“When Jesus saw the crowds” (Matthew 5:1)—who are these people crowding around Jesus? The preceding verses (4:23-25) tell us. The sick, those afflicted with diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics, “and he cured them.” First Jesus heals, then he teaches. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is, in fact, a collection of Jesus’ teachings. The Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee is traditionally the site of this “sermon,” but it’s not likely that Jesus would have given such a long set of teachings in at one time and in one place. More likely it’s Matthew’s way of providing a literary and geographical setting for Jesus’ words.
How did all these suffering people feel about their sufferings? Since everything that happened was thought of as coming directly from God, they probably thought of them as punishments, as the result of a curse. Instead, Jesus tells them that they are blessed, not cursed. Having been healed, they are able to listen and to hear on a very deep level. The power to heal is carried over into the power of Jesus’ words.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus tells them. The poor in spirit are not simply those who are spiritually poor, detached from their possessions. The phrase is perhaps best understood in the light of Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” These people are crushed in spirit; their sufferings and situation in life have left them desolate and without hope. They are blessed because their sufferings have drawn God close to them in compassion. And so the Beatitudes put suffering in a whole new light.
The Beatitudes also put Jesus in a whole new light: they can be read as a self-portrait of Jesus. Who is poorer than Jesus on the cross? Who mourns with those who suffer loss if not Jesus? Who is meeker, humbler? Who hungers and thirsts more for justice than does Jesus? Who is more merciful, who is purer in heart, who is more a peacemaker, and who more persecuted in the cause of justice? And so Jesus in turn casts new light on the meaning of the Beatitudes.
It is in Jesus that God has really drawn close to us. In Jesus, God has become vulnerable and open to pain and suffering, just as we are. We in turn have come close to Jesus through our faith in him and by our baptism into his death and resurrection. Finally, through our communion in him and with one another we discover the true meaning of beatitude, in this life and in the next.