“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.”
This beatitude (like the third) has a parallel in Psalms:
Who may go up to the mountain of the Lord?
Who can stand in his holy place?
“The clean of hand and pure of heart,
who are not devoted to idols,
who have not sworn falsely.” (Psalm 24:3-4)
The Psalm is discussing the necessity of having clean hands and a pure heart to enter the Temple, where God was present in the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus is referring to seeing God in all his glory in heaven.
Who are the clean of heart? Those who love God “with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your strength,” a command from Deuteronomy (6:5) that Jesus later in Matthew’s gospel cites as the “greatest and the first commandment.” (22:37) Jesus will specifically warn his followers against the danger of worshipping money later in the Sermon on the Mount – “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24), and in our own time, there is almost no limit to the things people worship in place of God.
Even if we don’t worship these things, we often don’t realize how much they compete for our attention at the expense of God. “Fear of missing out” is now a recognized social anxiety. Jesus is reminding us that it’s okay to miss out on anything going on down on here! It’s not okay to miss out on the kingdom. Saint Paul counseled the Thessalonians to “test everything; retain what is good” (5:21) – the implication being that we should let go of everything that gets between us and God. In the case of some great saints this has meant a sudden, radical change in their lives, but for many of us it means small improvements, accruing over time, to detach ourselves from the things of this world and devote more and more of our hearts to God. The rewards are so great for those who embark on this path. (1)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a lengthy “Farewell Discourse” to his apostles following the Last Supper. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture. In it, Jesus talks about his peace:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)
How does the world give peace, and how is the peace Jesus gives different? Peace seems to exist infrequently in our world; it is a rare age that is not marred by warfare. Jesus’ time, at first glance, seems an exception: the Pax Romana brought roughly two centuries of peace to the Mediterranean world. Yet Jesus’ death is a cruel reminder that this peace did not rest in men’s hearts. Rather, it was a peace imposed by a conqueror and maintained by overwhelming force.
Jesus never imposes his will on us. He gives his peace freely and invites us to receive it. It is the peace of trusting fully in God and letting his will work in us, so that we can love our neighbor and bring peace to the world. When we reconcile ourselves to God, we can share the peace of Jesus with others, and so reconcile ourselves to each other. And this is the peace (the only peace) that can reconcile not just neighbors, but nations.
Putting it another way, Thomas Merton wrote that “we are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” (2) Think about it: how often have you lashed out at someone because you were angry about something that had nothing to do with them? How often is that anger, deep down, with yourself? Or does that anger spring from your relationship with God being out of sorts?
Reconcile yourself to God. (There’s a sacrament for that!) Share his peace with others. Then you will be at peace, resting in his arms, as a child is carried by her father, or a baby cradled by his mother.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The last two beatitudes are the only ones that are passive. They are signs that you’re on the right path, as well as a stark reminder of what’s in store for those who follow Jesus.
They may seem redundant, but in fact the ninth beatitude illuminates the meaning of “righteousness” in the eighth. After saying that those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.” Jesus is establishing himself and his teachings, teachings which bring the law and the prophets to their fullness, as the new standard for righteousness. (Matthew 5:17)
Jesus is also reminding us that the prophets, saints and martyrs trod this same road as well. For all the trouble we receive because of our witness to the gospel in this world, we are bonded together now through the communion of saints, which we will experience in all its glory in heaven. Just as we are bonded with Jesus now in the Eucharist (Holy Communion), a prelude to seeing him in all his glory in heaven.
(1) For a deeper look at what purity of heart entails, check out this article “What Christ Means by Purity of Heart.”
(2) Merton is quoted by Peter Kreeft in Because God is Real: Sixteen Questions, One Answer. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2008, p. 174.
Image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).