When the Israelites wandered the desert, God called Moses up Mount Sinai, and there he gave him the Law and Commandments to lead his people.
When Jesus began his ministry, he went up the mountain, and called his disciples to him. In his Sermon on the Mount, he called on them – and us – to conform our lives and our hearts to the will of God, so that we might find happiness here on earth, and forever in Heaven.
At the center of the Sermon, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, giving them the words of the “Our Father.” And at the center of that prayer is this phrase, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The second petition explains the first, for when God’s will is done, then his kingdom is present among us. And when God’s will is done by all, the kingdom is present in all its fullness. This is how it is in heaven, and we pray this is how it will be on earth.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals the will of his heavenly Father. Of course, God revealed his will to Moses, but in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leads us to a deeper understanding of the will of God: of how to conform our hearts to God (the Beatitudes), of the full implications of the Ten Commandments, of how to perform works of mercy (specifically, prayer, fasting and almsgiving), and of how to store up treasures in heaven.
At work we recently went through an exercise of identifying our core values. We wanted to improve our culture, and felt that identifying those core values, and then articulating them and embedding them in everything we do, is essential to getting our culture right.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. It is his way of identifying the core values his followers must have if they are to conform their hearts to God and attain true happiness. The Greek word “makarios,” which is typically translated as “blessed,” can also mean happy, though commentators describe this not as an emotional state but as a fortunate situation. (1) God will bestow his blessings on all those who follow his core values. There will be trials and persecutions in this life for those who take up their cross and follow Jesus, but there will likewise be the peace of surrendering to God who is love, and the eternal happiness of heaven.
I imagine there is much overlap in the core values that companies and organizations identify. “Excellence” probably comes up a lot; “mediocrity” not so much. Beatitudes were actually a common literary form in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Jewish literature. The Old Testament contains 45 beatitudes, counseling readers to trust in the Lord (Psalm 84:12) and delight in his law (Psalms 1-2), among others. (2) What is striking about the eight beatitudes of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount is how different they are from the world’s values. Can you imagine any worldly organization identifying these eight values as central to their mission:
- Poor in Spirit
- Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness
- Clean of Heart
- Persecuted for the Sake of Righteousness
But these are the values Jesus wants us to live by. Let’s examine each of them in turn, beginning in this post with the first two.
Poor in Spirit
The poor in spirit are those who recognize their total dependence on God. Being economically poor and being poor in spirit are not automatically synonymous, but it is a massive challenge for those who are wealthy to be in poor in spirit. Put another way, it is a massive temptation for the wealthy to credit themselves for all their blessings, not recognizing that everything (their talents included) are gifts from God, and should properly be used to serve and glorify God.
Occasionally I lead the Liturgy of the Word for Children at our parish. When the Gospel reading was the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I asked the children what they wanted for Christmas. (Every hand went up!) After they shared their answers, I asked them if they could be happy if they didn’t receive any presents for Christmas? Could they be happy just from knowing deep down in their hearts that Jesus loves them so much that he became a little baby for them, suffered and died for them, and rose from the dead, all just for them? If you know that deep down in your heart, what could possibly rob you of your happiness?
This is the secret of the poor in spirit. They know Jesus is all they ever need, and nothing can separate them from his love; hence, theirs is eternal happiness – the kingdom of God.
Why does Jesus praise the mournful, especially if the Beatitudes show us the way to true happiness? Jesus is letting us know there will be sadness on our journey to heaven: the sadness of living in an unjust world, the sadness of genuine repentance over the ways we have offended God, the sadness we take on when we comfort those who are suffering, the sadness of bearing our crosses patiently. The world is constantly telling us to be happy, at the price of indifference to injustice, willful blindness to our sins (to avoid the suffering of guilt and humility of confession), avoidance of the sorrowful, and rejection of our crosses. The world tells us to enjoy ourselves, because life is short. The world tells us “not my problem.” Jesus tells us that time is a gift, and that we are all neighbors. When we use our time to fight for justice, to beg God’s mercy when we sin, to empathize and comfort the suffering, and to bear our crosses patiently, then we are truly blessed, and then our reward will be great.
(1) Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2010. p. 87. Mitch and Sri’s commentary on The Gospel of Matthew helped inform a good deal of the discussion of the Sermon on the Mount that will follow.
(2) Ibid., p. 89.
Image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).