Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
What are the beatitudes for? Are they meant to encourage or rebuke? Do they tell us who will be blessed or what it really means to be blessed? There’s obvious depth here that cannot be mastered by a quick pass, a life-changing summons that takes a lifetime to heed.
Yet, with a good understanding of Jesus and his time, we can make a good guess of what it would have been like to hear these words on that mountain. N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God tries to establish that kind of “good understanding,” and his section on the Sermon on the Mount, including the “beatitudes,” above, has helped me better understand Jesus’ message in his context. Wright says:
…the promise that would formerly apply to those who were faithful to Torah now applies to those who are faithful to Jesus. Whatever they have meant to subsequent hearers or readers, I suggest that the beatitudes can be read, in some such way, as an appeal to Jesus’ hearers to discover their true vocation as the eschatological people of yhwh, and to do so by following the praxis he was marking out for them, rather than the way of other would-be leaders of the time.
-N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.288
That last part suggests to me that the same Jesus who still lives might be challenging us too to follow a different set of practices, “rather than the way of other would-be leaders of the time.” In an election year in the social media age, the air rings with scoffing, sneering, fear, arrogance, and enmity. Jesus called His disciples to a different way, and so I believe He calls His disciples today to a different way as well.
Are we ready to be poor in spirit, ready to mourn? Will we kindle meekness in our spirits? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? Will we show mercy, guard purity, and seek to make peace? Would we accept persecution for righteousness’ sake, and consider reviling of no account? These questions are worth reflecting on, unhurriedly and often.
This is the way of our Lord, who went to the cross. His offer is: “Follow me.” That way lies comfort, satisfaction, mercy, connection God Himself. Yet, the way also passes through whatever our Lord chooses; it goes wherever He goes. So can we. Through mockery, yes, perhaps, but into the true kingdom of heaven, for sure.
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.