There is great power in blessing people. One of our rotating outdoor banners says, “Be a Blessing, Practice Peace, Be Joyful, Lead with Love, etc.” I often use it as a benediction. I have been called upon to bless many things, marriages, babies, houses, the Fleet and Jr. Fleet, the Community Refrigerator, town meetings, and a new handicap walking trail. Blessing things express our hopes for good things to happen.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as “bless” is “makários.” It means the gods favor a person in some specific way. Makarios is not luck, not a skill; it means that the gods give you a gift. People use the word when you have a baby, when you find the right spouse, when you have a moment of fame, when your relative who was suffering is released to death, when people see you as righteous, or you had a mystical vision. You have experienced “makarios.” Note that you can’t bless yourself. No one says, “God bless me,” when we sneeze. Blessing is a gift from outside ourselves. Greek literature does not give examples of being poor, grieving, or mourning as a blessing. Those experiences are curses and lead to tragedy (and Greeks loved a good tragedy.)
In that light, the Beatitudes are upside-down blessings compared to the understanding of Jesus’s setting. What is so blessed about being poor in spirit, at the end of your rope, as the Message Bible says? How am I experiencing blessing when I mourn, I’m meek, or I’m persecuted for righteousness sake?
You might think it is blessed to be a peacemaker until you see what happens to peacemakers.
Nobel Peace Prize winners Martin Luther King, Jr., Anwar Sadat, and Yitzak Rabin were all assassinated. Recent Nobel winners like journalists Ales Bialiski from Belarus, Dimitri Muritov of Russia, and Malala Yousefzai of Pakistan; have all endured repeated threats of violence. I’m glad Jesus blessed peacemakers, because they are often cursed by people who prefer war and conflict to peace.
To get a feel for the tremendous emotional and social reversal of the Beatitudes, just imagine the opposite blessings for each:
- Blessed are the rich, and the rich in spirit, they shall inherit everything,
- Blessed are those who don’t mourn and keep a stiff upper lip in times of loss.
- Blessed are those who are empowered and confident, with influence and well-branded personas.
- Blessed are those who go with the flow and don’t get all excited about injustice or evil.
- Blessed are those who show no mercy and admit no mistakes.
- Blessed are those who are warmongers and who are good at figuring out who our enemies should be.
- Blessed are those who are careful never to say or do anything that upsets anyone, who don’t rock the boat.
If we are honest, probably at least two or three of these Beatitudes are closer to our MO than the blessings Jesus offers. He does not give us an easy ethic that leads to peace of mind, health, or prosperity. But these blessings meet us where we live, amid challenges and suffering, and show us towards the life God hopes for us.
In the early church, the Beatitudes were the pathway of the spiritual life. Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th-century bishop of Cappadocia, compared the Beatitudes to Plato’s emphasis on the classic Greek virtues. Gregory lined up each Beatitude with a virtue. Each virtue was also to guard against one of the seven deadly sins. Poor in spirit emphasized humility, which protected against the sin of pride. Meekness was like kindness, which guards against the sin of envy. Gregory compared the Beatitudes to a golden ladder that leads the soul to God. Each verse was another step towards greater awareness and communion with the divine.2
Augustine encouraged praying the Beatitudes along with the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. He linked each Beatitude with a line in the prayer. For example, “give us our daily bread” paired with “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Forgive us our debts,” paired with “blessed are the merciful.” “Deliver us from evil” paired with “blessed are the peacemakers.”
The Beatitudes were considered the primary devotional pathway to God for the next thousand years. In Dante’s Inferno, the author envisioned the soul’s journey as climbing Mount Purgatory to find our way to God. Mount Purgatory had seven terraces, each corresponding with the first seven beatitudes that needed to be followed to reach the next level. At each level, saints who were associated with that virtue would help you resist temptation and keep you on the ascent. It’s almost like a spiritual version of a fantasy game that millions of people now play, like Dungeons and Dragons, where you must move to higher levels, gain strength, and find helpers.
The Beatitudes also played a role in Christian social ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a chapter on the Beatitudes in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer wrote the book in 1937, the same year the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened to punish political dissenters. While Bonhoeffer wrote, Hitler was establishing the Reich Church loyal to the Nazi party. The cross was replaced with a Swastika, and dissenting pastors were thrown out of their churches.1. Lutheran pastor Martin Neimoller, was sent to Dachau. Niemoller had been a U-boat captain in World War I, a hero, and a member of the conservative national party who initially supported Hitler. But when Niemoller rebelled against the Nazi party controlling the church, he was arrested. He wrote the famous statement,
“First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Bonhoeffer wrote about the significance of living out the Beatitudes in Christian life. He believed Jesus called his disciples, then and now, to live extraordinary lives. That meant being merciful and just no matter what the rest of society was doing. Being a disciple meant doing the right thing and speaking out even if you knew it would lead to persecution.
The Beatitudes also influenced Dorothy Day, who created the Catholic Worker Houses to support poor people. Latin American liberation theologians commented on the Beatitudes, noting that people living in poverty in the Third World were the poor in spirit, the meek, and the mourning and that God cared for them as much as wealthier first-world Christians.
This quick survey shows how the Beatitudes have shaped both our inward piety and our outward social ethics in how we treat our neighbors. Jesus’s teachings in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are central to my faith because I often need a reality check. When I think the road ahead should be smooth, my faith should always bring peace of mind, or God loves me only when I’m successful, I remember the Beatitudes.
I need a life ethic that grounds me in authenticity and reality. I was looking for a meditation app to help me better focus. I found one I liked after listening to a couple of guided meditations, but then I got an email from the author that said the app was designed to make meditation easy. Well-being could be mine in just 10 minutes a day. I decided to delete the app because I want something more from my spiritual life. If the spiritual life was easy, I wouldn’t need God at all. It’s where the rubber meets the road that counts. I need challenge as much as I need God’s loving embrace. I value that the ethic of Jesus invites me to open my heart a little wider than comfortable.
The essence of the Beatitudes reminds me that I must embrace the hard places to go deeper in my faith. They remind me not to be slippery and avoid reality. Here are the lessons I take from these verses:
- Don’t run from grief but make space for suffering.
- Acknowledge what I can’t control and say it out loud.
- Don’t get paralyzed by perfectionism. Do your best and keep moving forward.
- Don’t sweep hard things under the rug.
- Don’t cover up my brokenness. Sometimes it is the best witness and teacher.
- Speak out when I see a neighbor being harmed by injustice.
- Acknowledging vulnerability does not make me weak.
There is the line by Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” The best visual image of the ethic of the Beatitudes is in the Japanese art of Kintsugi. This art form repairs broken pottery with gold filling, so you see the cracks highlighted. The scars on the pottery testify to the beauty that can exist within the brokenness.
Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, feel meek, mourn, long for true peace, and are willing to live truthfully and courageously on behalf of your neighbor. May you be blessed with the Kingdom of Heaven drawing near, and from the cracks of reality that break us, may you be blessed with the light getting in.
- See Rebekah Eklund’s wonderful book, “The Beatitudes Through the Ages.” Eklund shows how the Beatitudes have influence theology throughout Christian history.