Jesus clearly didn’t have the best agent. If he had titled his sermon on the mount, “How to live your best blessed life right now,” he could have gathered forty thousand on the hillside instead of four thousand. He could have funded thirty years of ministry from the collections taken up at one event alone, instead of petering out after three years, pretty much destitute, his treasurer so cash-starved that he would sell his soul for thirty pieces of silver. Being a prophet was rarely profitable, or popular. It did have a power of its own, and the incalculable advantage of speaking God’s truth. How much less profitable or popular, how much more powerful, then, the testimony of the Son of God?
The Beatitudes are so familiar, yet if we listen, we hear every time the crash and clatter of conventional wisdom being turned on its head, its contents rattling around, smashing and breaking as the container flips over. And yet we insist on flipping it back, putting the pieces back together: “How to live your best blessed life right now” is the sermon we want to hear. But the sermon on the mount is not a how-to guide to blessedness. The Beatitudes are not instructions for blessing, but a pronouncement by the Son of God himself that you, we are blessed. It is the blessing of Jesus delivered directly to his hearers, his followers, his disciples, his church. It is an assurance, that whatever things might look like in the kingdom of this world, where the meek are downtrodden and the peacemaker is a specific brand of deadly weapon; nevertheless, in the kingdom of God, blessings abound.
Actually, the peacemakers’ blessing is a pun in Jesus’ time, too. The Roman emperors considered themselves to be peacemakers – the famous Pax Romana was their particular brand of oppressive and suppressive peace, uniting the world under one ruler to rule out strife. Of course, the Jewish people, of whom Jesus was one, also had a vision of uniting the world under one ruler in an age of peace, only in their vision the ruler was not Caesar, son of the Roman gods, but the Lord God Almighty, father of all. And here is Jesus, the Son of God, assuring his countrymen that they are on the right track, that their hope is true, their faith justified: they are blessed in the eyes of God.
Those who lament the state of the world, the threat to the temple, the erosion of their daily freedoms and the pollution of their religious rituals; those who mourn for the days gone by when Zion stood like a shining city on a hill; they will be comforted to know that God has never left them, that their hope for God’s kingdom come is not in vain; that they were right not to compromise with the Roman rulers.
That message of reassurance is taken up by John in his vision of Revelation: the assurance to the early churches, in the midst of persecution, that God has not forsaken them, that their faith is not wrong, that their loved ones, even those martyred for their faith, are bright shining as the sun around the throne of God, basking in blessedness and lost in wonder and praise. They have been washed clean, pure as the driven snow, and now they see God.
One of the most transfixing and transformative pieces of commentary that I read about these Beatitudes was about the blessing of the pure in heart, those who will see God. The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary[i] advises that this purity of heart is not about avoiding impure thoughts (thank God!), but about single-mindedness of heart; single-heartedness, if you will. It is the heart that is totally dedicated to God that is undiluted by other idols, that is unsullied by other demands, that is undivided in its loyalty: that is the pure heart. I remember last week’s commandment, to love the Lord your God with your all: all your heart, soul, mind, and might. It is that soul that will see God.
So the martyrs purified themselves in the fire of passion for Christ; but for most of us, the purification is not one that we will but one into which God draws us, piece by piece. Sometimes the love of God, in either direction, is glorious, and sometimes it is a dogged act of persistence; but it endures, and it will, in the end, become so all-encompassing that all impurity is driven out, and we shall see God.
Jesus addresses a community chosen by God yet oppressed by humanity; he calls them blessed. We may claim the same blessedness for ourselves, if only we are poor enough in spirit, destitute in our egos, that love for God fills up our souls and purifies our hearts, so that we are meek enough to recognize the blessings of God for what they are and what they owe to God: our very lives, our families, this good green earth.
Those who are broken in spirit and impoverished in arrogance may lean on God for comfort when the whole world seems to be going to hell, because they are the ones who know that it is only God who can save them, and that God will not let them down. This is not “your best blessed life now,” but the promise that whatever the world has to offer, God will redeem us out of it, and show us true blessings, in the age to come, in God’s kingdom come.
Jesus did not promise those on the hillside instant riches, freedom from Rome, health, wealth and happiness. He promised them the blessing of God, the assurance that their times were in God’s hands, that the God who numbered the sparrows held them in high value, loved them. Jesus promises us the same: not that life will always be easy, nor without pain. But he promises that we are blessed by God, known and loved and held by God, and that at the last, pure and whole and reunited with those dressed in white around the throne, the ones we name today and the ones known to God alone, we will see God.
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Volume VIII: New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark (Abingdon Press, 1994), 179