Friday, 7 June 2013
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 3)
This term "poor in spirit" is interesting in that poor generally means "lacking in [...](usually money)", but "lacking in spirit" is an English idiom equivalent roughly to being downcast. Since this is a modern idiom, I doubt this interpretation is right. Some have interpreted it to mean those who are materially poor, which fits with God's care for the poor as seen throughout the Old Testament, but that interpretation ignores the in spirit bit.
My interpretation goes something like this: blessed are those who realize their spiritual poverty. That is, not so much those who lack a spirit as some kind of entity, but more, those who are spiritually humble, who recognize their spiritual deficit. One objection to this is that, in reality, everyone is poor in spirit before God, so by that measure, everyone's is the kingdom of heaven. I do not think this objection is a good one, since this is a public sermon in which people are going to be relating these terms to themselves. Some of the audience will think "truly I am poor in spirit", and then be contented by the blessing, but others (and St Matthew probably has the Pharisees in mind) will think of themselves as rich in spirit. The distinction between the two is whether or not they recognize it - but of course, that makes a great deal of difference in practice.
Yet that is not all - I run this risk of over spiritualizing this beatitude if I make it only about knowledge of spiritual poverty, but no more. Being poor in spirit entails not only recognition of that, but also recognition of the material lack. That is to say poor in essence. Material poverty is included because this recognition of "I have nothing before you, God" extends to both the spiritual and the material.
"...theirs is the kingdom of heaven" From my interpretation, it follows that those who recognize their poverty, both spiritual and material, are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (v. 4)
This blessing highlights the sad, those who mourn - in general, people who mourn lack something. So I suggest that this blessing is a divine promise that those who do not think they have it all, those who are aware of their lack, will be comforted by God.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (v. 5)
This blessing is the clearest example of the upside down kingdom which Jesus proclaims, because the meek are usually the ones trodden on the most - they are not rulers, instead they are the doormats of rulers in this age. Not so in the age to come, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth! This is also a clear example of how Jesus' heaven is not ethereal and other-worldly; no no, Jesus the redeemer is going to redeem this earth, and give it as inheritance to the meek.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (v. 6)
I suppose the best way to understand this is another "those who recognize they lack will be given to" statement, in that those who are not satisfied with the righteousness they have are the ones who will be given more. A similar sentiment can be found in 1 John where John says that those who are without sin make Jesus out to be deceitful - ahh, but those who sin and plead forgiveness have an advocate with the Father. This is another bid that we recognize our spiritual poverty, this time specifically our moral poverty, that we may hunger ever for more. 
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (v. 7)
It is unfortunate that Matthew was chosen as the first gospel to be read in this reading plan, because it has such richness that points back to the Old Testament. It is, after all, the "Jewish gospel" - and that means it requires even more context. This word "mercy" is one of those key words, I believe, which would gain enormous profundity if the reading plan had covered more of the Old Testament by this point. Not to worry, though, because the common-sense reading is already rich: Jesus blesses those who have mercy, saying that they will be had mercy on. This is not the same as "God will have mercy on you if you have mercy on others," but instead "Those who yearn for God's mercy are merciful." These beatitudes, I contend, should be seen as cumulative in the sense that I think Jesus is blessing the same group with each one. Therefore, I suggest that those will will receive mercy are merciful, over the interpretation "those who are merciful will (for this reason) receive mercy." These things are all attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, who will see God, who will receive mercy - the attributes are not why they receive these things.
Let me stress another point, though: the merciful are not often thought of as the most forgiven. It is a sad fact of life that far too often, those who are forgiving get trampled on, not given mercy. So here too we see those who are full of mercy being given just what they yearn for themselves: mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (v. 8)
Uh oh. Nobody who really thinks they are spiritually impoverished also thinks they are pure in heart, I do not think. Has Jesus just alienated everyone?
Yes and no. I contend that here it is a matter of degree. In fact, all of the beatitudes can most aptly be thought of as a matter of degree, but this one most of all, because this one is special. Those who are closest to God are, by his grace, also those who are purest and see God the clearest. I find it difficult to find myself close to God, to see him clearly, but one thing that recurs in the lives of the saints is that as they grow in holiness, they see God all the clearer - in nature, in their brethren, in the faces of others.
Yet there's another way in this is true, and this meaning is profound: if you agree with me that the attributes accumulate and refer to the same group, then this acts as a promise. "You will be pure in heart, and will see God" - because how can you inherit God's kingdom and not see God? So those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, and those same people will be made pure in heart. This is a promise, then, of God's sanctifying grace.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (v. 9)
There's a sort of twist here, because no longer does this have the structure of "recognize need, have that need satisfied," and more generally, the connection between peacemaking and being children of God is not so obvious. Or is it? I'm going to cheat slightly and quote St Paul in chapter 5 verse 1 of his epistle to the Romans: "Having been put right with God by faith, we are at peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
See, the peacemakers really are given peace when they become children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 10)
In other words, "blessed are those who put the kingdom first (invariably leading to persecution of some form), for theirs the kingdom of heaven is." This is a blessing for proper prioritization - because you never get persecuted for righteousness sake if looking good in front of everyone is your priority.
"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. " (vv. 11-12)
This blessing is, primarily one of hope, but it shows us two things, and with this I can end. First, Jesus uses the term "rejoice and be glad", which means we can now look back on all those blessings, and mentally replace "blessed" with "happy." The Greek makarios allows for both interpretations, and although I think this idea of covenant blessings is the primary one (because Jesus has just gone up the mount to deliver the law of Christ - mirroring Mount Sinai and the law of Moses), this subversive understanding use of the term "happy" would surely get some heads turning. "Happy are those who mourn"? Really Jesus? "Happy are the poor in spirit?" Surely not! Yet this is proclaimed, good news for the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake, the merciful, pure...these are the true happy ones, Jesus says. His kingdom is upside down, you see - no longer will Caesar rule with all his riches.
Secondly, and here is the interpretive key to all these eight beatitudes: who truly embodies them? Jesus gives us a hint in verse 12, saying "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." This is the hint we need, because now we know with clarity who embodies these blessings, because it is the same person who embodies the prophets, the revelation from God: Jesus himself.
Who is truly poor in spirit? In St Paul's wonderful poem in his epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, we read: "...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." So who is poor in spirit? Jesus Christ on the cross.
Who truly mourns? We see Jesus weep for Jerusalem as he makes his way to sacrifice himself. Then he sees the sins of the world crucifying him, taking their King to death - who mourns? Jesus Christ on the cross.
Who is truly meek? On his way up Calvary, Jesus takes on himself the scorn of the multitudes, as they mock him and whip him. He takes this all the way up, not "getting off the cross" as those who mock him in the crowd say to him to do. Who is meek? Jesus Christ on the cross.
I hope you see where this is going: Jesus Christ on the cross embodies all the beatitudes: hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution and the object of reviling of men. We must understand the fulfilment of Christ of the beatitudes if we are to understand the victory of Christ.
 I have recently finished reading a book by NT Wright, who is known to hold somewhat controversial views on the term righteousness in the writings of St Paul - but for the sake of this, the distinction is not quite so meaningful, instead a matter of emphasis, which I will omit.