Today our scripture is a famous speech known as the Beatitudes. Everyone has heard it, “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are those who mourn” “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
It sounds like Jesus is looking out at a crowd and making a list of the kinds of people God approves of. It is lovely and comforting, a prime example of Jesus as the God of love in human form.
But I think there is more to it that that. In my Bible classes I have been telling people that ancient writers liked to give double and triple meanings to texts. Especially spiritual writing. It is rarely only about its literal meaning. There are usually several layers of meaning, like a poem where ordinary words are used to represent something else. The Beatitudes are like that, too.
They appear very early on in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has just recruited the first disciples from the seashore, bidding them to come be fishers of people. Then Jesus spends a few days doing miraculous healings. Then we come to today’s scripture. Jesus has gathered twelve men to follow him, but in the gospel, he hasn’t actually told them what he wants them to do. He has hired them without a job interview or even providing a job description. But that is about to change. The text tells us that Jesus draws them away from the crowd to a mountain. Then he sits down. Now, back in the age before microphones, anyone who wanted to be heard by a crowd needed to stand up. The acoustics are better, voices project better. But we’re told that Jesus sat down. This means that what he has to say isn’t for the crowd, but the disciples who are around him. 12 men who have no idea what this new calling will entail. So, Jesus decides to give them a job description – one that starts on that day, and looks far into the future.
The first thing Jesus says is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We usually take that to mean poor people in general. But we know that, like all people, some of the poor do terrible things.
Murder, theft, sexual assault. Jesus can’t give everyone who has little money a free pass to sin and hurt others. But remember, Jesus isn’t talking to the crowd. He is talking to a group of young men who have just left their farms and fishing nets behind to follow him. Their life as disciples will be lives of voluntary poverty.They’ll survive by begging and receiving donations. But Jesus reassures them: you won’t make any money doing this, but you will get the riches of the kingdom of heaven if you become poor to follow me, to live according to my Way.
The next line is a famous one.: “ Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We often hear this quoted at funerals. They are comforting words, and I think they are true at one level. God does provide comfort to those who mourn. But the fact is, virtually every adult will go through periods of mourning. If all those who mourn are blessed, then that means everyone, from Hitler to Mother Teresa. If everyone who mourns is blessed, then we can shut down the churches, forget about praying, everyone is blessed. That can’t be what Jesus means.
Instead, it is more likely that he was giving some important spiritual advice for people who choose the Christian path. By following Christ, you may lose something. Your family may not get your new way of life. Your friends may not get it. All over the world, in places like India, Pakistan and the Middle East, Christians are being driven out of their homes and villages for practicing their faith. For Christian refugees, they have a lot to mourn over. They have left homes and even their country behind. To them, and all who have lost family and friends by becoming Christian, Jesus says, you who mourn will be blessed, and comforted. And that applies to his first disciples, who will be on the road for the rest of their lives, far from home and family.
For those who like to read the Bible literally, the next line is a hard one: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” If we look around modern society, the people who own most of the property are rarely meek. They tend to be powerful, opinionated and highly protective of their property. Anything but meek.
So, let’s consider this line as part of the job description of a disciple. These men have no idea what it means to follow Jesus. They will have to be learners, humble. And they will be taught by Jesus that meekness is the key to being close to God. Jesus will take orders from God, even up to getting on a cross. Pride is not the way. Humility and meekness are. When Christians become meek, setting pride aside, an interesting transformation takes place. Meekness means realizing you are not self-made.
Most of what we are – our bodies, our position in life, our mother tongue, the country we were born in – we can’t take credit for. We inherited all of that. Meekness also means realizing that we are never going to be perfect. Not even close. We make mistakes every day, always have, always will. Meekness means not taking yourself too seriously. Seeing your own faults, you can more easily tolerate and forgive the faults of others. True meekness is like a kind of second childhood, where it is easier to enjoy the simple pleasures of life since you don’t need to prove anything to yourself or anyone else. Meek people often see beauty all around them. In other people; in simple pleasures like coffee with a friend. The meek often find a walk in the woods full of more wonders than an entire museum. It is a paradox, but to be meek means feeling that you are at home in the entire earth, and it is a friendly home, full of delights. William Blake felt this meekness.
In one of his poems he said, “ To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” - William Blake “The Auguries of Innocence.”
The meek feel like they have inherited the Earth, as a gift they did not deserve or ask for. They didn’t earn it, it is inherited. They do not own the world, but they do feel a kinship with it, at home in it, and it is a very rich inheritance indeed. When Jesus is talking to his new disciples, he knows that by following him, they are going to discover what meekness means. And that will cause a profound change in the way they see other human beings and society.
“‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
When these disciples become meek, they will feel a kinship with all other people, of all faiths and nationalities.
They will feel a bond with humanity that will go beyond the old rules. These Jewish men will be the ones to bring the good news to the Romans and Greeks, and even as far as India and Africa. They will want to help people no matter who they are. And, paradoxically, being meek, they will hunger and thirst for justice. Why did Mother Theresa spend her whole life among the poor in Calcutta? Why did Jimmy Carter build houses for the poor after he was President of the United States? Why have so many Christians throughout history lived a life of poverty and risked their lives to help others? They did it because once we feel that meekness, that sacred simplicity, we feel the pain of others, and we want to help.
And so, the second half of the beatitudes is about how we can put our faith into action. “Blessed are the merciful.” First, Jesus says, use your position and power wisely.
Mercy is only needed when the people you are dealing with have less power than you do. Jesus will send the disciples out to help people who are poor, who are sick, who are spiritually lost and ignorant. Be fair to them. Help them, don’t judge them. Jesus never does a means test before he heals someone. If they are sick, help them, no questions asked. Be merciful. At this church, we have been helping the poor at the Roehampton Shelter. We don’t ask whether they are worthy to receive our help, we just give it. That’s what Christ calls us to do – help, not judge. Be merciful. “Blessed are those who are pure of heart.” Whenever we act, we are following our will. In Christ’s day, they didn’t think that people made decisions with the brain.
Instead, they felt that passionate decisions were made in the heart. So, to be pure of heart means to have a pure will. If you’ve become meek, then you have figured out that your will is most useful when you are trying to follow God’s will, which is merciful to all, and non-judgmental. So, align your will, your projects and goals with what God wants. Make sure your church is helping people outside its walls, not just its own congregation. Try to spend some of your personal spare time helping others in a way God would approve of. Be pure of heart and you will be children of God. “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” The meek feel the pain of others as their own.
We feel the pain of those who are being jailed and killed in Iran as they simply want justice in their country. Peacemakers act on that feeling, at kitchen tables when family conflicts break out, at boardrooms at work, even among warring nations. They want others to be at peace, to end the suffering. That is laudable, but often unwelcome. People who start conflicts often want them to continue, in your family and in the world. They may reject your peacemaking.
Christ gets this, so the last two beautitudes address the resistance we can encounter: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Jesus knows that when people act on the love God has given them, it will not always go well.
We always risk being condemned. So, Christ goes out of his way to remind us that if you follow my Way, God will bless you, even if others dismiss you, insult you, ignore you, even attack you.
These words are in the gospel because they apply to us as much as to those twelve young men. We have the good fortune to be living in a country where being a Christian won’t get you killed. We can criticize the government and not worry about being arrested or worse. That is not true in many parts of the world. It is not true in Iran. We assume it will always be safe here. But insuring that remains true is part of our calling as Christians. To follow God’s way, to make God’s peace reign on Earth, in our homes, at work, and in society. The reward is a sense of belonging to the universe, and a sense of solidarity with humankind. But Christ reminds us that a life spent following God’s ways is beautiful, and deeper in meaning than a life of simple survival. It is not a job description that will appeal to all. But for those of us who gather to hear the good news, it is a path that can make a normal life more beautiful, and a blessing to the world. And for that, we are truly grateful,
 The idea that the beatitudes are a spiritual progression comes from Augustine: Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Book 1, ch 3:10  Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Book 1, ch 1:3  Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Book 1, ch 4:5  “The Auguries of Innocence.”  https://biblehub.com/commentaries/hastings/proverbs/4-23.htm