The Blessings & Curses of the Beatitudes | Mark Brumley | IgnaitusInsight.com
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 meansto 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 cursespoverty, hunger, sorrow and being hatedin 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 poorwhich 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.
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