After Matthew spends four chapters letting us know who this Jesus is who is about to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus begins His famous oration with a series of blessing statements that we have traditionally referred to as the Beatitudes.
Our English word “beatitude” is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word Jesus uses which means “happy” or “blessed(1),” and this is how all of the Beatitudes start: “Blessed are the ________.” We live in a world where people desperately try anything they can think of in order to be happy, but what Jesus is talking about here is not a good feeling that comes to us based on outward circumstances. He is letting us know what a good and happy life really looks like from His perspective.
We’ll notice quickly that the people that Jesus describes as blessed are not the people who the world would think of as blessed, and that might surprise us, except we need to remember that Jesus is setting up an alternative community, which is governed by different values than the world has.
It is beyond the scope of this overview of the SOTM to examine each Beatitude in detail, but I would like to spend the next two posts looking at each one briefly in a way that will emphasize yet again that what Jesus values is very different from what our world values.
Blessed are the poor in spirit (5.3)
Properly interpreted this term should not be completely separated from literal poverty, but instead should be thought up in terms of the reality faced by those who are poor, especially in Jesus’ day: they had little money, limited status, and few rights.
Throughout the Old Testament, there is an elevation of the poor who have little power of their own but place their trust in God (Psalm 9.18; 34.6; 37.14; 69.29; Isaiah 57.15; 61.1; 66.2), and I think something similar is going on here.
Generally speaking, American Christians struggle to understand poverty because we are so financially blessed, but that doesn’t mean that we have no idea what it means to be poor in spirit. All of us have at one time or another have felt like we are the lowest of the low, completely beaten down by the circumstances of life, and that feeling of helplessness and powerlessness is closely tied to the idea of being poor in spirit.
And here is the shocking claim: Jesus says that people who feel like this are blessed! Neither Roman culture nor our own would understand such a claim, but Jesus presents a very counter cultural idea: God’s favor extends to all people, including those who we think of as poor. And more than that, these people are specifically blessed: since they have no earthly resources, they know they can’t rely on themselves, and can therefore more easily put their trust in God and depend entirely upon Him (2).
The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like this.
Blessed are those who mourn (5.4)
This seems like one of the most paradoxical statements of the Beatitudes: in what sense can those who mourn somehow be happy?
We can acknowledge that there are many aspects of life about which we could mourn:
- Mourning for the general sorrows of life: Sad and heartbreaking things occur in life, and citizens of God’s kingdom are not spared from these tragedies.
- Mourning for the sin in our lives: Sin grieves God, and cost Jesus His life, and as citizens of the kingdom, an appropriate view of sin will cause us to grieve over its presence in our lives and seek to repent of it.
- Mourning for the suffering of others in our broken world: Scripture presents our world as being a place where Satan, sin, and death currently reign, and because of that, people suffer in a variety of ways.
Although there are many things in this life worth morning about, for citizens of the kingdom, we are promised that those who mourn will be comforted. I believe that God is especially near when we mourn (even though at those times it might not seem like He is close at all!). We see over and over again in Scripture that God Himself mourns. Jesus was prophesied to be a Man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53.3), and He was also to be the Comforter of Israel who would bind up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61.1; cf. Luke 2.25). God is close to those who mourn, and seeks to comfort us when we do. Ultimately, this comfort will come when Jesus returns, God’s kingdom is fully established, and sin and death are abolished. When that happens, we will find comfort because the causes of our mourning will be no more.
Blessed are the meek (5.5)
We tend to associate meekness with people who are quite, mild-mannered, and weak-willed, but meekness does not suggest weakness or cowardice (3). When Jesus uses this term and talks about the meek inheriting the earth, He is actually quoting from Psalm 37.11, a text His audience would have been familiar with. In that context, the psalm refers to the righteous poor, who are being threatened and oppressed by the wicked wealthy. In the face of such oppression, the meek do not worry because of evildoers, but instead trust in God, knowing that He will root out the wicked (4).
In light of all this, meekness actually suggests strength of character, not weakness. It describes those who are able to remain patient and composed in the face of insult and injury.
In a society where people are offended by all sorts of things, it may seem like a brave thing to constantly complain about how everyone is annoying you, but really, it is a very weak position: you are admitting that other people have constant control over your emotions and response. Those who are meek, on the other hand, boldly refuse to give others control over their responses. Instead, empowered by the knowledge that God is in control and will ultimately vindicate them, the meek are strong enough in character to shake off the slights and insults of others, even from those who, from a worldly perspective, might be in a position of superiority over them.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (5.6)
When we think of “righteousness” we primarily think of it as a spiritual word that refers to our moral condition and our relationship with God. That is not incorrect, but in both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated as “righteousness” in our bibles also convey the meaning “justice.”
So it would be good for us when we read Jesus talking about hungering and thirsting for “righteousness”, that we assume He is referring to those who actively seek conduct which results in right relationship with God and other people. This also makes a lot of sense based on Jesus listing the two greatest commandments as loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22.37-39).
Another key idea to this beatitude is the idea of having “hunger and thirst” for righteousness. Living in the financially blessed conditions of the United States, most of us really know very little about what it means to be hungry or thirsty. The hunger of the ancient world was not a gentle growling of the stomach reminding us that it is time for us to eat for the first time in a few hours. Most people barely had enough to eat to get by, and meals of more than enough (like what you and I get any time we go to a fast food restaurant) were very rare indeed. Similarly, whenever we are thirsty, we can generally get access to clean drinking water within a matter of minutes. Again, this was not the case in the ancient world. So the idea here is not someone who has a mild desire for righteousness, but rather, someone who desperately craves it.
How much do you desire to be right with God and other people? As much as a starving person wants food? Because that is the characteristic of citizens of the kingdom that Jesus is describing here, and He says that those with such a hunger will be satisfied.
(1) Jack P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew, Part I, The Living Word Commentary (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1976), 79.
(2) Larry Chouinard, Matthew, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO, College Press, 1997), 95.
(3) Chouinard, 97.
(4) Lewis, 81.