The Beatitudes – bookends of grace

By Delia Quigley

The Sermon on the Mount occurs early in Jesus’ ministry, it is the longest piece of teaching from Jesus within the New Testament, and the first recorded teaching in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew sets the scene for us: Jesus sees the crowds that have gathered, then goes up the mountain, where he sits down and begins to teach his disciples.

Perhaps what Jesus preaches is an answer to the question from Psalm 15: Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill? The psalmist had answered, “Whoever leads a blameless life, and does what is right, who speaks truth from his heart.”

The Beatitudes, as with most biblical passages, are not spoken in a vacuum but rather, are spoken to a specific people at a specific time and situation. The Beatitudes are being preached to the people of Israel. Jesus’ ascent to the mountain harkens back to Moses and Mount Sinai so that Jesus here is the New Moses.

Israel has returned from exile but is still being oppressed by a government and social situation which inclines the hearers of Jesus’ sermon to experience and connect with the first “BLESSED” perhaps most profoundly, it drew them in to listen, as he leaned towards them: “Blessed”
The word ” blessed” can be translated as lucky, or fortunate. How can we be considered “lucky” if we are suffering grief?

Earlier this week, I was listening to a podcast called ‘By the Well’ with Fran Barber and Dr Robyn Whitaker and the discussion suggested that the word “blessed” could perhaps be substituted with the word “blissful.” That will work with some parts, but it doesn’t sit well with those who mourn. I feel if we are searching for another word for “blessed” I would suggest “beloved”
So, Jesus begins: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Why the poor in spirit? That doesn’t sound right to most of us. Wouldn’t it be better to be rich in spirit?

It is Jesus’ role to help us re-think our definitions and values; his movement is one of renewal. Jesus helps us to look at the old texts from the prophets and the psalms in a new spirit. So, let us look at blessedness as God’s gift, as Jesus makes known the values and priorities of the household of God, and offers a guide to living a gracious life.

Sometimes we find that ‘To be poor in spirit’ is to be open and empty before God, this could mean that we ‘die to self’. We can be in a position that lets us approach God or God’s kingdom humbly, with our hands, hearts and minds open, free of clutter, of old habits and anxieties. We can be humble and receptive, available for God to do a new thing. Jesus re-orders our reality, re-defines the nature of abundance to mean a new life in God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Mourning is another kind of emptying. The mourner is often cracked open, available to receive God’s grace. Sometimes though when we mourn, we look for answers or even to blame but it is often that opening of ourselves to love and grace that helps us to heal.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Qualities of gentleness, quietness, kindness, and humility. Qualities of letting go of control into the hands of God. Another kind of emptying.

So the first step to dwelling in God’s tabernacle, God’s kingdom living is emptying, and the next is transforming that clean emptiness to the blessing of a profound relationship with God. Poverty of spirit, mourning, gentleness, humility: these are characteristics of the contemplative life, these are qualities of a life of prayer.

Righteousness and justice lie at the heart of an active life in the kingdom of God. Having taught his faithful disciples how to be humble servants of God, Jesus begins to teach them to be leaders: peacemakers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

In the section of the Beatitudes describing the righteous life, Jesus puts truth and justice issues on the table. Justice must be accompanied by mercy and purity of heart. The psalmist (Ps 15) has written, in response to the question Who may abide on God’s holy hill: Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is truth but no nastiness from his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbour.

These words describe the Beatitude qualities of purity of heart and peacemaking. One who is pure of heart is single-minded in the quest for justice and truth, sincere, transparent before God. One who is pure of heart cultivates habits of integrity: unity among heart, word, and deed. Peacemakers must affirm hope in the midst of difficulty, despair, suffering.
The peacemaker values truth and reconciliation: peace with God, reconciliation, love for all neighbours, near and far. These are qualities of life in community.

Finally, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. A great challenge to the qualities of blessedness – openness, gentleness, humility, purity of heart, justice, and mercy – occurs when we are persecuted for that very peacemaking to which we have been led by our relationship with God and our neighbours. Or perhaps we want to aid and protect those who are being persecuted. There is no peace without justice. Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake must call on virtues of courage, patience, and self-control.

We need sometimes to be reminded however, that righteousness isn’t about beating people up with a big stick, that stick that we call the bible, for when we do that perhaps we find that Blessed are those who are persecuted in my name, could be twisted around… Blessed are those who we point fingers at the speck in another’s eye forgetting about our own plank!
The shape of the Beatitudes is brilliant at presenting an ethic of character based on the interplay between being and doing. In the Beatitudes, we journey with the disciples of Jesus from faith through simplicity, service, and reconciliation to hope.

Jesus’ words are of renewal. We are blessed by God’s grace to live in relationship with God and our neighbours. We are called to be Peacemakers, living the Beatitudes in our daily work and in our communities.
In next week’s reading from Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus tells us what we will become when we live by the ethics of being that he teaches in the Beatitudes. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. As the salt of the earth, may our way of being foster justice and peace in our daily relationships. As the light of the world, may our way of being be a model for justice and peace in the world around us and in the world to come.

This Gospel of Matthew and this season of Epiphany remind us that we are lost in the silliness and the hardness of our busy lives.
• We are over-caffeinated.
• We are over stimulated.
• We are under-rested.
• We are under-silenced or under-heard.
• We are under-prayed.

We have become poor in spirit and we have also forgotten that what we are given is to be given away – that we should give to others, of ourselves, give to those who should be Beloved – the meek, the mourning, the persecuted.
As much as the beatitudes have to say, it is the silence between each beatitude which is the loudest voice in this gospel. These sayings are not run together. They are staccato. They stand alone and they ring out punctuated by the silences in between.

It is in silence that we so often are able to find our way back to who we really are and what we really believe. It is in the silence that we can feel our spiritual poverty and see the absurdity of our busyness. We need to find the rope that leads us back to God – and back to ourselves.

So if we take our time in our reading, praying and saying the beatitudes with that staccato, and we substitute in the word ‘Beloved’; which extends a grace, an understanding, an empathy to those who need to lean in and hear and know that Jesus was talking to all of us:

Beloved are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beloved are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Beloved are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Beloved are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Beloved are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Beloved are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Beloved are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Beloved are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beloved are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When we look at the Jesus’s teaching of the Great Commandment: and love ourselves and thy neighbour and God truly with our hears and are then reminded of the Beatitudes we can clearly see two bookends of Grace. When we enact the great commandment, when we treat each other as Beloved and act with the grace that beatitudes tells us about; being blessed, beloved, we can see that we, the poor in spirit may be renewed, refreshed, and inspired by the words of the Beatitudes.

May we slowdown in our lives, remember that the times of silence between the busy lines, and the time we take for prayers help us to feel the love Jesus wanted to teach us about. Amen.

Photo of Delia Quigley

Written by Delia Quigley

Delia is an elder at TUC and a leader at the monthly Rainbow Christian Alliance. She is also a leader in Kairos Outside ministry and in the Emmaus Walks.

Delia is a retired Federal Police officer and has served in several peacekeeping operations, and is a member of Presbytery Standing Committee.

More from Delia Quigley