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Homily on The Beatitudes

“Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…” Christians the world over have been praying the Lord’s prayer for more than 2000 years, and undoubtedly will continue to do so for centuries to come. Each time we recite these words of Jesus, we consciously (or unconsciously) align ourselves with the mission of Jesus, his apostles and the Church, to establish the reign of God “on earth, as it is in heaven.” It is essential therefore to reflect on the meaning of these words in our lives.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-12), Jesus presents to his audience a set of behaviors that illustrate the nature of the kingdom he was proclaiming. These behaviors are known as The Beatitudes. William Barclay, the great Scottish interpreter of the New Testament in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, presents other titles biblical scholars have ascribed to the Beatitudes. These include: “The Ordination Address to the Twelve (apostles),” The Magna Charta of the Kingdom,” “The Manifesto of the King,” and “The Compendium of Christ’s Doctrine.” Clearly, the Beatitudes are of vital importance to all Christians, and thus necessitate not only our attention and understanding, but most significantly - a response!

In his sermon, Jesus presents the Beatitudes in terms of blessings – e.g., “Blessed are the poor in spirit…,” “Blessed are those who mourn…,” “Blessed are the meek…,” etc. Thus to understand the Beatitudes, it is essential that we first come to terms with the meaning of the word, blessing.

In chapter two of his book, The Prayer of Jabez, author Bruce Wilkinson provides some wonderful insights. Wilkinson says: “Blessing in the biblical sense means to ask for or to impart supernatural favor. When we ask for God’s blessing, we’re not asking for more of what we could get for ourselves. We’re crying out for the wonderful, unlimited goodness that only God has to power to know about or give to us… When we seek God’s blessing as the ultimate value in life, we are throwing ourselves entirely into the river of His will and power and purposes for us. All our other needs become secondary to what we really want – that is to become wholly immersed in what God is trying to do in us, through us and around us for His Glory.” With this in mind, Jesus says in effect, when you choose to be poor in spirit, when you choose to be righteous, mourn, when choose to be meek, etc., you invite into your life a power beyond your own, a power that only God can exercise, a power capable of making the world what God intended it to be from the beginning.

So let’s consider a couple of the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit

How many of you have ever considered being poor a blessing? Yet, that in fact is what Jesus exclaims in the beatitudes. Imagine the reaction of those who heard this sermon for the first time. I suppose it was not unlike our own initial reactions. The conditions Jesus proclaims as vital – i.e., life giving, are those which we daily work to avoid at all costs. So with that, let’s take a closer look at a few of the beatitudes… to get a sense of what he was trying to impart.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 5:3). This beatitude introduces the litany of blessings Jesus proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount. It’s important to note that the beatitudes as we have them today were written in Greek, but spoken in Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect of the time. According to interpretation of biblical scholar, Doctor William Barclay, the Greek word for poor (ptochos), describes absolute and abject poverty. The Aramaic word for poor (‘ani or ebion), describes a person who had no power, help, influence, or social significance, a person who more than likely was downtrodden and oppressed by others. So putting the together the Greek and the Aramaic translations, this beatitude means:  “Blessed are those who realize their own utter helplessness, and who put their complete trust in God, for that trust will earn them a place in the kingdom of heaven.”

Thus, to be “poor in spirit,” first and foremost requires a truthful reckoning of who we are in relation to God. We must acknowledge that we are God’s creation, totally dependent on God for our existence. All of our accomplishments, possessions and prestige are not our doing, although we may fool ourselves into believing they are. Who we are and what we have is purely the result of God’s love for us. This reckoning then, is an exercise in the virtue of humility, and once we know our place, we open the door to the blessings of which Jesus speaks. The blessedness we attain comes by way of our surrender to God’s power. Living the beatitudes transforms us from selfish to selfless, from greedy to generous, from fearful to courageous, from controlling to becoming, from captive to liberated! Our submission to the truth of Jesus’ proclamation allows miracles to happen, not unlike those that turned his apostles from fisherman to evangelists, from cowards to martyrs, from sinners to saints!

Blessed are the Meek

Having researched several sources from which to formulate an understanding as to what Jesus meant in this beatitude, I found myself intrigued more by what Jesus proclaims is the reward for meekness, “they will inherit the earth,” than by the call to be meek. I’m fairly certain that had I been there listening to Jesus, I would have asked him, what do you mean “they will inherit the earth?” At face value, that’s a pretty good deal! How do you think Jesus would have responded to my question? I would venture to guess, someone did at some point ask him what he meant, but Matthew’s Gospel offers no evidence of that, nor any further explanation. To get at the answer, we need to go beyond what Jesus said and look closely at the things he did, because his actions clarify his teachings.

Looking at the life of Jesus from a purely historical perspective, he was a sociological failure. He started a reform movement in which he had a modest degree of success, but likewise for which he was ultimately arrested, convicted, sentenced and executed as a criminal. By any social standard, his was not a successful life. According to the McGraw Hill Dictionary, meek is defined as someone who is, patient and mild; not easily angered or upset, even when treated badly. It’s logical to conclude by virtue of this definition that Jesus was meek, but looking at the way his life ended, it’s also reasonable to acknowledge that in his course of his life, he certainly did not “inherit the earth,” at least not literally. So if the literal meaning doesn’t fit, we’ve no recourse other than to assume Jesus was speaking figuratively, which is consistent with other sayings of Jesus, such as the parables. Take for example his metaphors for the kingdom of heaven. He likened it to such things as a treasure, a mustard seed, and a net. Therefore, assuming Jesus was speaking figuratively, we can proceed with an interpretation of this beatitude.

To me what Jesus says, is this:  we are blessed when nothing said of us good or bad, is taken personally; when we realize that both praise and insult are merely projections of someone else’s perception; when we are convinced that only God’s opinion matters. We are blessed when our egos are suspended – given over to God; when our passions are exercised only to promote justice and love. We are blessed when we offer to God our mind, body and soul, such that our thoughts, words and actions become windows to the world through which people can see and believe that God is truly present among them. Yes, blessed are the meek, those who like Jesus have given over their lives completely to God, for in their desire of nothing, they will gain everything - i.e., they will inherit the earth!

Suggested actions…

  • Consider how you feel about what Jesus proclaims in his beatitude.
  • Share and discuss your feelings with family and/or friends.
  • Consider to what degree you are living the call to being poor in spirit and/or meek.
  • Pray for the grace to understand what God is asking of you.
  • Choose 1-2 simple actions you can take to begin living the beatitude authentically.

Deacon Ernie