Because they are filled with mercy they are equipped to show mercy to others. It will go well for them on judgment day because the measure we measure to others will be measured to us (see Luke 6:38).
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
The phrase “clean of heart” is probably better translated as “single-hearted.” The Greek word katharoi speaks to a kind of purity, being one thing without admixture of impurities or anything else. The pure of heart are focused on one thing: God. They want only one thing: God. This is a very great gift. So many are torn apart by hearts that are divided; they desperately want many things, often ones that are contradictory to one another. Oh, the gift to know what we want and to be free of competing demands, the gift to be clear and single-hearted in our pursuit! This beatitude is not only a gift in itself; it leads to the greatest gift of all: God, the very one for whom our hearts were made.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The peacemakers are not merely those who keep us from killing one another. The word “shalom” (peace) as well as the Greek word eirene (used here to translate shalom) have the notion of wholeness, of having in our life and relationship everything that should be there. The peacemakers are those who work to ensure that the things that make for wholeness and integrity are available to others. They work for and teach truth, justice, respect, reciprocity, reverence, and virtue. In this they set forth the ingredients for peace. They are the children of God because this is the very thing that God does and children resemble their parents.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in Heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The persecuted are blessed and happy because they know that they suffer for the right things and are in good company. They also know that they are suffering for being the right thing, the contrasting thing in a world hostile and opposed to God. They are light in darkness, free men among those in bondage. Although they are persecuted, it matters less to them because their hearts are with God and set on the things of Heaven. Even death has no sting because death is the very thing that births them to the eternal glory for which they long. They know that their reward is great, far eclipsing any suffering they endure. They are blessed, happy, and free.
Such a gift it is that is being described here: the life of the transformed human person! Note how each of the beatitudes amounts to a matter of the heart: a heart that is pure, a heart that is set on one thing rather than torn by anger or other disordered passions, a heart that hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is increasingly free from the world (except to rescue others who are trapped in its false claims and futility). Having their treasure in Heaven, the blessed are poor to this world because they have little need to hoard its trinkets. They are rich, however, for theirs is the Kingdom of God and God Himself.
This song speaks to our longing for perfection: