Matthew 5: 1–12a
For the feast of All Saints we are asked to reflect on the first, and perhaps most important, verses of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. These verses have come to be called the Beatitudes. Since Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount represents the moral ideals taught by Jesus, it is most appropriate to ponder their implications when we honor all the saints, that is, those who lived those ideals in an exemplary way.
The Beatitudes strike the keynote for all of the teaching that follows in the three lengthy chapters that make up the Sermon on the Mount. It is also true that the first Beatitude offers a key to the meaning of the seven remaining Beatitudes in Matthew’s account.
The decisive word in this first Beatitude is the word “poor.” Its meaning is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “an afflicted one.” This name was applied to those Jews of the immediate pre-Christian era who were economically and politically powerless, but who continued to hope in God even though he seemed to have abandoned them. They were often poor in the sense of destitute, but their more basic poverty was in terms of power and control.
Jesus makes the daring statement that these downtrodden ones should in fact be declared blessed, that is, fortunate. What could possibly justify such a radical and apparently nonsensical conclusion? Jesus certainly does not intend to bless powerlessness as such. However, he does affirm the blessedness of those who, because they are powerless, are saved from the illusion that worldly power can in fact give us the only truly important and lasting gifts, such as, love, happiness, and life itself. Being delivered from that fateful illusion, they are free to turn to God, who is ready and willing to give them the Kingdom—something that earthly goods could never provide! It is therefore an attitude of humility and trust in the presence of God.
The ideal presented here must not be mistaken for a misguided passivity or timidity in the presence of the challenges of this life. Rather, it liberates us from self-centered and self-serving efforts, which will ultimately prove unproductive, so that we may be present to others in a loving, caring, and helpful way. This is summed up neatly in the seemingly paradoxical but very true statement, “The only gift we can keep is the one we give away!” Or, in gospel language, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8: 36)
The remaining seven Beatitudes are in a sense echoes of this primary one. Those who “mourn” are those who have dared to become vulnerable through loving. The “meek” have renounced power and violence as a means of acquiring happiness … and thus find happiness! Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” have a passion for the reforms that will enable everyone to live and dream. Those who are “merciful” renounce anger and vengeance as they offer forgiveness. The “clean of heart” are the sincere and truthful ones who reject all that is mere sham and pretense in life.
The “peacemakers” promote forgiveness and reconciliation as the only sure way to peace. And those who are “persecuted” are those who persevere in the pursuit of these ideals in spite of ridicule from others who seem to be wise and prudent. Thus, the Beatitudes represent a radical but reliable program for true holiness … as illustrated in the lives of that great army of saints whom we honor today.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.