Have you ever noticed what odd statements some of the Beatitudes are? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are those who are persecuted? Really? In what respect is it a blessing to be meek, bereaved, and persecuted? Perhaps we could tweak the meaning of “blessed” in some way and say that those who grieve or are persecuted may find some spiritual blessing in the midst of their troubles. However, in any typical sense of the word, blessing is associated with avoiding such unfortunate circumstances.
Many interpreters of these verses have chosen to focus on the Beatitudes that include what we tend to see as virtues—being hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers—and have presented them as a list commands for Christians to follow. Matthew, however, does not present these as commands but as statements of fact. He could have easily written, “Be peacemakers so that you may be blessed.” But he didn’t; he said the peacemakers, the pure in heart, and the merciful are blessed. Despite the more positive associations we might have with mercy and peacemaking over grief and persecution, one may still wonder just how true even these statements are in our world? The merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers are often more likely to be taken advantage of and mistreated in our world than they are to be blessed.
These individuals are blessed not because of what is now but because of what will be.
Those whom Jesus calls blessed can only be so in a different reality than the one we inhabit, and I think that is what Jesus’s proclamation is about—a new reality. The second half of these proverbial statements is crucial to understanding that proclamation. These individuals are blessed not because of what is now but because of what will be. “Blessed are those who mourn because they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek because they will inherit the earth.” The Beatitudes are much more radical than mere observations about present reality or a list of commands to be followed. They are the announcement of a new world, a turning upside down of the present order so that those who are not blessed now will be blessed. Jesus is proclaiming a new kind of kingdom that does not operate according to the rules of power and wealth that structure the kingdoms of this world; a kingdom in which the first will be last and the last, first.
This kingdom, however, is not a purely future phenomenon. It is an anticipated reality that works its way back into the present, a future shaping the now. This vision of the future is an invitation for those who hear this proclamation to lean into that future presently. If a child hits a sibling, a parent might respond with a command: “Don’t hit your sister!” Such an approach can be straightforward, but it may also invite the offending child to think of every way they can harm or annoy their sibling without hitting them. On the other hand, the parent may respond with, “In this family, we take care of each other.” Such a statement is more a hope for a future reality of what this family can be, rather than a reflection of this family’s present reality (since one sibling has just harmed the other), but the parent makes the statement in the hope that all members of the family will live into it presently, thereby making it reality.
Much of the Christian life is an invitation to live into statements that, by any objective measure, appear to be false. So often in the world we inhabit the meek, mournful, and merciful are not blessed, the poor do not have good news proclaimed to them, the lost are not found, and the dead are not raised. What would it mean for us to live as though they are? The Spirit calls us to lean into these truths, making them true in our life together, allowing that future grace to shape our present reality.