When I was a senior in college, because I had already fulfilled all my required courses, I signed up for courses that interested me. One was American Sign Language. The teacher had a sunny disposition, one of those folks who just radiates contentment. She also had multiple sclerosis and would sometimes come to class on crutches. One of the students asked her how she could be so happy all the time. She said she was not happy all the time, but she was blessed by Jesus and therefore filled with joy. I think it was the first time I seriously pondered the difference between being happy and being filled with joy. And it really got me to thinking about what it means to be blessed.
We who live comfortable lives often read these words of Jesus as principles of good living, that those who pursue these things achieve a proper relationship with God, thereby making us The Beautiful People. But that gets it backwards, because we cannot achieve pureness of heart or poorness of spirit by human will. It is instructive for us to look at the people to whom Jesus spoke these words that we have come to call The Beatitudes. It was not The Beautiful People who were in the crowd following Jesus, it was those who suffered. They were the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first public words in the Gospel of Matthew.
From our modern perspective, it is surprising who Jesus calls and blesses, these people who needed to hear words of pure flowing grace, not because they were worthy but because they were loved by God. The world blesses the go-getters, the educated, the talented, the clean and tidy, those who pull their own weight and contribute something to the greater good. But those people were in Herod’s place, in the Temple in Jerusalem, in Pilate’s cohort. The people who came to Jesus were crushed in spirit, powerless, in need of mercy and blessings. More importantly, they knew that they needed these things, and Jesus gave them freely.
The Greek word μακάριος—makarios, translated as to be blessed literally means those on whom God has extended his benefits. Therefore, to be blessed is to be the recipient of God’s favor. It is not a state which we can achieve through piety or hard work. Rather, blessing is given to those who know they need God’s grace, and come before God with penitent hearts. The poor in spirit are depleted, the grieving are empty, the meek are vulnerable. Blessings are the absolute juxtaposition of the reality of depletion, emptiness and vulnerability. There are beautiful words with such power for people who know they need God’s grace. But sometimes we don’t know that we need God’s grace. And sometimes we stand in judgment of people who do not meet the standards of the world. When we are in that state, we consider the beatitudes to be pretty words that call us to a life of private piety. And when we do that, we miss the radical and shocking nature of the blessings. Even in your brokenness, God says to us, you are precious to me. The blessing resides in God’s presence and power, not in our intention or effort.
It is not an accident that words of blessing are Jesus’ first public words in Matthew. He speaks his blessing before a single instruction is given, before there is time for obedience or disobedience. If the blessings were only meant for the deserving, it is more likely that Jesus would have given them at the end of his sermon. He would have given them after instructing us as to our proper attitudes and behaviors. But what Jesus is saying here is that God’s favor precedes all human activity and intention. We cannot earn blessing, we can only receive it. Coming before God with contrite hearts and receiving God’s blessings gives us very different motivation for living as though the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the central teaching of Jesus in Matthew. We strive to live ethical lives, not because we are morally superior but in response to the blessings. In gratitude to God for what God has done for us, what else can we do but share the blessings with others?
A holistic reading of the entire Scriptures teaches us that God has a great bias in favor of those whom human society shuns. God is the champion of the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, seekers of justice, the pure-hearted and peacemakers because these are the people whom the worlds mistreats and throws away. This is the shocking scandal of Jesus’ words of blessings. And because God favors them, God himself divides the world into those who receive his blessings and those who do not. There is a holy paradox here, for it is not God who does the dividing but we ourselves. When we get close to the heart of the paradox, we get close to heart of the truth.
All of us oppress and judge other people; that is the heart of being trapped in sin. Jesus’ words offer blessings to all people because, before the throne of our sovereign God, all of us are crushed and depleted, suffering and in great need. Now here is the paradox—God does not force his blessings on anyone. We are free to decline the, and free to suffer the consequences of our choices. But for those who confess their oppression and judgment and acknowledge their great need for God’s blessing, they flow like streams of water to us. Those people whom the world bless as beautiful people are not the real Beautiful People. It is in receiving blessing that we are made beautiful Through the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ, we receive that which enables us to live as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
To God be the glory.