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The Blessings & Curses of the Beatitudes | Mark Brumley | IgnaitusInsight.com

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The Beatitudes strike some people more as poetry than theology. Tell them the Beatitudes are more than pleasant thoughts or good wishes, and you'll often lose them. Pious ideals or kind sentiments are fine, but please don't bring theology into it.

But the Beatitudes are about God's Kingdom, which means we can't avoid theology. The first word of each Beatitude–"blessed"–teems with theological significance, if only we attend to it. Yet familiarity doesn't breed contempt as much as indifference when it comes to the Beatitudes. Pastors and catechists, no less than Catholics in the pew, may treat the Beatitudes as beautiful, inspirational words, and ignore their nitty-gritty meaning for Christian living.

The Woes Have It

One way to avoid complacency is to start with Luke's version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26), which includes "woes" as well as "blesseds." The "woes" should grab you by the throat. If they don't, you're not reading carefully enough: "Woe to you rich, for you have your consolation; woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry; woe to you who laugh, for you will grieve; woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so their ancestors treated the false prophets." Most people want to be rich, to be full, to laugh and to have others speak well of them. What can Jesus mean?

The "woes" are, as the scholars say, "covenant curses" –curses due to not living according to God's reign. The Beatitudes are the charter, so to speak, for "Kingdom living." You want to be a disciple? Well, then, here are the values you must incarnate in your daily life, says Jesus. If you don't live those values, then a curse is upon you.

What values are those? Here's where the "blesseds" come in: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled; blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh; blessed are you when men hate, insult and attack your name for the Son of Man's sake."

Again, the careful reader will sit up and take notice. How can it be blessed to be poor, hungry, weeping and hated? Things commonly valued, Jesus calls cursed. Things commonly despised, he calls blessed. We said a few moments ago that the word "blessed" teems with theological meaning. What can Jesus mean by it here, in this seeming upside-down value system?

Blessed or Happy?

Thirty years ago, the Jerusalem Bible created a stir by rendering the traditional "blessed" of the Beatitudes as "happy": "Happy the man . . ." Happy? But the Beatitudes are about blessedness, not happiness, right? Isn't happiness an emotional state; blessedness, a spiritual one?

The objection is half-right. People today often associate happiness with "having a good time"–with pleasure and comfort, the antithesis of suffering and want. But contemporary usage is flawed. True happiness is spiritual and moral, not merely emotional or pleasurable. The saints in heaven are supremely happy, because they're with God, the source of all happiness. We call their happiness beatitude, and we speak of the beatific vision of God, which the saints enjoy.

Saints-in-the-making on earth can be only relatively happy. Even so, whatever helps them grow closer to God, they consider "blessed." Poverty, hunger, sorrow and human rejection can, in a sense, bring happiness or beatitude, because such things can bring us closer to God. Hence Jesus calls those who experience such things "blessed" or "happy."

Similarly, wealth, full stomachs, contentment and human respect, though good in themselves, can be spiritual dangers. They can lead us to forget God and His Kingdom. In that sense, they can be curses. More so, if we have acquired them by unjust means–to which our sinful hearts incline us.

Matthew and Luke

Fine enough for what Jesus means by "blessed." But the careful reader will notice important differences between the Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke. Jesus gives only four Beatitudes in Luke to His eight in Matthew. And, as we have seen, in Luke, Jesus includes four "woes" to match the corresponding Beatitudes. Finally, even some of the Beatitudes common to the two Gospels differ somewhat between. More on that in a moment.

That there are two versions of the Beatitudes shouldn't concern us. Pace certain critics, both are authentic. Why shouldn't Jesus have occasionally modified His teaching to suit different audiences or to stress different points, as most teachers do? Nor should it surprise us that the early Church would preserve different versions of Jesus' Beatitudes or that the Evangelists would include the version best suited to their respective purposes in writing.

Matthew, as we said, has four extra Beatitudes. But even those also included in Luke are differently worded. "Blessed are they who mourn" (Matt 5:4) and "Blessed are you when they insult you . . ." (Matt 5:11-12) differ only slightly from Luke. But where Luke has "Blessed are you who are the poor" (Luke 6:20), Matthew has "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3). Where Luke has "Blessed are you who are hungry" (Luke 6:21), Matthew has "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Matt 5:6). To these Jesus, in Matthew, adds, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land" (Matt 5:5); "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt 5:7); "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" (Matt 5:8); and "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matt 5:10).

What to make of this? First, the two somewhat different Beatitudes in Matthew seem to be "spiritualized" versions of Luke. In Matthew, Jesus refers to being "poor in spirit," not to "the poor"; and to "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," not merely to those who hunger. Second, whereas in Luke Jesus counts as blessings things widely regarded as curses–poverty, hunger, sorrow and being hated–in Matthew, His additional Beatitudes include what aren't usually regarded as curses: meekness, mercifulness, purity of heart, and peacemaking. The dog-eat-dog corporate world may think little of those qualities, but they aren't in the same category as poverty, hunger, sorrow and being hated or rejected.

Still How a Blessing?

Still, how can such things be blessings? The "spiritualized" version of the Beatitudes can help us understand. Consider "Blessed are the poor in spirit." What does that mean? Opinions vary, somewhat, but a common view is that poverty of spirit involves recognizing one's dependence upon God. Poverty is lack. The poor lack what they need; they must depend on others for sustenance. Being "poor in spirit" means recognizing one's dependence on God for everything, the spiritual as well as the physical. The "poor in spirit" are blessed because they recognize their need for God and, accordingly, they trust and rely on him. This is why "the kingdom of heaven is theirs." An essential element of belonging to God's kingdom is acknowledging His sovereignty. The "poor in spirit" are humble. They rely on God, and thus acknowledge His sovereignty over them.

How does that fit with "Blessed are you who are poor"? Poverty is not, per se, a blessing, but, all other things being equal, an evil to be eradicated. Which explains why Jesus fed the multitude and told people to give to the poor–which would be inexplicable if poverty itself were blessed. Yet poverty can help us acknowledge our dependence on God. When we have plenty, it's all-too-easy to forget about God. Thus, Jeus' curse, "Woe to you who are rich, for you have been consoled," makes sense. On the other hand, because poverty puts our dependence squarely before us, indirectly it can be a blessing. Indeed, for those called to religious life, voluntary poverty is a form of detachment that enables them to devote themselves more fully to God, without the possible distraction of personal possessions.

It's possible, then, for people who aren't poor in the financial sense to be "poor in spirit." In fact, it's required of Christians. We must all recognize our dependence on God for everything and treat our possessions (even our personal abilities and skills) with a certain indifference, as divine gifts, using them only in the way God intends.

Blessed Hunger

What of "Blessed are you who hunger" and "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness"? Hunger for food is one thing, "hunger" (and "thirst") for righteousness, another. What's the connection?

That depends on the word "righteousness." There are at least two main interpretations here. On the one hand, the Greek word often translated "righteousness" can also be translated "justice": "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice, for they will be satisfied." Justice here would be justice among men. Those who "hunger and thirst for justice" desire to see men dealing justly with one another, according to God's justice. Jesus promises that such people will be "satisfied" because one day God's justice will be established among men.

But "righteousness" can also mean "justification" or "personal right-standing before God." In that case, the man who "hungers and thirsts after righteousness" seeks personal holiness, which means he seeks God Himself.

In either case, ordinary food isn't desired, but in some sense God Himself, either in the establishment of His just order of the Kingdom or as the goal of personal holiness.

Now the connection to "Blessed are the hungry." We said that poverty is a blessing only indirectly, not in itself. Likewise hunger. Those who hunger are blessed for at least two reasons. First, because their hunger provides a chance to realize their dependence on God, as the poor man's poverty does. Second, because one day the hungry shall be satisfied. They shall have their fill of that for which they hunger.

In both cases, there's a link to those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness." The man who physically hungers and relies upon God, also hungers for holiness, whether he realizes it or not. His stomach may want food, but his heart wants God. "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in You," said St. Augustine. He might as well have said, "Our hearts are hungry, until they are satisfied with You." Or as the Psalmist puts it, "Taste and see that the Lord is good."

Ultimately, the blessed physical hunger of Luke and the blessed spiritual hunger of Matthew coincide. The Jews anticipated a messianic banquet, in which the hungry would eat their fill in the fullness of God's Kingdom. Jesus inaugurated that messianic banquet with His multiplication of the loaves, but above all with the Eucharist, a sacrifice at once a literal meal and yet spiritual sustenance. In the Eucharist, the blessed hungry and the blessed who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" are one in the same. The Eucharist is a pledge of, and present sharing in, the Kingdom of God, where there will be no injustice.

Blessed Sorrow and Rejection

Now let's move on to mourning and rejection. How are the sorrowful "blessed" and the comfortable "cursed"? The comfortable are insulated from evils that often bring men to God, while those who mourn often turn to God in their sorrow. Then, too, if those who mourn weep over their own sins, their mourning is the sorrow of repentance. Those who are comfortable are indifferent to their sins, which is a curse, not a blessing.

Rejection for Christ's sake is also a blessing; through it, we identify ourselves as Jesus' disciples. Yet there's a tension here. We should, on the one hand, be at peace with all men, insofar as we are able (Rom 12:18). We must so set an example before men that they praise God for our good works (Matt 5:16). Yet it's a curse for all men to speak well of us (Luke 6:26) and wrong to do good for show (Matt 6:1). Ultimately, the enemies of Christ will not speak well of us, if we are truly His disciples. For if the Master fared so poorly with this world, how can His servants fare better (cf. Jn 15:18-21)? And if they do, perhaps that shows they aren't truly His disciples.

In the End

The Beatitudes are an inexhaustible resource of spiritual insight, encouragement and warning. Far from being mere poetry, they point to the most concrete of spiritual realities, although we can miss them. C. S. Lewis once warned against the beautiful language of the King James Bible. "Beauty exalts," noted Lewis, "but beauty also lulls." He continued, "[W]e may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations."

Likewise with the Beatitudes. If we can read them–including the accompanying woes–with ease and comfort, as mere poetry, then we're in a dire spiritual condition. Repentance is called for and not a moment too soon.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 edition of The Catholic Faith.

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Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press.

A former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the InsightScoop web log.

He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS, EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.

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