Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the most challenging part of Scripture in the whole Bible. It isn’t particularly difficult to understand, but wow is it hard to live! The sermon starts off with the list of “blesseds” otherwise known as the beatitudes. I grew up thinking they were a sort of carrot Jesus was dangling in front of his followers, but a little study recently changed my mind. I don’t think these “blesseds” are potentials, I think they are descriptions of the character of Christ’s people.
Here’s what I learned:
The English adjective “blessed” is used for two different Greek (and Hebrew) words that have two different meanings.
Meaning 1: Eulogeo (Hebrew baraka) means a blessing to receive. In other words, it has an implied request or an unaccomplished aim. “Lord, bless my mom.” or “We will be blessed if we remember to care for the poor.”
Meaning 2: Makarios (Hebrew asir) means an existing state of reality. In other words, a proclamation of being. “I am a blessed mom of 4 boys.”
What is interesting to me is that the “blesseds” in the beatitudes in Matthew are all makarios (meaning 2). In days past, I would read this passage and think these were little promises that would apply to some special people. If you managed to be meek, you would inherit the land etc. But this not what is going on in that passage as that would be eulogeo (meaning 1). It doesn’t fit.
In addition to the language, we have to see the beatitudes as the introduction in a sermon. What Jesus says here should be reiterated and illustrated in the rest of the sermon. Looking ahead we find that the entire thing is about how his people act- how they are to give, serve, and pray, what their priorities are supposed to be and the attitude with which they interact with others. The beatitudes, I believe, are given with the exact same point. They are about the character of the people of God (the “blessed” if you will). Each applies to all followers of Jesus. They are statements about who we are.
The beatitudes are not encouragements or exhortations for us to act a certain way. They are statements about the reality of our blessed-ness. For a perfect parallel example: “Blessed are happy babies because they are fed and diapered.” The “blessed” is merely explaining the connection. Babies are happy because they are fed and diapered.
For me it is a little easier to understand the English equivalents if I turn this adjective into a noun (because nouns are more concrete in English) If Christ is describing his people – the blessed ones, with the beatitudes as he is describing his people with the rest of the sermon, this makes things a little more clear to me. With liberties, here is my “translation” for the sake of better understanding of the point of the passage:
The blessed are poor in spirit because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
The blessed mourn because they will be comforted.
The blessed are meek because they shall inherit the land.
The blessed hunger and thirst for righteousness because they will be filled.
The blessed are merciful because they will obtain mercy.
The blessed are pure in heart because they will see God.
The blessed are peacemakers because they will be called Sons of God.
The blessed are persecuted for righteousness’ sake because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
The blessed are those who when insulted, persecuted, and falsely spoken against because of Jesus, rejoice and are glad because their reward is great in heaven exactly as that of the prophets of old.
I really loved this insight into this little word because it shows what comes first and why we are able to live into our identities. I can extend mercy exactly because I have obtained mercy. I can be a peacemaker because of my identity as a son of God (with his authority and blessing to do so). I can be courageous and loving in the face of persecution because I know the kingdom of heaven is rightfully mine and the cloud of witnesses remind me that I am not alone. I continue to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness because it is a hunger that is always satisfied.
The beatitudes are not a list of possibilities tossed out for us to try to achieve to obtain some kind of special blessings. They are a statement of reality about who I am and where that identity is born. They are reminders of what God has done for those who follow Jesus and therefore what we extend to the rest of the world as a result.
*Credit and thanks to Dr. Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) for alerting me to these word differences.