The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Matthew 5:1-12. This is a familiar passage to many of us. It may even have sounded comforting, it can be rather soothing to hear read in church a Bible passage that you know well, almost like hearing a well-known bedtime story. The Beatitudes in particular, can have that effect, because of the balance and repetition, it's a very poetic passage.

 

But, there's another side to hearing again the Bible passages that you know well. There's that niggling, worrying side. There are so many parts of the Bible that I have heard many times and I still don't understand. Every time I hear them again, they worry at me. What do they mean? Why don't I understand them yet?

This is one of those passages for me.

On the one hand, I like it very much. It's familiar and it sounds good. I like hearing it. On the other hand, it bothers me. It sounds somehow wrong.

The basic premise doesn't make sense to me. Poor people are not blessed. Mourners are not blessed. Those who are persecuted are not blessed.

Poverty, mourning and persecution are terrible things.

When I pray for myself and when I pray for other people to be blessed by God I never pray that they would experience poverty, mourning or persecution. None of these things are good things. Of that I am quite sure.

In fact, this is not a list of good things at all. This is a list of hard jobs and of the sorts of people who are oppressed, down-trodden and marginalised.

This is a list of hurt people, unfulfilled people, suffering people, broken people.

So why does Christ say 'Blessed are those who mourn'; surely He means to say 'Blessed will be those who mourn, for they will be comforted.'

Yet, every time I hear the passage read, He says it again 'Blessed are those who mourn'. Over time, something like that really starts to eat away at me. I can't stand not knowing what He means.

My first port of call was the actual meaning of the words that Jesus is using. My Study Bible – which always sounds a bit sharp to me – rather curtly points out that 'blessed' doesn't mean 'happy'. That's a relief. I don't think that I would have been able to make much sense out of 'happy are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness'. Happiness not being the emotion that I instinctively link with thirst or hunger. And 'happy are the poor' sounds terribly like a bad excuse for not helping them to become less poor. It doesn't sound like a reasonable thing to say at all.

So, I decided to tackle the passage from this angle: what does it mean to be blessed?

The accepted response to 'Let us bless the Lord', is 'thanks be to God'. But, this passage is about God blessing people it's not about people blessing God.

We often bless people before we take our leave of them. I used to think that blessing meant to say 'God be with you'.

Just as Aaron blesses the Israelites:

'The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.'

It's all about the presence of God. To be blessed, then, could mean to be closer to God.

But, God is everywhere. He is not literally closer to the people listed in the Beatitudes passage than He is to anyone else.

'God be with you,' may or may not be an acceptable synonym for 'God bless you', but either way it doesn't seem to explain any more about what's going on in this passage.

When we say that we have been 'blessed by God' we are usually referring to unearned joys and pleasures. Thus children are a blessing, talents are a blessing, even worldly wealth can be a blessing from God.

That is not what Jesus means when He talks of the groups who are blessed.

Obviously none of these groups are experiencing unearned joys!

The word that is used in this passage is ['makarios',] the same word that is used to describe Mary when she agrees to carry the baby that will be Jesus. It is used by Peter and by James in their letters, referring to the condition of those who suffer for the sake of the Gospel, or who commit themselves to doing the will of God.

Jesus Himself uses it in the parable about the watchful servant 'blessed is that servant whom, when his master comes, he will find doing what he is told' [Matt 24:46 Amplified (ish)].

According to the gospel of John, Jesus tells His disciples 'now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them'. [John 13:17 NIV].

[As a matter of interest, Paul uses the same word when talking about God in 1 Timothy 1:11 and 6:15. “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” and “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords,”]

So, what we have here is completely different, it seems to me, to the usual use of the word 'blessed'.

When Jesus talks of being blessed, he is commending these groups as people who are approved by God.

So, does that solve the problem? Is it just a case of understanding what 'blessed' really means?

Well, if we substitute 'approved by God' for 'blessed', quite a lot of the passage becomes comprehensible.

I would like to divide the list into three types of people and handle them set by set.

First the people who do good things.

Approved by God are the peacemakers, the merciful, those who are persecuted because of righteousness.

That all sounds very right and proper. I am already aware that God approves of people who do these things. These are all things that help others and help to spread the word of God. These are the people who hold out and do what is right in a world full of selfishness and wrong. I fully understand that God approves of such people.

Second, there are the people who have good attitudes.

Approved by God are the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the pure in heart.

Again, this makes sense. I am already aware that God approves of people who are like that.

Meekness is of course the opposite of pride and I can reel off a list of verses that tell us that God disapproves of pride.

[Proverbs 16:5 The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. Isaiah 2:11 The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low. 1 Peter 5:5 Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."]

Yes, God approves of meekness.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is also very good. We know that righteousness is the right thing for us to desire, and desiring it urgently, with thirst and hunger, certainly sounds very fine.

Being poor in spirit is a little harder to handle. But, it sounds similar to such ideas as accepting God's Kingdom with the trust of a child, and total dependence on God.

So far so good, it makes perfect sense that God would approve of people who did good things and of people who held good attitudes.

The third set are more curious.

Approved by God are the mourners.

That makes no sense at all. Why on earth would God approve of mourners?

Well, Jesus doesn't actually stop there. He doesn't just give us a list of people of whom He approves, He gives a little explanation after each one, a little 'for' statement.

He says: Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

So, we can see that blessing is a transformative process, it turns something bad into something good. It locates an empty space an fills it with the presence of God.

This makes sense for the first two sets of people:

The people who do good things: the peacemakers, the merciful, those who are persecuted, all receive logical rewards.

The merciful are shown mercy. Those who are persecuted get the kingdom of heaven. They are demeaned on earth and promoted by heaven. The peacemakers, who have stepped back and brought others together, receive public commendation, they are called the sons of God. They are praised for their praiseworthy actions. That is all very logical.

Then there's the people with good attitudes.

The poor in spirit also receive the kingdom of heaven. The meek inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled.

The pure in heart see God.

I once spoke to a monk about the difficulty of chastity. He described it to me as keeping an extra space in his heart for only God to fill. The space in my heart that is filled with the love I bear my husband is in that monk's heart filled with his love for God.

After that I have always had the image of purity as a space, cleared of personal pleasure, left open for God Himself to fill.

Those who have kept a space in their hearts for God, will see it filled.

Fulfilment is the opposite of hunger. There's a balance there.

All of their longings are fulfilled. All of their sufferings are reversed.

Yet, still the problem of the mourners remains.

They are comforted.

I don't think that this statement is balanced in the same way.

The opposite of mourning isn't being comforted. The opposite of mourning is rejoicing.

We know this from our own lives. Being comforted doesn't undo mourning. It helps, of course, but it doesn't fix it.

What's going on? Are those who mourn actually being short-changed in this sequence of blessings? Obviously not, there must be something that we have so far missed in our explanation of what it means to be blessed.

I think that a promise to reverse mourning, would be to deprecate it.

Mourning is not something that can be brushed away lightly.

It is something that sinks in and changes our nature fundamentally

As Paul puts it: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” [Romans 5:3-4 NIV].

In fact, this could be expanded to all of the characteristics listed in the Beatitudes. They are all long-term characteristics. They are all things that would make long-term changes. They can all transform lives.

Such deep longings, such absolute purities. The list is not of transient feelings nor of one-off actions. This is a list of permanent characteristics and life-long tasks. Not people who have occasionaly been meek, but 'the meek', nor people who have once attempted to break up a fight, but 'the peacemakers'.

All of these sufferings have persevered and have become characteristics. The blessings that Christ lists offer them hope.

It would be too simple to say that all suffering has a good purpose because of the good that it can do. But it does at least explain why Jesus doesn't offer to undo mourning nor to eradicate it.

Mourning is not an unalloyed evil. There is another aspect to it. There is a beauty to mourning.

Comfort is the finishing touch that beautifies mourning.

This passage is about restoring balance and beauty to the world. Jesus doesn't say that He will swoop in and fix everything, neither in the world today nor in the world to come. He says that in Him everything will find its balance and its proper finish.

So it is that blessed does mean 'God be with' and it does mean 'happy' and it does mean 'approved by God' and it does mean 'thanks be to God' and it means 'beautiful'.

One of my favourite things about the Bible is the way in which all the different translations can point to the same place. There are so many different ways of saying the same thing. So many stories leading us to the same God.

So many peoples but only one blessed and blessing God.

To those who are sorrowing, Jesus promises His comforting hand to wipe away tears. To those who are longing, Jesus promises His open hand to offer them what they need. To those who are working, Jesus promises His strong hand to finish their task.

In the kingdom of heaven, all the pictures will be finished and they will all be beautiful.

Beautiful are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beautiful are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Beautiful are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Beautiful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Beautiful are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Beautiful are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Beautiful are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Beautiful are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beautiful is God and the world that He is making.

How is it that those things, which seem to us to be failures and sorrows, can be made into beauty?

At the beginning of the service I talked about the beauty of the praying hands: a beauty that is evidence of work done.

I talked also about the beauty of a well-loved toy.

Things which are worn and used, things which have suffered can be beautiful.

We are not completely surprised by this, we all know already about the beauty that is to be found in the midst of brokeness.

Broken things can be beautiful, but they can also be horrible.

What is the difference between beautiful suffering and ugly suffering?

Paul [2 Corinthians 12:7-10]: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I'm rather impressed by Paul. I don't think that there is anything difficult that I have accepted after only three times of asking it to be changed!

The thorn doesn't actually come from God, just as the poverty, the mourning, and the persecution don't come from God.

But, God can transform the thorn into something else. He can make a crown out of thorns. He can make His Power perfect in our weaknesses.

That surely is why He specifies 'Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me'.

It is only through the presence of God that our weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties can be transformed into something beauty.

Had those hands been clenched into fists, there would have been nothing beautiful about them, the very scars that make them beautiful in prayer would have made them threatening as fists.

Our God is glorious, because He can work in our weaknesses.

He can work in us, just as we are, with all our scars and our faults and our failures.

So Jesus says not 'blessed are those who survive persecution', nor 'blessed are those who resist insults' but 'blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you'. In this moment, while the suffering is still there, God is there and He is working.

'Blessed are those who mourn' for in that mourning, God is there and He is working.

We do not rejoice because we suffer, but we can rejoice because in our sufferings, God is there and He is working and He will transform them into something beautiful.

Just as He will transform each one of us into something beautiful. And all our scars will turn out to be the signs that we, like Flopsy, are well-loved and that we, like the hands of the unknown man, have loved well.