The Beatitudes begins the famous sermon on the mountain which is the first of five major sections of Jesus' teaching ministry in Matthew. A beatitude means blessings in Latin and declares a certain group of people who are singled out to be very fortunate, happy, privileged, and blessed. The idea of beatitudes traces back to philosophical literature, Jewish wisdom and prophetic traditions. The wisdom traditions pronounce those who would be considered fortunate in their circumstances (Sir 25:7,9) while the prophetic traditions reassures beatitudes to those who are in dire situations but who will be vindicated by the coming of the Kingdom (Isa 30:18, 32:20, Dan 12:12).
In our society, those who are beautiful, well educated, wealthy and powerful are considered blessed. Curiously, Jesus says something quite different. Those who are in difficult situations are blessed. If we examine the grammar of the beatitudes, then we see that it was written not in imperative tense, as in "you must" be poor to be blessed. Rather, it is written in an indicative tense, as in "this is how it is." As such, the beatitudes are not a manual to achieve happiness, or means to live a blessed life. Rather, they are unconditional declarations about the people who will receive God’s love and blessings.
The beatitudes are not innately true as in 1+1=2. Rather, especially in the prophetic traditions, the truth of the statements hinge upon the authority and the authenticity of the person who speaks for God. In Matthew, the authority of Jesus is well established with his birth, baptism, and temptation narratives that declare Jesus' identity as the Son of God as well as the previous week's reading where the fishermen dropped their nets immediately to follow Jesus on his mission and ministry. The authority of Jesus is further strengthened in each of the sections of Jesus' teaching in Matthew (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1) which all end the same way with crowds being astounded and amazed by his authority.
Be that as it may, I would still challenge Jesus in what he is saying because it really seems impractical. It just does not seem to make any sense that the blessed are the poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So, why would Jesus say things that are so contrary to what seems to happening in our reality? First of all, we have to understand the situation that Jesus was in. Jesus lived at a time when the Roman Empire ruled the western world with their military power, with superior weapons technology and well ordered government. A small country like Israel was easily take over and it became a vassal state whose wealth was extracted by Rome and taken to Rome. So, Israel was basically a slave nation. As for the religious in Israel, they were part of the elite Jewish establishment. The religious leaders chose to collaborate with their oppressor and reap the benefits rather than siding with their own people. Particularly in Jesus time, the secular and religious leaders who thrived under Roman occupation were corrupt. For those who lived in poverty, they were oppressed. It was they who mourned what the country has become. During Jesus’ time, if you did not mourn then what does that say? The country had been taken over. Your people are suffering. They have no freedom and no dignity. If you did not mourn, then maybe you were part of the elite who benefited from the current situation. So, if you were mourning, then God was on your side. God will comfort you.
Yesterday, a group of us were at the presbytery office to attend a workshop on leadership. I spoke to a woman from another church who seemed quite sad about Donald Trump. First thing she said about that was she wished her minister could address that concern which she is feeling as well as many others in the congregation. If you mourn because of Donald Trump, then it means that you about justice. You care about the environment. You care about the poor who will lose health care. You care of the refugees, the Mexicans, women’s rights, and the Muslims who are now barred from entering the United States. If you mourn over these things, then God will comfort you. God is on your side mourning with you.
Jesus also said blessed are the "poor in spirit" for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This refers not only to suffering in economic poverty, but also those who lack narcissistic personality and arrogance. The term "poor in spirit" may also refer to those on faith journeys who experience "the dark night of the soul" as Soren Kierkegaard describes it in his book Either/Or. He spoke of this condition of spiritual poverty when he experienced this:
"I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride for the exercise is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to that either. Summa summarum. I do not care at all."
This is a dreadful place to be in. My own spiritual poverty did not get this bad when I first started ministry. But, it was bad enough. At the lowest point of this harrowing journey, I realized that to experience God’s peace was the most important thing that I could ever want in my life. Nothing else mattered. Everything else that I had ever wanted seemed like vanity. Then, it occurred to me that if the greatest thing and the only that I would ever want in my life is to experience God’s peace, then this is not a bad place to be. So, what I realized about being in spiritual poverty is that it had been a spiritually purifying experience. Everything got burned away and the only thing that remained was to experience God’s peace. Though it was an utterly miserable process, in the end, I found it to be a true blessing.
Jesus also said, blessed are the meek. Being meek sounds like weakness. Those who are meek seem to be the ones who are bullied on the school playground. Being meek, however is defined as: not easily angered, mild, patient, gentle, courteous, kind, merciful, compassionate. Jesus described himself in this way as he said, "I am gentle and humble in heart" (11:29). This trait is also described as vitally important in Taoism where it states.
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
Even more so than as a personality trait, meekness describes the oppressed people of God who have renounced violence as a means to an end. The meek have achieved incredible freedom through the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who have championed non-violent demonstrations. The soft and weak indeed overcame. The hard and strong like the Roman empire, the Russian empire, and Nazi Germany have all fallen.
In his sermon on the beatitudes, Jesus shows profound spiritual depth that the world does not understand nor follow. It is this sacred path that we walk on. It is the path less travelled by. As Robert Frost wrote,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Thanks be to God.