Matthew’s gospel is remarkable for the way in which it mirrors the events of the Exodus, especially in its early chapters. We find a king murdering babies, a flight from Egypt, a passing through water (baptism), a period in the desert (40 days, not years), and in our gospel reading for the day we see Jesus going up a mountain to give instructions to his people beginning with eight ‘beatitudes’ (rather than ten commandments). Matthew is doing this deliberately, for the deliverance of God’s people in the Exodus and their journey to the promised land was a foreshadowing of the much greater deliverance brought about by the Saviour of the world, Jesus. And just as the ten commandments were designed to teach people how to live in the promised land – and on the way there – so Jesus’ teaching was designed to teach people how to live in the Kingdom of God as we journey to the ‘Promised Land’, the new heaven and earth.
What a surprising set of ‘blessings’! People today regard as blessed those who are rich or powerful or famous, those who can fulfil their every whim, those who are ‘successful’. But Jesus congratulated those who were the opposite, to our way of thinking. In doing so he taught us what our attitude as disciples needs to be. Let us look at them in more detail.
‘The poor in spirit’ are those who are not self-sufficient, got-it-all-together kind of people. They are those who recognise that they are completely dependent on God and his grace. That is the first requirement for a citizen of ‘the kingdom of heaven’. (When Matthew says ‘heaven’ that is often a euphemism for ‘God’. Luke in his version says ‘kingdom of God’.)
‘Those who mourn’ are not necessarily people who are bereaved, nor even people who mourn over their sinfulness. They are people who suffer, especially people who suffer for their allegiance to God. God will comfort them, Jesus says. The implication is that the comfort will more than make up for the suffering.
‘The meek’ are similar to the ‘poor in spirit’; they are people who do not push themselves forward or throw their weight around. ‘Meekness is not weakness, but strength under control.’ A trained elephant is ‘meek’, but not weak! ‘The meek will inherit the earth’ (cf Psalm 37:11) – whereas wicked people, for all their power, will not.
‘Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness’ are those who desire above all a right relationship with God. Justice, right relationships with each other, flow from that. One day all will be well.
‘The merciful’ show and receive ‘mercy’ – practical help to those in need, including those who deserve punishment rather than help.
‘The pure in heart’ are those with an undivided loyalty to God; they will see God face to face, and become like him as our first reading says. Such love will of course affect our behaviour.
‘Peacemakers’ build harmony in a world marked by conflict. God is working towards a world where all ‘in heaven and earth are together under one head, even Christ’ (Ephesians 1:10). Those who work with him are his children.
‘Those who are persecuted because of righteousness’ show their loyalty to God despite everything being against them. Such perseverance is a mark of citizenship in God’s kingdom. The Promised Land is worth the journey!
1) Who do you see as ‘blessed’?
2) As you read the beatitudes, what is the Holy Spirit saying to you?