"The Beatitudes are both an encouragement and a challenge for Christians"
I guess the beatitudes must be one of the best known passages in the Bible. We tend to call this passage the Sermon on the Mount, but in doing so we do Jesus a bit of a disservice because it probably wasn’t one sermon preached on a mountain, and in fact the passage we think of as the Sermon on the Mount should actually be 107 verses, not just these twelve. It seems much more likely that what we have here is Matthew gathering together the essential teaching of Jesus to his disciples and presenting it to his readers as a sort of Readers Digest condensed volume.
One reason for this is that we find bits of this material also scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel but in different contexts and over a reasonable time period. There’s nothing wrong with this, Matthew’s Gospel is a teaching Gospel and if he wanted to distil the essential wisdom and teaching of Jesus and present it all in one place then that’s fine by me! But we’re just going to look briefly at these first 12 verses which are so familiar, and I hope discover something new about them!
Two words stands out, mainly because they’re there in every verse. Blessed are…!
"Blessed are the poor
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness..."
Now here’s an interesting thing! In the Greek or Hebrew there is no such word as "are", the translators had to add it to try and make sense of the sentence. Jesus didn’t speak in Greek, he spoke in Aramaic which is a type of Hebrew which was used in that time, but there would have been a phrase that he and his listeners would be familiar with "O the blessedness…" and there’s a subtle difference in the meaning between this and the translation in our Bibles.
Psalm 1 starts off "1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked" or more literally "O the blessedness of the man….." and this is nearer to the meaning of Jesus’ words.
The Beatitudes are not saying, "You’ll be blessed if you do this, or live like this’" but rather that this is the experience in the here and now of the Christian. This is the essence of life in God’s Kingdom, the joy of the Christian life here and now as well as in the hereafter. I’ve heard it called the Kingdom Manifesto. The Christian life is one full of blessing. That’s why it should be impossible to be a miserable Christian!
We’re going to stay with that word "Blessed" because there’s more to learn. This is a very special word in the Greek, Makarios, a word that describes the gods, and to help us better understand it we have to go to Cyprus. I’ve not been there, but I gather it’s an island that is very beautiful – pleasant beaches, beautiful scenery and flowers. Now remember that word Makarios because the Greeks called Cyprus he makaria which means The Happy Isle, and they called it that because they thought that its beauty, climate and provision were such that a man could find everything he could possibly want out of life within its coastline for true happiness and contentment. A self-contained paradise. I assume that was pre-Thompson holidays and time share developments!
So Makarios describes a kind of joy which is perfectly fulfilling, self-contained, serene, untouchable, unaffected by the chances and changes of life. There is everything within it for perfect happiness. There’s no English word that can match it. Happiness has at its root hap which means chance
Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History says ‘‘The word 'happiness' derives from the same root as our word 'happenstance' or 'happen' or 'mishap', all of which denote something out of our control. 'Shit happens,' in the words of a once popular bumper sticker. Or maybe something good happens. Happiness lay in the luck of the draw, but so did misery.’’
The word blessed, as Jesus used it is not this type of happiness - it is unchanging, complete, beautiful and eternal. Jesus says in John’s Gospel "…I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy" (John 16:22)
So these words of Jesus, the summing up of his teaching to his disciples about the Christian life speak of a joy, peace and contentment that nothing can touch, A joy that can see us through pain, troubles, grief and loss, persecution and insult, a joy that nothing – not even death – can take away.
We’ve heard recently in the news of people who have made a fortune in life only to see it whittled away to almost nothing by the current financial problems in the world. We hear of healthy people who are suddenly struck down with a debilitating illness, or those who had pinned their hopes on a perfect job or opportunity becoming theirs only to see it slip from their grasp. Human joy is a fragile thing, Christian joy is solid, dependable and real both for the now and for the future.
The Beatitudes are both an encouragement and a challenge for Christians, because they don’t speak of what might be, rather they say to us that this should be our experience now, and if it’s not then we need to ask ourselves why – what’s stopping us from knowing the joy that Jesus talks about. What’s dragging us down? Is it our definition of blessed that is wrong?
There is this wonderful hope which is summed up in those words of Jesus to his disciples – we are truly blessed as we live out our Christian life in the love and presence of God, and this blessing, this joy can sustain us through all adversity.