Are you feeling happy? I hope very much that you, but even more so I hope that you are not feeling unhappy. I know that many of you reading or listening to this are carrying significant burdens of worry and even sadness. Some of you have known the acute pain of bereavement from those dear to you. Some of you have worries about employment prospects. Can we ever be truly happy? Jesus, in our gospel reading, tells us that regardless of our circumstances
and possibly even as a consequence of our circumstances we are truly
blessed. Some of the things provided by the list in Matt 5:1-12, known as ‘The Beatitudes’ do not present us with a very smile inducing collection.
‘Purity of heart’ and a ‘Peace-making’, ‘merciful’ attitude’ we get, but what about ‘poverty’, ‘grief’, ‘insults’ and persecution? How can these be seen as anything other than misery inducing?
The word ‘blessed’ is much more than mere happiness. Barclay explains: “Jesus did not speak the beatitudes in Greek; he spoke them in Aramaic, which was the kind of Hebrew people spoke in his day. Aramaic and Hebrew have a very common kind of expression, which is in fact an exclamation and which means, “O the blessedness of . . .”
There is a state of blessedness which even in the greatest adversity we can enjoy now.
Many of the great Christian witnesses and heroes of faith we celebrate and honour today faced the very terrors listed by Jesus in verse 11-12. The author of the book of Hebrews gives us a brief taste of the horrible ordeals which these faithful brothers and sisters in Christ faced:
“ There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” (Hebrews 11:35-37)
The latter form of treatment was a particular favourite of the Roman Emperor Nero who according to the Roman historian Tactitus added:
“mockery of every sort ……..covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished.” (Annals of the Roman Empire 15.44)
For such dear people Jesus’s words of Matt 5:12 were keenly felt and yet He said that those who were so treated should ‘Rejoice and be glad because of their great reward in heaven.’
Perhaps it was this reason that a little girl who was to become Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th Century Spanish mystic, religious reformer and Carmelite Nun longed for martyrdom:
“She and her brother set out in search of unbelievers so that they could “beg them, out of love of God, to cut off our heads.” But no sooner had the children started their journey than an uncle caught sight of them and promptly returned them to their mother. Teresa surrendered her dream of martyrdom, concluding that “having parents seemed to us the greatest obstacle.” (Article in the Vision, a Roman Catholic publication on Vocation to the Religious Life)
While this sort of religious fervour seems commendable, Jesus did not call us to seek out such suffering, only that such suffering would be the consequence for some following Him.
Each of the 9 Beatitudes demands a sermon in itself, but let me provide an overview so that you can begin to see the source of this true blessedness.
Poverty of spirit, does not mean ‘depression’ or ‘low spirits.’ The Greek word used by Matthew for ‘poor’ in v 3 πτωχός means ‘one who crouches and cowers.’ It conjures up the pitiful image of a beggar on the streets, but remember Jesus is talking of ‘poverty in spirit.’ The true Christian is therefore blessed, not if they are destitute and on the
own resources for living in spiritual matters they are instead utterly reliant on God. Knowing our need of God and surrendering our pride is the start of faith.
The Greek word of ‘mourn’ in v 4 is πενθέω which means ‘mourn, lament or feel guilt.’ It could certainly be taken that in the light of the resurrection Christian believers will be comforted as they mourn the death of one they love, but the implication here is more than that. The true Christian must grieve not for a loved one, but for the way we have grieved our Heavenly Father. True penitence is rare, but essential.
Meekness in v 5 is not an indication of being downtrodden and obsequious, but it means being submissive to God. It is used of a tamed animal surrendering itself to its master. The Greek word πραΰς also means ‘gentle.’
The world might think that the only way to get ahead is by shoving and pushing, but that is not the way of the gospel. The word is also used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his philosophy of the ‘mean’: In Nicomachean Ethics 4.1-5 he says that “meekness, or a mild temper (πραότης/praotēs), is the mean, or midpoint, between anger and an unnamed opposite extreme.” In other words ‘meekness’ is not ‘weakness’, it is a virtue. Hunger and thirst in v 6 need no explanation, but suffice it to say that Jesus did not tell His followers that those who fancied a nibble of righteousness will be filled, but those who crave and gasp for it. These are strong words, but it is the attitude we must have.
The word ‘mercy’ ἐλεήμων closely with ‘olive oil’ is fundamental to our faith. It means ‘full of pity, merciful and compassionate.’ Jesus reminds us time and time again especially in His parable of the unforgiving servant Matt 18:21-35 which we studied a few weeks back that our salvation and acceptance to God is dependent on our demonstration of mercy toward others. Showing mercy
is not about leniency and ‘letting people off’, but feeling genuine compassion for their pain and suffering and seeking to do something about it.
Purity of heart in v 5 and peacemaking in v 6 speak for themselves. Clearly we cannot see God if our vision is clouded by impurity. None of us are in any way perfect, but those whose hearts do not make them afraid and who are an influence for good in society will feel truly blessed. St John in our New Testament reading quite rightly asserts that the reason why Christians are mistreated by pagans is “the world does not know us.” and the reason they do not know us is because they “did not know him.” (1 John 3:1) If people truly knew God, they would not behave in the way they do and they cannot truly see God while their hearts remain impure. We have come to think of the Saints as those who have shown exemplary Christian lives, often in the face of their own death, but the word is used in the New Testament of all Christians including us. A true Christian saint is a person which has been set aside by God as His child and who follows the teaching and practice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Beatitudes are just the start of the collection of Jesus’s teaching known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ The requirements laid down even in those 12 short verses will take a lifetime to achieve, but for those of you going through a tough time at present can know that whilst the Beatitudes don’t promise us happiness, they do show us how blessed we can be in the face of adversity. For those who live this way even in the face of adversity will be living the way