The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5, have been called the Beatitudes. Tom Sawyer tried to memorize them for his Sunday School class because they are short verses, but he found them confusing. In fact, many people have been confused by these lovely and simple verses.
Jesus describes the people he likes to bless. He calls them poor in spirit—which has nothing to do with how much money and property they own. “Poor in spirit” means that your money and property does not own you. He calls them those who mourn. He calls them meek. He says that they hunger and thirst for righteousness. He calls them merciful. He calls them pure in heart and peacemakers. He also warns that they will be persecuted, reviled, and the targets of vicious lies, all because of their relationship with Jesus.
Some Christians take these Beatitudes to be commandments from Jesus, additions to the famous Ten Commandments given through Moses. Others treat them as suggestions about how to live, or rules to be followed only by a few special people in the Church. This misunderstanding is caused by the mistake of overlooking the word “blessed.” This word adjusts the meaning of everything else Jesus says in these verses.
The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel, “makarios,” is used elsewhere to describe a royal grant. A blessing is given, never earned. It indicates the goodness of the giver, not the goodness of the receiver. Far from being a list of commandments, the Beatitudes are a list of promises, indicating that Jesus wants to bestow gifts on all people, and those who follow him will receive those blessings.
What are the blessings? They are seven, an indication of completeness when found in the Bible. The blessings are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being satisfied, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. (Why sons and not children? Because God looks at Christians through the work of his Son. He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Of each Christian, God the Father says what he said about Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”)
The kingdom of heaven, the mercy of God, being called sons of God: all of these are gifts from God to his people. His people do not earn these gifts; Jesus earned these gifts with his righteousness and shares them because of his goodness. Think of it: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The mercy of God was already there for you long before your first opportunity to show mercy to others. The mercy you show to others is a result of God’s mercy, not a cause of his mercy.
That is the way all the Beatitudes work. The gift is named second, and the result of the gift is mentioned first. Because we have the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, we can be poor in spirit, not owned by the material treasures of this world. Because we are already being comforted, we can mourn over our sins and over the evil in this world. Because we will inherit the earth, we can afford to be meek today. Because we will be satisfied, we can hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we will see God, we can be pure in heart today. Because we are already called sons of God, we can work for peace today.
The world will reject us. The world will treat us the way it treated Jesus. Yet because the kingdom of heaven is ours, we can accept the rejection of the world. After all, we remind the world of Jesus by resembling him and by imitating him.
The Beatitudes describe Jesus. He is perfectly poor in spirit, pure in heart, and all the rest. The Beatitudes help us to imitate Jesus by describing him to us. Our power to imitate Jesus comes, not from our efforts, but from his blessings. Because the kingdom of heaven is ours and we will inherit the earth, we can today act as if we belong in God’s kingdom. For Jesus has done the work necessary to make that kingdom our home. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are satisfied, for the righteousness of Jesus has been given to us. To Christ be the glory! J.