|Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:1–12. We know this passage well because it contains a set of teachings known as the Beatitudes. For Christians, the Beatitudes serve as the defining characteristics we are to embody in our communal life. Just as Moses went up the Mountain and God gave the Ten Commandments to him, so we now read that Jesus goes up the Mountain and gives the Beatitudes to His disciples. That parallel between the actions of Moses and Jesus means that the Beatitudes are worthy of careful study and reflection because of the importance they are intended to have in forming us as Christian disciples.|
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. To be poor in spirit means that we realize our utter dependence on God for everything. The word for “poor” is actually “beggar”. There are times in our lives when we have no choice but to rely on God. These are the times when we cannot do for ourselves. It can be difficult to experience these moments, but it’s also a wonderful grace and a life-changing insight of faith to realize that the Lord is with us and that God can sustain us through difficult moments. In many ways, our strength and sense of false self-sufficiency can prevent us from realizing God’s presence in our lives. Poverty of Spirit opens our eyes to know that presence. Every breath, every success, every accomplishment we experience comes from the Lord. Only with the eyes of one who is poor in spirit can that humbling truth be known. Our culture promotes self-sufficiency and independence; the Gospel promotes poverty of spirit instead. A beautiful statement accredited to Mother Teresa says, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” Only someone who knows and accepts with humility the reality of their human limitation can experience the joy and freedom of being poor in spirit. Such an attitude does not cause one to have low self-esteem but rather to know that their true dignity and self-worth comes from God and is neither enhanced by strength nor diminished by weakness.
When have you had to be completely dependent on God?
Who have you known that has had to let go of their robust ego or strong sense of self-worth and had to find their only identity and security in God?
Blessed are those who mourn. There are lots of things that can make us sad. It is important for us to remember that Jesus is not promoting sadness for its own sake. People can be sad because of a movie they watch or because they do not get their own way. Not all sadness is of a holy nature. There is a distinctive kind of sadness, however, that the Scriptures do esteem, and it is the sadness of those who mourn the sinful condition of God’s people and resistance to God’s plan for the world. Saint Paul teaches us that this “holy sadness” can lead to repentance (2 Cor 7:9–10). Jesus experienced this holy sadness when He wept over Jerusalem hoping and praying that the people would receive Him and cooperate with God’s plan (Lk 19:41–44). The Psalms also express this holy sadness as a response to those who reject God’s Law (Ps 35:13; 119:27–29). When someone submits completely to God’s reign in their lives through poverty of spirit, then that person becomes increasingly aware of the presence of sin both personally and in the lives of others. It should be pointed out that there can be lots of reactions to the presence of sin that are different from holy sadness. Sometimes people can gossip about another’s failings or have an unhealthy preoccupation with the wrongdoings of others. Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are the judgmental” or “Blessed are the back-biters!” Sometimes sadness becomes the way in which others know that their actions are hurting themselves and others. In that moment of awareness they can experience the grace and invitation of conversion. Our responsibility as disciples is to demonstrate a holy sadness that invites and welcomes repentance both in our personal lives and in the lives of others.
What is our reaction when we see other people’s sinful condition or read about it in the newspaper?
What do we do when the values of the Gospel are ignored in individual lives or the decisions of governments?
When has sadness been a motivation for conversion and repentance in your life?
Blessed are the gentle. Note that this translation does not use the term “meek”. Jesus will use the same word to refer to Himself in Matthew 11:29 when He says, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” Gentle is a more accurate translation and better conveys the virtue proper for a disciple who is striving to carry out the will of God and promote the values of the Gospel. To be gentle is not to be a wimp. Rather, it is the ability to accomplish what is right without harming someone or their human dignity in the process. Aristotle taught that gentleness was the mid-point between the opposing vices of spineless indifference and rash anger. When someone is gentle, they are persistent and unwavering while being respectful and helpful at the same time. It should be pointed out that being respectful of others does not mean we do what they want but that we do what God wants for them. Gentleness always includes such faithful respect. People like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi are all examples of this Gospel gentleness that demonstrate this beatitude in action. These twentieth century leaders changed the world through their perseverance and determination, but they did so in a way that respected the dignity of each person whether that person agreed with them or not. Jesus was gentle in how He treated the sinner and the saint so as to lead both of them in the same path of discipleship. Those who are gentle trust in the power of truth rather than that of violence or force.
Who exemplifies for you the truth that “Gentleness is the greatest strength”?
For whom in your life do you need to practice the Gospel beatitude of gentleness?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. To be righteous means to actively do the will of God even in the midst of a world that is acting contrary to that will. One of the dangers of discipleship is that of complacency, which is the attitude that leads us to say to ourselves that we are “good enough” or that we have “done enough” or that we are “holy enough”. Sometimes such temptations can cause us to excuse ourselves from the challenge of the Gospel and ever-deeper discipleship. When we give in to that temptation, we have stopped “hungering and thirsting” for greater righteousness. We are made in the image and likeness of God and only when we live out that identity perfectly and completely can we claim to be righteous. The problem is that we are often tempted to compare ourselves to others rather than to the example of Jesus. When we do so then we easily settle for just being “better than” someone else rather than being “better for” God. When we keep our crucified and risen Lord as the only standard for comparison in our discipleship, then we realize how far we have yet to go before we can reach the righteousness to which God calls us. While the lived example of our Lord may be a high ideal to live by, it is the daily striving (hungering and thirsting) for it that God desires.
How do you think complacency affects people’s faith lives today?
What are the excuses that you use to exempt yourself from the challenge of the Gospel?
What can we do to help people hunger and thirst for greater righteousness?
Blessed are the merciful. Matthew’s Gospel puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of mercy. Mercy is not just an inner emotional feeling; instead, it is expressed in concrete acts to alleviate the suffering of others. Our contemporary culture tends to reduce mercy to an interior sentiment, but the Gospel teaches us that mercy is to be a motivation for action. When Jesus had mercy on someone, He didn’t just feel sorry for them or offer to pray for them, He actually did something to help them. As Christians, we are expected to be people who show the mercy of God to others through our actions. In a prayer accredited to Saint Teresa of Avila we say, “Christ has no hands or feet on earth but ours.” Thus, Jesus now shows His mercy for the world through the works of His disciples. Our love of God is necessarily expressed in our love of neighbor whether they be next door or on the other side of the world. Mercy has no limits.
When are you most moved to respond to another person’s suffering?
What is the most merciful thing you have done for someone else?
Who has shown you great mercy? Who needs your mercy today?
Blessed are the pure of heart. To be pure of heart really means to be focused on God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Sometimes it is easy to have divided allegiances whereby we experience conflicting loyalties and mixed motives. In the ancient pagan world that divided allegiance was expressed by the multiple gods they worshipped. Today, many people compartmentalize their behavior believing that their faith has nothing to do with their professional life, their family, their politics, or their finances. When we separate our life like this, then we create a divided heart and make idols of our various endeavors. If we are pure of heart (that is, possessing singleness of heart), Jesus is the Lord of every part of our lives at all times. Being pure of heart means that in every situation and circumstance, we allow our decisions and actions to be guided by the Lord. It also means that while we may have mixed motives for our various actions we always allow our desire to do God’s will to be the determining motive.
What are some of the conflicting loyalties that get in the way of being pure of heart today?
Who for you is an example of someone who is pure of heart?
What helps you grow in your purity of heart?
Blessed are the peacemakers. The Jewish understanding of shalom (Peace) referred to a person who experienced the fullness of God’s gifts. Peace was the result of right relationship with God, others, the world, and ourselves. To be at peace was to be reconciled of all division and enmity. Thus, peace is not so much the absence of violence as it is the presence of justice. This connection between peace and justice was expressed by Pope Paul VI when he said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” To be a person of peace is one thing, but to be a “peace-maker” is something else. That means we are people who not only experience reconciliation and right relationship in our own lives but also that we become people who help others experience it in their lives as well.
When have you been an agent of reconciliation for others?
When do you experience a deep faith-filled sense of peace?
Who in your life needs the peace that is the fruit of right relationship?
What can you do to be a peace-maker for them?
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus is not rejoicing in oppression. Rather, our Lord is encouraging us to be joyful when we are put down because of being a Christian disciple. When a person really lives the Beatitudes, they will act according to the values of the Gospel, which are often contrary to the values of the world. A person who lives the Beatitudes will be radically committed to following Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. There will always be those who resist such a witness. A person will never experience rejection or ridicule so long as their faith remains a matter of mere attitude or interior beliefs. It is only when they attempt to live their faith in a visible and public way and to make a difference in the world that others will notice them and react to them with either acceptance or rejection. Persecution, then, is a confirmation that our faith is being lived in a visible way. Jesus blesses this lived expression of faith. One last thing should be noted about the beatitudes and that concerns the explicit qualification that such persecution must be for Christ’s sake and must be false. This qualification exists to prevent disciples from mistakenly thinking they are blessed just because they are rejected. The reality is that there can be lots of reasons that can cause disharmony with others. Sometimes it’s our personality, annoying habits, or poor people skills that cause difficulty in relationships. Jesus wanted us to distinguish between that rejection which is a part of human condition and that rejection which is specifically caused by a witness of faith.
When has a visible witness of faith in your life brought about a negative reaction from others?
Who do you know of today that is being persecuted for righteousness’ sake?
A. Comte-Sponville. A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life
. New York: Picador, 1995 pp. 368.