When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
Today’s reading comprises the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These Beatitudes, as they have come to be known, are a powerful statement of Jesus’ teaching in their own right, as well as being an introduction to the counter-cultural message of the whole Sermon.
The Beatitudes are so named because they form an action plan for those who aspire to happiness of the highest kind, that is heavenly happiness. To be blessed is to know the true joy of the happiness that comes from God alone. And yet they are counter-cultural because they fly in the face of our human need for self-preservation and self-aggrandisement.
In some translations of the Bible ‘happiness’ is substituted for the word ‘blessed’. This has been done in an attempt to make the text more accessible. But, this substitution, whilst making sound theological sense, often causes more confusion. How can we be ‘happy’ if we are poor in spirit, mourning or meek? How can we know happiness if we hear the words ‘hungry and thirsty’ and fail to hear ‘for righteousness’? And then, what hope is there for us if such divine happiness can only be achieved if we can rid ourselves of the negative human emotions that are so widely honoured and respected because they are seen as the very foundations upon which our ability to survive in this world are built? The Beatitudes seem to be a list of virtues that, like our endless ‘must do before we die lists’, is destined to remain on the back burner for the whole of our earthly lives.
But, rather than being something we file under ‘good ideas that can never happen’, the Beatitudes should be the blueprint by which we aspire to live out every moment of every day. The Sermon on the Mount stands at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Sermon on the Mount gives us the key to understanding the totality of Jesus’ ministry, right through to the day of his resurrection. The Sermon on the Mount urges us to really repent, to shift our attitudes and behaviours a full 180 degrees, to turn around and follow the exact opposite path to the one dictated by our human desires and passions.
The Beatitudes form one of the strongest challenges to all who would call themselves Christian. They urge us to put ourselves at the back of the queue in order that we might see and help those who are less able than ourselves. At the front of any queue our backs are turned on the needs of others, our eyes remain firmly fixed on the achievement of our own aims and ambitions. From the back of the queue we can see the aims and ambitions of others and we can focus, like Jesus, on loving and serving the needs of those others.
Today we are challenged to reflect on the word blessed. We are challenged to further our understanding of how God is setting us aside for a special purpose, the purpose of loving and serving in his name. If we can make this prayer in all sincerity, and if we can live out that prayer, when we come to the front of the queue we will come to know the heavenly happiness outlined by our Lord in these well-known words.