The Blessings & Curses of the Beatitudes | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Blessings & Curses of the Beatitudes | Mark Brumley
The Beatitudes strike some people more as poetry than theology. Tell them
the Beatitudes are more than pleasant thoughts or good wishes, and youll
often lose them. Pious ideals or kind sentiments are fine, but please
dont bring theology into it.
But the Beatitudes are about Gods Kingdom, which means we cant
avoid theology. The first word of each Beatitude"blessed"teems
with theological significance, if only we attend to it. Yet familiarity
doesnt 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 Lukes 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 dont,
youre 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 Gods 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 dont live those values, then
a curse is upon you.
What values are those? Heres 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 Mans 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
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? Isnt 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 theyre 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
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 shouldnt concern us.
Pace certain critics, both are authentic. Why shouldnt 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 arent
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 arent 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 ones
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 ones 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 Gods 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, its 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.
Its possible, then, for people who arent poor in the financial
sense to be "poor in spirit." In fact, its 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
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. Whats 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 Gods justice. Jesus promises
that such people will be "satisfied" because one day Gods
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 isnt 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 mans 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, theres 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 Gods
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 lets 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 Christs sake is also a blessing; through it, we identify
ourselves as Jesus disciples. Yet theres 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 its 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
arent 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 themincluding the accompanying
woeswith ease and comfort, as mere poetry, then were in a
dire spiritual condition. Repentance is called for and not a moment too
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 edition
of The Catholic Faith.
Mark Brumley is President of
Ignatius Press, the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith, and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
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