Jesus must have been an artist, because the Beatitudes are beautiful and poetic sentiments. What a glorious picture Jesus is painting, mixing vibrant colors and bold promises on his divine palette, and brushing the resulting pigments onto a canvas as broad and grand as heaven itself! Jesus creates a masterpiece with his words. Like many great works of art, though, there is a luster of impressionism to it. There is a distinct fuzziness in the details, a hazy mask covering the whole. I remember looking at a painting of a landscape I knew, and I noted that in the piece of art, several things were missing – electrical poles and wires, buildings, some prominent litter. I asked the artist why she chose to exclude those elements from the painting, and she told me that she wanted to focus on the beauty of the scene and not the things she felt detracted from that beauty. She had captured the beauty, but she had neglected the reality. The picture Jesus paints for us is beautiful, but is it realistic? It is idealistic, but is it practical? When we hear the description of the people Jesus refers to as “blessed,” do we believe what he says?
The people Jesus claims are blessed are not typically the ones we might consider blessed. Isn’t being poor, in spirit or otherwise, the exact opposite of being blessed? What of those who mourn? Considering that the word Jesus uses, which is here defined as “blessed,” can also be translated as “happy” – deeply and profoundly satisfied and fulfilled – can we really call mourners blessed? I spent some time this week thinking about how many people in the world define being blessed, and I came up with this alternate list of beatitudes.
- Blessed are the wealthy, for theirs is the stuff of the world.
- Blessed are those who are superficially happy, for they are desensitized to the pain of humanity.
- Blessed are the prideful, for they will inflate their ego.
- Blessed are those who satisfy their own needs without considering those who might be affected by their choices, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the strong-willed bullies, for they will receive what they want.
- Blessed are the sneaky, for they will have a better chance of not getting caught.
- Blessed are those who create conflict and competition, for they will be called rulers of the world.
- Blessed are those who go out of their way to live an easy life, because they will continue to live in blissful comfort.
This alternative list makes sense to a culture grounded in competition and held captive by fear, and I think competition and fear drive many people today. These alternative blessings sound to me like a list that guides many people in our world today. Yet it also guided many people in Jesus’ world, too. Into a society so focused on taking care of number one first, Jesus proclaims a way of life that totally flips the world’s values completely upside down.
Jesus proclaims a way of life that totally flips the world’s values completely upside down.
Stanley Saunders explains that, “The Beatitudes dislocate and disorient us because they are rooted in a radically different perception of the world. The myths [we tend to] live by derive from [an old] perception of a broken and hostile creation and a distant, angry God, and thus give rise to greed, alienation, and violence… The Beatitudes take us into a different world, with different assumptions, values, and practices.”1 Jesus considers those whom most people think of as blessed, and says, “No, they aren’t really blessed at all. Here are the blessed ones: the poor in spirit, the humble, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart. They are the ones whose cups are filled to overflowing. They are the ones who are truly happy.” Jesus is not naïve or ignorant. He knows full well how most people think the world works, and he declares that God created the world, and us, differently. Based in that reality, God’s reality, he teaches his disciples what it truly means to be blessed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
He teaches them that those who trust in God to supply what they need each day are blessed. Not those who get more than they need. Not those who get what they want. Just what they need. Hear in this statement echoes of the prayer we know by heart: give us this day our daily bread.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
He teaches them that while the damage inflicted upon them cannot be repaired, those who suffer will experience the comfort of God’s presence, the transformation of sorrow into joy, and the hope of restoration and redemption. They will be blessed, not because their pain will be erased, but because their pain will be transformed into something beautiful and new.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
He teaches them that those who trust in God to redeem them and restore their relationships will be blessed. He is not talking about meek people as ones who are passive in the face of aggression or exploitation. He affirms them as the strongest kind of people: those who submit to and trust God rather than seek vengeance. He celebrates those who believe in and act in ways that reflect that only God’s action holds the promise of justice.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
He teaches them that those who yearn for restored relationships among all people, who feel the pain of those who are alone, outcast, and maligned, who let their guard down with enemies so that genuine connections can be made, and who are vulnerable with strangers are blessed.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
He teaches them that those who can forgive others who have wronged them, who practice love – not just talk about love – of enemies, strangers, and aliens alike, and show mercy through their compassionate care for the least among them, are blessed.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
He teaches them that those spurn hypocrisy and self-serving conduct, whose thoughts, emotions, and actions reflect integrity, are blessed.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
He teaches them that those who make peace, not those who merely keep peace, are blessed, because they reap the rewards that come from loving enemies, praying for persecutors, and seeking wholeness.
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.
He teaches them that persecution is a blessing in its own right. Jesus isn’t teaching us that we should go out of our way to get the snot kicked out of us, but he is saying that we put ourselves at risk when we advocate for righteousness. Righteousness involves standing up to the established, and false, order of the world, which wants to preserve the separateness created by the labels of class, race, and religion. According to Jesus, those distinctions are not normal or inevitable, and they do not exist in the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who wants to spend eternity there must be willing to shed those labels in the here and now, regardless of the persecution that may result.
This is the list Jesus offers his disciples, and while he teaches it to them, the crowds overhear it. The message is for them, too, and it is for us. And it is important for us to realize, as we listen to these beatitudes, that Jesus is not offering us a description of certain other people, but rather is teaching us how we are to live and act if we want to be blessed and to receive these promises – the promise of the kingdom of heaven, of being called children of God, of receiving mercy, and being filled. This is Jesus’ mandate for his followers – to live out the beatitudes.
We might think this list is unattainable, that only some can achieve all, if any. Yet that is not Jesus’ expectation. He has faith in us enough to expect us to try to live out these beatitudes. The key to living out the beatitudes is first to realize that they are all interconnected, and build on one another. As you practice being poor in spirit, you are naturally laying the foundation for hungering and thirsting for righteousness, which in turn opens us up to be merciful with others, and with ourselves. Each of these beatitudes depends on the others. It is a whole.
The beatitudes aren’t just beautiful, poetic sentiments. They are truth. They are divine instructions for our lives.
The second key to living out the beatitudes is to begin from a place of compassion, a place where we can walk in one another’s shoes. To realize our common humanity before God because we are all created in God’s image. Henri Nouwen describes compassion as that which, “grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, [and, I would add, religion], we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.”2 I believe we need that compassion now more than ever, and I believe the mandate to live as beatitude people is more important than ever. We need divine blessing – a lot of divine blessing. We need it for ourselves, and we need it so that we can be a blessing to others. The beatitudes aren’t just beautiful, poetic sentiments. They are truth. They are divine instructions for our lives.
Reflect on the beatitudes, and as you do, ask yourself the following questions. Is Jesus leading you to be more compassionate? Is there something you are holding onto that is keeping you from being poor in spirit? Are you living in denial that is preventing you from mourning a significant loss or injury? Is Jesus inviting you to lay aside a prideful spirit? Do you neglect righteousness because you are seeking something else to satisfy your appetite? Is there someone who needs to experience your mercy? Are you being called to live with more integrity? Is there a situation where you can make peace? Is fear keeping you from acting upon the gospel and opening yourself up to the possibility of persecution?
May the beatitudes of Jesus guide you as you live in a society that bombards you with cries to acquire worldly blessings – blessings that come from ideologies that make us think that “might makes right,” and “wealth is the most important thing.” It is not easy to live in ways that garner God’s diving blessing, but Jesus promises us the rewards are well worth it.
1. Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 34.
2. Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (NY:Ballantine, 1972), 86.