When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed 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. (NRSV).
The ‘beatitudes’ or ‘blessings’ open Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. At least one translation reads: ‘Happy are those…’.
‘Happy’. ‘Blessed’. These are not the terms we readily associate with poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a yearning for justice or righteousness, the ‘merciful’, heart purity, makers of peace, and the persecuted.
In what sense can these be considered blessed?
Jesus is at least 30 years old. He has seen much during this time: he experienced life as a working-class carpenter, knew the loss of his earthly father, Joseph, and grew up a Jew under Roman occupation. It is enough to ensure that Jesus is not naive. Surely by now he has heard of Joseph and Mary’s time as refugees in Egypt.
But somehow Jesus emerged from these experiences unhardened. These did not make him into a preacher of power or advice-distributor on how to avoid suffering. In fact, the opening words of the first of five Jesus-sermons recorded in Matthew, turn the very idea of who is blessed on its head: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’
Perhaps Jesus does because of more than personal experience. What did he witness in ‘the crowds’? Surely as he ‘saw’ people gathering around his healing miracles Jesus also came to understand the challenges presented to the people of his time: the struggle for money, the deep-seeded anger produced by oppression, the temptation to embrace any opportunity to escape the grind.
I wonder if Jesus has witnessed a hardening he wants to counteract? Perhaps a grace he desires to affirm?
Then again, Jesus’ motive may be less philosophical than all this. Maybe it is a simple as the fact that those he saw and taught that day were the ones who looked cursed, but knew that they were blessed. Indeed, could this sermon possibly have become as significant as it has if it did not ring so true to life?
All this reminds me of my time in Lima, Peru. The people I met were in completely different circumstances to myself: some survived on a single meal a day; their whole region resembled a building site; they knew very little prospect for future gain.
And they were…happy.
Of course this did not imply that they knew nothing of violence and injustice. They certainly did. This was no ideal society.
But, I have never seen smiles on faces like I did among those communities. There was a level of blessed-ness among those first-world people that has stayed with me for over a decade now.
I am not the first to observe this. Many materially blessed people who have such an experience speak of the sense of joy encountered in their travels.
For me it was an experience that challenged my reconsideration of the beatitudes.