One of the more familiar passages in the New Testament is that part of Matthew known as the beatitudes. Much has been written about this passage. These sayings have been called the “be attitudes.” They have been analyzed, compared, contrasted, and generally picked apart for nuggets of wisdom. Thus it becomes a bit intimidating to try to write about them, as if there is something I can add to the body of writing about them. And yet I hope to add something.
This passage, Matthew 5:3-12, is part of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. This section that comprises three chapters as the Bible is divided today was probably not a single sermon. It may be a compilation of highlights from several sermons by Jesus. It covers a wide variety of topics, not always related to each other. Nevertheless, the beatitudes are a clear unit that probably were a part of one or several sermons.
Each of these nine sayings begins with the word blessed. The Latin form of the word, from which we get the common name of this section, is also the word the Catholic Church uses for the process leading to sainthoodbeatification. So there is a sense in which these saying describe what is necessary for sainthood. Of course, in the Bible any Christian is a saint so this section describes various characteristics required of all.
The format of each of these sayings is pretty much the same for the first eight. “Blessed be the , for theirs is .” (I will discuss the exception later.) It is significant that they are expressed in the plural. Christianity is an inclusive religion. The general plurals, they and their, are not limiting like him or her. Paul recognized this inclusiveness. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) And, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11)
Most people interpret the “theirs is” statements to be anticipatory. If you are this sort of person, they say, you can expect something in the future. The problem with this thinking is that it emphasizes what is to be at the expense of what is now. The danger there is that people are tempted to go through the motions without the enjoyment of “today Christianity.” If all they have is hope of the future then the present becomes a burden to bear. If the rewards of Christianity are here and hereafter then we can enjoy life now and forever. With one possible exception the beatitudes, I think, are promises of today.
Two of the beatitudes more clearly promise rewards in the present. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” (Matt 5:6)
To the mourner a promise of future comfort is scant consolation. It would be like those spoken of by James who tell the naked “Depart in peace. Be warmed,” (Jas 2:16) while not giving them clothing. Likewise the coldness of mourning requires immediate comfort. This is what Jesus promises. This is what God offers. Twice on the night before he died Jesus told his disciples, “let not your hearts be troubled.” Even at such a time of mourning he offered peace.
It is true that in this same context Jesus offered a delayed comfort. He was to die the next day, but the Comforter would not come for fifty days. On the other hand, Jesus remained with the disciples himself for forty of those days after his resurrection. So the promised comforter was only delayed five dayshardly a delay at all.
How are mourners comforted today? Some would say Jesus is only talking about mourning over spiritual things, such as sin, and the comfort he gives us is forgiveness. While this may be part of his meaning, the clear sense his listeners would have understood includes mourning over physical matters as well. When one is sick or has lost a family member, then, how does Jesus promise comfort to mourners today? In several ways.
The word of God itself offers consolation. However, at such times many people are less prone to seek comfort directly from the scriptures. That’s OK. Many people have received more comfort in time of mourning from their spiritual family than from blood relations. One who is touched with another’s mourning, yet not as directly involved, can make a huge difference. Perhaps the church is open to such a number of people, with various backgrounds and a kaleidoscope of sins, just so that everyone has someone who can offer comfort. “Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.” (1 Thes 5:11)
Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled. Filled with what? Obviously with righteousness. Jesus offers forgiveness of sins to any who will come to him on his terms. James also talked about one who meets a hungry man and says, “Depart in peace. Be filled.” Neither is God this kind of giver. His grace is generous and free. Jesus gave himself freely so that we can be filled with righteousness. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32) “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev 22:17)
Some of the beatitudes seem at first glance to promise things in the future rather than now. And yet I think these promises are for this life as well.
“Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt 5:7) On the face of it, Jesus is promising a present mercy. Yet many would say that this means God will be merciful at the final judgement. God’s mercy does not need to be delayed. Now is when we need it. If we can see it now, we can offer mercy to others. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” (Lk 6:36) Jesus did not say to show mercy because God will be merciful. It is something we do because we have already obtained mercy. We don’t have to wait for it.
“Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt 5:9) It may be true that we will be called God’s children in heaven. Nevertheless, we are called his children here as well. Whether one demonstrates against war or not, whether one serves in the military or not, our obligation is to make peace on our own level. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” (Rom 12:18) If we can do this, people will recognize us as God’s children.
“Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5) Many people consider that the earth the meek will inherit is in some future Messianic Age. Surely, most people think, the meek are not to inherit this earth. In this world it is the bold, the ruthless, the conniving that get ahead. And yet, consider him who was called the meekest man on the face of the earth (Num 12:3). Moses may have been meek, but he was one of the most powerful men of his age, and honored by men ever since. Surely if he could attain his stature while remaining meek, we also can inherit this earth. For honest men will always honor the man (or woman) with the inner strength to defy worldly conviction and follow God. In that way we will inherit the earth, and heaven to come.
“Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8) If any of these promises can truly be considered future it would be this. Still, there is a sense in which the pure in heart daily see God. For the pure in heart refuse to see the depth of evil in others. They try to see the godly in everyone. While they may not get to see God face to face until later, for now they see the potential for purity in everyone, and the face of God in those who are like they are.
Two of the beatitudes share a promise. The poor in spirit and the persecuted are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3, 10) This is really a promise for today. Most of the time the phrase “kingdom of heaven” occurs in Matthew, it is not referring to heaven. So it is probable that Jesus is also here referring to the kingdom of heaven on earth, the church. It is thus appropriate that these characteristics are associated with the church. To enter the kingdom requires being poor in spirit. “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 19:14)
Certainly persecution has historically been part of being a Christian. Even today people are being shunned, beaten, and killed for their faith. It is not clear whether verses 11 and 12 are a separate beatitude. The format is different, in that it is addressed to “you” and does not contain a promise. Therefore it may merely be commentary on the last one. Nevertheless, these verses do point out that persecution is a common thread in the godly existence. After all, they kill prophets. This beatitude says that when we are persecuted for being righteous we know we are on the right path. “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” (1 Pet 4:15-16)
The beatitudes do give us hope for what is to come. We need such hope. But we can know from them that God’s promises are also immediate. We don’t have to wait for God, as long as we continue to wait on God.