Matthew 5: 1-12a
The eight Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel open his lengthy Sermon on the Mount. They are especially noteworthy because they strike the keynote for all that follows in that Sermon. Moreover, the first Beatitude strikes the keynote also for the seven Beatitudes that follow.
The decisive word in this first Beatitude is the word, “poor.” Its meaning is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “an afflicted one.” It was first applied, therefore, 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 an economic sense 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, i.e. 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 them (and us) us the only truly important and lasting gifts, such as, love, happiness and life itself. Being delivered from that disastrous illusion, they are called blessed or fortunate because they are then free to turn to God, who is ready and willing to give them the Kingdom. Matthew specifies this as poverty “in spirit” because it is essentially an attitude of humility and trust in the presence of God.
The ideal presented here must not be mistaken for an unhappy 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 really echoes of this primary one. Those who “mourn” are those who dare to become vulnerable through loving…and thereby find the secret of happiness. The “meek” renounce power and violence as a means of acquiring happiness…and thus are candidates for true happiness. Those who “hunger for justice” 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 the wise and prudent ones. Thus, the Beatitudes represent a program for true holiness and happiness through the wisdom of the gospel rather than through the misguided wisdom of purely secular philosophy.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.