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The Beatitudes

Barry Huff
Posted Monday, December 24th, 2001

The beatitudes are an ethical call to radical repentance. Jesus' "revolutionary teaching" in Matthew 5:3-12 is "a gauntlet flung down before the world's accepted standards" (Buttrick 279). In a society where wealth, self-sufficiency, and popularity are prized, we should be shocked by the blessings bestowed on the "poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3), the dependent, and the persecuted. The beatitudes boldly reverse our methods of measuring people and encourage us to behold the world from a God's eye-view. They declare, "Blessed are those who repent: for they shall see that the kingdom of God is at hand" (cf. Matt. 4:17). Experiencing the kingdom of God repents us, and we experience the kingdom of God by repenting (Langton 10/24/01). Transformation is inevitable for the citizens of God's kingdom, the blessed of the beatitudes. Join me in freshly exploring Matthew 5:3-12, "the essence of the Christian faith" (Barclay 7) and "the soul of the Sermon on the Mount" (Hunter 33).

To understand the beatitudes, we must start with their starting point: "blessed." There are two Greek words that Matthew could have used for blessed: one signifies "human happiness" while the other "points beyond human happiness to a divine realm" (Vaught 13). Matthew chose the latter, makarios. This word "is used in pagan literature to denote the highest state of happiness and well-being, such as the gods enjoy" (Johnson 281). "In the original use of the word," this divine happiness is the result of the relationship between its giver and recipient (Vaught 14). This happiness is unshakable because it is grounded in right relationship with God. It is "an inner condition that can be achieved regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Jesus is attempting to break the cyclical pattern of natural existence, and he is calling his followers to a way of life in which one can find divine happiness even in the midst of discord" (Vaught 14). This divine blessing reverses the world's standards, and the world cannot overturn it.

Jesus informs us of the only way to experience this unwavering blessing at the start of his fourth major discourse in Matthew's Gospel: "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3, KJV). Similarly, Jesus' first major discourse in Matthew's Gospel begins by emphasizing the childlike dependence on God that is key to entering God's kingdom. The "poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3, KJV) are willing to "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5, KJV). Only by stopping my attempts to live in the kingdom of me, where I struggle to control everything, can I enter the kingdom of God. Jesus was able to heal others, demonstrating God's active reign, His kingdom, because he understood that "I can of mine own self do nothing" (John 5:30, KJV). The beatitudes begin by blessing those "who know their need of God" (Matt. 5:3, NEB), empowering them to rely on the Omnipotent and realize that "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26, KJV).

Mary Baker Eddy states in her article, "The Way," that the three requisite stages of mental development are self-knowledge, humility, and love (Miscellaneous Writings 355-358). These stages are exemplified in the beatitudes. The beatitudes begin by proclaiming the virtue of self-knowledge and humility, exemplified by the "poor in spirit" and mourners who know their need of growth and meekly turn to God (Matt. 5:3-5, KJV). As Mrs. Eddy declares, "One can never go up, until one has gone down in his own esteem. Humility . . . is indispensable to personal growth, and points out the chart of its divine Principle and rule of practice" (Miscellaneous Writings 356). This spiritual growth must be exemplified in the active love of mercy, peace-making, and mourning.

Yes, mourning has ethical implications. Mourners "are the conscience of their age, not as acid reformers, but as heart of love. Such sorrow finds comfort. The Greek word apparently means 'to call to the side of.' This mourning summons the aid of God because it is akin to his nature" (Buttrick 282). Mourners are not oblivious to the world's problems, pretending that everything is A-OK. They confront both their own sins and the pains of the world. Instead of saying "Peace, peace; when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14, KJV), the blessed of God's kingdom mourn the lack of peace and take action to make peace. The mourners and peacemakers are blessed by the Comforter, the "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6, KJV).

During the Pax Romana, Jesus declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt. 5:9, KJV), implying that peace means more than the absence of war. The essence of shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is right relationship. Matthew 5:9 proclaims, "Happy is the man whose life-work is the production of right relationships in every sphere of life" (Barclay 95). When we live the "Our" of "Our Father" (Matthew 6:9, KJV) and establish peace among the family of man by breaking barriers, we are recognizing that we are all sons of God. This peacemaking extends beyond military force. It is preventive and curative:"If poverty embitters the masses of men and thus tends to war, the peacemaker enlists to banish unmerited poverty. If insecurity or maladjustment in toil makes a man fractious in his home, the peacemaker strikes at that root of the problem. At times he thus seems to be a troublemaker. Actually he is curing the disease instead of merely salving the symptoms" (Buttrick 286).

This peacemaking may create temporary conflict by striking at the symptoms of suffering. As the "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6, KJV) proclaimed, "I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34, KJV). Yet, by decapitating discord, Jesus' actions established true peace. Instead of putting up barbed wire and fighting over material real estate, we should be striving to gain a better sense of our real spiritual estate in the kingdom of God. A CNN replay of General Norman Schwarzkopf's celebrated final briefing on the Gulf War jarred Philip Yancey as he prepared to lecture on the Sermon on the Mount (72). He realized, "I had just seen the Beatitudes in reverse. Blessed are the strong. Blessed are the triumphant in spirit. Blessed are the liberated. Blessed are the conquering soldiers . . . the juxtaposition served to remind me of the shock waves the sermon must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine. To a downtrodden people obsessed with emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice. If a Roman soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Rejoice in persecution. 'Happy are the bankrupt and the homeless,' Jesus might as well have said. 'Blessed are the Kuwaitis under Iraqi rule, and the Kurdish refugees.' 'Happy are the unhappy.' We could dismiss such sayings as rhetorical excess except that they lie at the heart of Jesus' message and express themes that many of his parables merely expand on. Blessed is Lazarus (the poor in spirit), and the Good Samaritan (the merciful), and the Publican and the Prodigal Son (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), and the mongrel guests at the wedding feast (the meek)" (Yancey 72). These shocking beatitudes are the chorus of Jesus' gospel. They explicitly contrast "how to succeed in the 'kingdom of heaven' versus the 'kingdom of this world'" (Yancey 72). While body image and self-sufficiency are cherished in "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," God-image and God-sufficiency are cherished in the beatitudes' broadcast, "Lifestyles of the Poor and Dependent." Qualities that enable material success may impede entrance to God's kingdom.

When Judaism prioritized material ritual ahead of spiritual action, Micah proclaimed, "what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly [hunger and thirst after righteousness], and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8, KJV). This summary of the covenant reappears in the new law of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, where justice, mercy, and humility appear side-by-side in Matthew 5:5-7. The world thinks that meekness is weakness, but Matthew 5:5 shows that God gives might for doing right. This echo of Psalm 37:11 "must have cut across the fashion of Christ's own time! The Jews asserted their pride of race, the Romans their pride of knowledge" (Buttrick 282). Jesus asserts his reliance on his Father, and the resulting inheritance is divine. Instead of seizing the earth through human effort, the meek inherit it through God's grace.

"Pure in heart" and "hunger and thirst after righteousness" imply whole-hearted commitment to God (Matt. 5:6, 8, KJV). While the Jewish religious leaders of his day emphasized external, ritual purity (cf. Luke 11:39), Jesus blessed the "pure in heart" (Matt. 5:8, KJV). In Matthew 5:8, the Greek word used for pure, katharos, has a variety of meanings including "grain which is winnowed from all chaff . . . silver and gold which have no alloy in them, but which are sterling in their quality" (Barclay 72). Purity of heart "refers to the single-minded devotion to God appropriate to monotheistic faith" (Boring 179). This beatitude is the fulfillment of the Shema: "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart" (Deuteronomy 6:5). This single motive is the single eye that enlightens the whole body (Matt. 6:22). Yet, this theophany is not a vision of self-isolation. "Jesus will never allow us to see God's face without calling our attention back to the world" (Vaught 31). When one's vision is steadfastly set on God, it is easier to see God-like qualities being expressed by others and to live them.

Seeing God's face involves facing persecution. Interestingly, "before the end of the first century the word for witness and the word for martyr had become the same Greek word" (Barclay 97). As the early Christians witnessed God's face, they actively obeyed the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16) by publicly bearing true witness to their faith, exposing themselves to martyrdom. Yet, this persecution is a blessing. It signals that we are boldly standing for our faith, instead of just playing it safe (Buttrick 279): "No one will persecute a person who is futile, ineffective, and indecisive. Persecution only comes to the man whose life is so positive and real in its effectiveness that society regards him as a danger. George Bernard Shaw said that the finest compliment the world can pay an author is to burn his books, because the world thereby shows that it regards these books as so dynamic and explosive that they cannot be allowed to continue to affect the minds of men . . . To be persecuted is to be complimented as a real Christian" (Barclay 115).

Therefore, instead of being sorry for ourselves when we are ridiculed for letting our light shine (Matt. 5:16), we should rejoice. "The response to persecution is unbridled joy" (Mounce 41). Jesus gives us the reason to celebrate under persecution: "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33, KJV). Jesus' life proves that crucifixion is not the last word, just the last blow of a beaten foe. Resurrection is inevitable.

Why does dedication to the Divine invoke persecution? Eugene Peterson answers this question in his translation of Matthew 5:11: "the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable." The persecuted Christians did not swerve in their commitment to Christ. Only those disciples who take a radical stand, not the lukewarm Laodiceans (Revelation 3:16), receive the blessings of God's kingdom.

Do the beatitudes of persecution in Matthew 5:10-12 apply today, when it appears that Christianity is protected by the "powers that be?" Mary Baker Eddy answers affirmatively: "To suppose that persecution for righteousness' sake belongs to the past, and that Christianity to-day is at peace with the world because it is honored by sects and societies, is to mistake the very nature of religion. Error repeats itself. The trials encountered by prophet, disciple, and apostle, 'of whom the world was not worthy,' await, in some form, every pioneer of truth. There is too much animal courage in society and not sufficient moral courage. Christians must take up arms against error at home and abroad. They must grapple with sin in themselves and in others, and continue this warfare until they have finished their course. If they keep the faith, they will have the crown of rejoicing." (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures 28) The blessing of Matthew 5:10-12 should be as pertinent in the twenty-first century as it was in the first century. If it is not, then Christians need to rouse from their complacency, repent, and radically stand for righteousness. "Christianity is condemned when it is so tepid that the wicked do not persecute it but simply ignore it" (Buttrick 287). In a world where sensuality is deified to the degree that Christian institutions educate how to "safely" commit adultery, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3, 14) and beatitudes (Matthew 5:6, 9) are a stinging rebuke to the status quo of materialism.

Why have we degenerated the beatitudes into "nine spiritual bonbons" (Meier 281)? Because it appears easier to follow our own will and pretend it is God's will than to radically rely on God. Yet, the beatitudes assert that only through whole-hearted dependence on God do we discover the true independence of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. In the Lord's Prayer, Matthew reveals, through the literary technique of parallelism, how to experience God's kingdom: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10 KJV). When we do God's will by letting our human actions pattern the divine, God's kingdom is come.

While mortals will discover their inheritance in the last will and testament of a deceased relative, God's children constantly inherit the blessings of His active reign by doing the will of omnipotent Life in the here and now. This will includes 100% devotion to God echoed in actions that embrace all of His children in unconditional hesed, God's steadfast love. "This mercy is an outgoing love for man which actualises itself in action for individual men. Florence Allshorn said: 'An ideal is not yours until it comes out of your finger-tips.' This mercy lodges in the heart, but expresses itself in the hand" (Barclay 68). This steadfast love of God impels our uncompromising commitment to God, it images the love of the Infinite, it makes peace by establishing right relationships, it expresses itself in concrete actions towards individuals, and it does not flinch in the face of persecution. The beatitudes are an ethical call to action in every age. These thunderbolts of repentance boldly initiate Jesus' first sermon by echoing the first words of his healing ministry: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17, KJV).

Bibliography

Barclay, William. The Plain Man Looks at the Beatitudes. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1965.

Boring, Eugene M. "The Gospel of Matthew." The New Interpreter's Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck et al. 12 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. Vol 8.

Brooks, Oscar Stephen. The Sermon on the Mount: Authentic Human Values. New York: University Press of America, 1985.

Buttrick, George A. "Exposition of Matthew." The Interpreter's Bible. Ed. George Buttrick et al. 12 vols. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957. Vol 7.

Crook, Roger H. An Introduction to Christian Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Dietrich, Suzanne de. Matthew. [The Layman's Bible Commentary] Ed. Balmer H. Kelly et al. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1961.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1934.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Miscellaneous Writings. Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1924.

Guroian, Vigen. "Bible and Ethics: An Ecclesial and Liturgical Interpretation." The Journal of Religious Ethics 18.1 (Spring 1990): 136-141.

Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew. [Interpretation] Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993.

Hunter, Archibald M. A Pattern for Life: An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965.

Johnson, Sherman E. "Exegesis of Matthew." The Interpreter's Bible. Ed. George Buttrick et al. 12 vols. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957. Vol 7.

Langton, Chris. Bible and Christian Ethics Course Comments. Fall 2001.

Maston, T. B. Biblical Ethics. Cleveland: Mercer University Press, 1967.

McArthur, Harvey K. Understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1960.

McEleney, Neil J. "The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain." The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43.1 (January 1981): 1-13.

Meier, John P. "Matthew 5:3-12." Interpretation 44.3 (July 1990): 281-285.

Mounce, Robert H. Matthew. [New International Biblical Commentary] Ed. W. Ward Gasque et al. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993.

Schrage, Wolfgang. The Ethics of the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.

The Bible. King James Version.

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Vaughan, Curtis, ed. The Word: The Bible From 26 Translations. Gulfport, MS: Mathis Publishers, 1993.

Vaught, Carl G. The Sermon on the Mount: A Theological Interpretation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Yancey, Philip. "General Schwarzkopf Meets the Beatitudes." Christianity Today 24 June 1991: 72.

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