October 30, 2018
Author: Mary McCaughey, Oscott College, Birmingham.
Matthew is here revealing to a primarily Jewish audience that Jesus is the new Moses. His new law is written not on tablets of stone but on hearts in the Holy Spirit.
The Beatitudes are to be understood as referring to the future, but the joy over them is in the present. It can be experienced in some sense even now as the kingdom of heaven is expressed through Jesus’ ministry. In the Old Testament, ‘blessedness’ was part of the wisdom literature which connected a person’s deeds and their destiny. There the blessed ones are those who trust in God; fear him; hope in and wait on God. (Prov 16:20; Sir 34:15) The righteous one is blessed even in suffering. (Dan 12:12) While in ancient Greek this word is often used to refer to those who are ‘gods’ and who are beyond the cares and worries of this life Matthew uses the word makarios to refer to the little ones, the anawim, who are rich out of their poverty and need of God. They are those who will enter the kingdom of God. The paradox is that the little ones are blessed even in the midst of the trials, persecutions and losses of this life. They experience something of future blessing already. Ultimately the Beatitudes are a portrait of the life of Christ himself.
The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, to those who comes to God with empty hands and depend on the power of God alone (Zech 4:6) or ‘those who in regard to their inner lives stand before God as beggars’. St Thérèse of Liseux’s doctrine of the ‘little way’ revealed that God does not want great deeds from us but for us to come to God as a child and abandon ourselves to his love rather than trying to do everything ourselves.
That those mourning will be comforted is also a paradox. The idea of ‘mourning’ and ‘comfort’ comes from Isaiah 61:2-3 and refers to sorrow over this world. Those who mourn over wickedness, while they may not be able to change the circumstances, can resist evil internally by mourning it. That the gentle are blessed belongs with it the first beatitude. The Greek used here word for ‘gentle’, means ‘a humility that is expressed in kindness and gentleness’. These will inherit the land, or the kingdom, not by their might or aggression but by the power of God.
Jesus embodies the Beatitude of those who are blessed in persecution in the cause of right. As the innocent one who trusted completely in God in his suffering, love triumphed over evil. Hence, paradoxically, those who are persecuted can be blessed in suffering since they have learnt to entrust themselves to Jesus Christ for their complete consolation.
The Beatitude about the merciful approaches the main concern of Jewish wisdom teaching. Matthew has also spoken elsewhere of the priority of mercy over sacrifice. (Mt 9:3; 12:17)
Jesus rejected a Jewish understanding of ritual purity. (Mk 7:15) Those who are pure in heart ‘desire not worthless things’ (Ps 24) but desire God alone above idols and empty promises of happiness. To live this beatitude we are to ask what our hearts are set on, for ‘where our hearts are, there will our treasure be too’. (Mt 6:21)
The final beatitude speaks to the disciples directly. The Beatitudes are not merely ethical principles but underscore Jesus’s authority as divine Son of God and the promises are granted to those who follow him. Living the Beatitudes is about imitating Christ through the power of the Spirit.
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