Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rethinking the Beatitudes

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven."
(Matthew 5:3-10)

I believe the beatitudes are a model or pattern for spiritual maturity with one building on another and ultimately looping back again in a continual path toward spiritual perfection. Rather than looking at them separately as if describing different types of people in the Kingdom of God, they lay down a blueprint for how to become a disciple. This seems to make sense within the greater context of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7.

Matthew chapter five begins with the beatitudes. Jesus then goes on to tell his followers they are to be light and salt to the world. The chapter concludes with a discourse on Jesus’ mission to fulfill the Law. He discusses six different topics in the “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” format. In each of these teachings he elevates the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant, to new standards that will become the way of the New Covenant. He deals directly with anger, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, retaliation, and attitudes towards enemies.

Chapter six continues laying down the new expectations of the Christian disciple. Jesus challenges his followers to form new attitudes about alms giving, prayer (including the model of the Our Father), and fasting. He admonishes his listeners not to follow the way of the Pharisees, but to pursue humility in these practices. The chapter concludes with Jesus encouraging them to make their true treasures in heaven and to trust in the loving providence of God to care for them.

The Sermon on the Mount concludes in Matthew chapter seven. Once again Jesus lays down new expectations for his disciples. He cautions them against judging others and encourages them to be persistent in seeking the Kingdom of God. He warns of false prophets and that the path to heaven goes through the narrow gate requiring not just lip service but obedience in our actions. The Sermon concludes with the parable of the two foundations; one on sandy ground and the other on solid rock.

From beginning to end the entire Sermon on the Mount provides the foundation for how to live the Gospel as a disciple of Jesus. It provides spiritual and practical advice and instruction. It’s within this context that we are challenged to re-examine how we look at the beatitudes. An important principle of public speaking or teaching is that you start by telling your audience what you’re going to say, then you say it, then you tell them what you said. The beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount. In them Jesus tells us the pattern for becoming a disciple. The rest of the sermon lays out the details. The closing parable tells us again how to be a disciple.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit is to recognize our total dependence upon God, that before him I have nothing to offer of my own. Without first coming to this most basic realization no real, sustainable spiritual growth is possible.

Blessed are those who mourn. Once we have recognized our dependence upon God we become keenly aware of our sins and faults. We mourn for ourselves, but more importantly for how our sinfulness and selfish desires keep us from drawing closer to God.

Blessed are the meek. When we recognize our dependence on God and our own sinfulness we develop a true sense of humility. Humility is not self-loathing; rather it is an honest assessment of our true standing before God and one another.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. As we grow in humility we begin to hunger and thirst for the things that please God. A desire to do what is right and to see justice done around us begins to grow and color how we live and treat others.

Blessed are the merciful. The desire for righteousness grounded in true humility and awareness of our own shortcomings leads to the next step on the path to true discipleship: seeking and offering mercy. We recognize that we fail in our desire for righteousness and that others have failed us as well. To be merciful is to extend forgiveness and grace to others and to ourselves.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Purity of heart certainly calls to mind a moral purity, but there is a deeper purity of heart. As we continue to grow in grace to become a disciple of Jesus we realize that our hearts must be purely for him. They cannot be conflicted or divided. We cannot allow our hearts to be troubled by the things of the world, but rather be consumed with love for Christ.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Once we have reached the point of allowing our hearts to be focused on God we once again turn outward towards our neighbor. Peace is not merely the absence of conflict, nor is it merely appeasement. True peace is only found in right relationship with God. Often this means the disciple is called to confront the sinner for the sinner’s own good so that he may know the peace of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted. Being formed into the image of Christ as his disciple is going to bring conflict with the world. As we attempt to make peace those not interested in Christ’s peace will persecute us just as they persecuted him. Persecution strips us and reveals to us those parts of us that don’t want to suffer or die to the world.

So the beatitudes present a summary of the Sermon on the Mount as a spiritual blueprint for Christian discipleship. The disciple begins with the recognition of his dependence upon God which leads to an awareness of and sorrow for his sins. This becomes the foundation for authentic humility and stirs up a desire for holiness. In the process of seeking righteousness the disciple’s heart is moved to seek and extend mercy. In order to continue the pursuit of God the disciple must become single-hearted for God. This purity of heart compels the disciple to bring about the peace of God rooted in truth, love and justice. Because the world has rejected the peace of Christ it will reject and persecute the disciple who then comes to a deeper realization of his dependence upon God. This causes the disciple to circle back to the very beginning of the process and start anew to become a disciple on a deeper level.

The middle of the Sermon on the Mount presents the details and examples for following this pattern. All of Jesus’ teachings in these chapters elaborate on these principles. He tells us how to embrace humility in prayer and action, how to avoid anxiety by trusting God, and how to extend love and mercy to others while pursuing justice and peace.

The final parable of the two houses echoes the beatitudes and pulls the rest of the Sermon together. The house built on solid rock has Christ as its foundation. The walls of the house are built brick upon brick just as one beatitude is built upon the other. The storm represents trials and anxieties of life as well as persecution. Those disciples who put the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount into practice will weather the storm.

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