The Beatitudes – the highlight of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always liked this passage in Matthew’s Gospel; my wife and I chose it for our wedding Mass. But I have had trouble understanding some of them. For instance, being told that it is blessed to be poor and meek can sound like the consolation prize for losers.
Help came from Pope Francis in April of this year. His long message called Gaudete et Exsultate (Latin for rejoice and be glad) is about being holy in everyday life, and the centrepiece, the main instruction for practical holiness, is his commentary on the Beatitudes.
Studying the Pope’s take on the Beatitudes really carefully, it slowly dawned on me: what’s going on here is a job orientation session.
Here’s the scene: we’ve been accepted as new recruits for the job of being a fully-realized, authentic, honest-to-goodness human being. And Jesus is addressing us. He telling us about mandate, norms and goals:
- what he expects us TO DO. He wants us to show mercy, console and mourn with the down-hearted, make peace, and pursue justice as desperately as we eat and drink to survive.
- how he wants us to conduct ourselves – what traits or attributes or characteristics we should exhibit – what sorts of persons he wants us TO BE. He explains that we must be meek, poor in spirit and pure in heart.
- what RESULTS he expects from our labours. The sign that we are on the right track is the fact that we are harassed and persecuted for behaving in accordance with the Beatitudes.
Pope Francis doesn’t organize his interpretations the way I do, although he does summarize the Beatitudes as a sort of “Christian’s identity card.” Here are highlights of his take on each Beatitude. (Warning: some of the points and vocabulary is mine, not the Pope’s.)
WHAT TO DO
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Mercy is a big theme for Pope Francis; it’s even in his coat-of-arms motto. It is the perfect imitation of God. “God’s perfection … gives and forgives superabundantly”. Francis covers both meanings of mercy: showing leniency or forgiving, and exercising compassion, which has our hearts go out to others and give.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” No, not mourning for our own losses; what the Pope talks about is reaching out and comforting others because everyone experiences pain and sorrow. Fight the worldly impulse to ignore and escape from other people’s problems. (Francis frequently bemoans the “globalization of indifference.”)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” This has several components. There’s the vision of peace; note how often “Peace be with you” occurs in the Gospels, starting with angels at the birth of Jesus. The peace we envision is not merely absence of conflict – it’s a matter of building peace. And this can be really challenging in everyday life, with awkward situations and abrasive people. In fact, we ourselves may cause conflict and misunderstandings, especially if we gossip. (The Pope hates gossip – he provides quite a rant about it!)
HOW TO BE
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Francis warns against pride and vanity; against smugness and being a self-assured fathead, especially when relating to others. Don’t be judgmental; those with a superior air alienate rather than assist others. Christ was and portrayed himself as humble.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Pope also warns against the shells of security we construct around ourselves: with money, reputation and other worldly goods. These make us self-satisfied, which distances us from others. It’s better to be indifferent to these ‘riches’, not dominated by them. Those who are saturated cannot allow what is new, is more, is surprising to enter in. It’s better to carry less inside of us and be open to God’s more.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Avoid whatever might pollute your heart, says Francis. Shun scheming, nasty intentions and hidden agendas. And he adds a warning against being naïve: our good intentions, which come from the heart, stimulate us to do good, but the heart can also intend evil.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Note the passive voice: it’s about the reactions of other people. If what you do pleases everyone, you are not trying hard enough in the real world to go against the flow, to challenge and be a nuisance. Persecution can take the form of slander, lies, ridicule … all the way to martyrdom (the Cross) … because insistence on what is right can be countercultural, subversive, contrary to powerful interests. But here again, don’t be naïve: if others are hostile, maybe one is simply being a jerk.
What about the rewards? Two of them look like a quid pro quo – be comforted if you mourn, receive mercy if you show mercy. The rest are very broad and grand (inherit the earth, see God, being called children of God and so forth). My takeaway is that all of this is access to a higher plane of being…. too lofty for me to comment on.
We have the Beatitudes because there is suffering. Everyone has their own trials and tribulations; Pope Francis repeatedly mentions the needs of the most marginalized and poorest among us. Don’t be indifferent, he says; don’t just accept suffering.
There are ways, such as the Beatitudes, to address suffering. Sometimes we should embrace the victims, sometimes we should combat the causes, and often we should do both. In order to be ready to do so and to do it well, we need to keep humble and sincere (so don’t be smug, sneaky or smarmy, don’t be a fathead or a sourpuss!) The payoff is finding true joy. OK? So gaudete et exsultate rejoice and be glad!
Thank you to the United Church community in Little Harbour, Nova Scotia, for inviting me to lead a service; this prodded me to think more about the Beatitudes.