“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
People often talk about being blessed. They may feel blessed because they have a beautiful new baby, a great job, a lovely home, or a wonderful family. They may talk about how blessed they feel after taking the holiday of a lifetime, or simply because they have a warm bed and a roof over their heads.
Jesus’ views on who is blessed differ radically from these and are pretty shocking. Christ’s Beatitudes are hard to understand, yet they are worth struggling with, for at their heart lie hope, grace and joy.
There are a number of words in the original Greek version of the Beatitudes that are difficult to adequately translate into English. Makarioi, which the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “blessed”, is one of these. It describes an incredible joy.
In the light of this, some of the Beatitudes seem very strange indeed. How can people who are persecuted and reviled have a deep joy? How can Christ tell them to “rejoice and be glad”? How can those who mourn or those who are meek be blessed, especially when many commentators believe that the word translated as “meek” refers to the oppressed – those humbled by others. And what about those who are poor in spirit? The Greek word for poor here refers to utter destitution, so the poor in spirit are those who are fully aware of all their weaknesses and who, therefore, feel completely helpless – not the kind of people we might expect to overflow with joy!
The answer to these paradoxes lies in the type of kingdom Jesus was bringing in. At the start of his public ministry, Christ declared that he had come to bring “good news to the poor”, and to those with little power and significance in the world. His message was one of incredible grace. His kingdom was open to those the world shunned – who were poor, weak and rejected. The message of the Beatitudes is not one that equates blessing with human effort, as is sometimes assumed. Jesus is not teaching that blessing only comes by trying harder to be meeker or more pure in heart. In fact, the Beatitudes declare how things are, rather than how they could be if only we tried harder. They simply announce how joyful people can be because Christ’s kingdom has broken in, bringing hope to those desperate for God’s help. The celebratory nature of the pronouncements comes across more clearly in William Barclay’s translation of this passage. Reflecting the absence of verbs in the original Greek, he translates the start of each saying as “O the blessedness of the meek”.
So what can we learn from the Beatitudes? Firstly, they remind us of God’s grace. The world favours success, confidence, money, power and influence. God’s kingdom is different. Its blessings are not won or deserved, but freely given. They are for the needy, poor and struggling. If we feel inadequate and unworthy, then we have much to rejoice about, for God is with us.
We also see that the joy of the Beatitudes involves more than just feeling happy, for that often depends upon how well things are going for us. We might feel happy, for instance, if we are offered a better job or inherit some money. However, if someone has just stolen our car, we will not experience much happiness! Fortunately, the blessedness the Beatitudes describe is a joy that exists regardless of personal circumstances. We have joy, not because our lives are easy, but despite our pain and troubles – for joy is the product of knowing God’s undeserved love and being assured of salvation.
So joy is possible even in the midst of pain, because joy does not stem from personal good fortune, talent or goodness. Even when we let God down we can rejoice, for we are assured of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love. Even when we suffer, we can know joy, for pain is never a sign that God has forgotten us. Our heavenly Father’s love is unfailing. Indeed, we can rejoice whatever our weaknesses and struggles, for we have a saviour whose blessings are poured out upon those who are reviled, humbled and weak.
Gospel Matthew 5:1-12
Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver a great body of teaching. He begins with some surprising statements about who is blessed.