During Lent we are encouraged in the disciplines of prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and Scripture reading. The beatitudes as recorded in Matthew provide a challenging basis for meditation on these disciplines. These few verses are dense with spiritual insight. They comprise a kind of Manifesto for the Kingdom of Heaven; at once encouraging, confronting and confounding.
Perhaps these musings will be called out for being speculative. We will see though that it is possible to see a description, if not a prescription, of spiritual ascent over these eight passages without undue wrangling. We should resist forcing this requirement on them too eagerly of course, especially if done just to be clever. Yet some of the earlier beatitudes seem necessary prerequisites for the latter, implying progression:
1 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
2 Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
3 Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
4 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
5 Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
6 Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.
7 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
8 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10
The composition style is simple enough, each contains a phrase containing a disposition or behaviour followed by a phrase containing a corresponding blessing. By way of surface observation, we notice two simple patterns right away. The reward in both the first and the last is the same, ‘the kingdom of heaven’. This at least indicates these are not random sayings but that they are stated in a particular order, and describe a cycle or progression; that their beginning is linked to their end. Also we notice that the 4th and 8th both refer to righteousness. In the first of these we are told that a deep desire for righteousness will be satisfied. In the second we are told that living righteously will not necessarily make us admirable to everyone around us. The repetition of the notion of righteousness indicates the passage is in two sections, and both intend to lead the hearer to righteousness. Patterning like this can be found in the first chapter of Genesis, where we have the first three days of creation describe the forming of the world, and the second three its filling.
Though something may be made of this, (a chiasm may even be discovered as in Genesis 1) We are more concerned how the Beatitudes describe spiritual progression, or ascent. That is, how the proceeding verses reveal ordered stages of growth in discipleship. To see this we can first look at the characteristics of discipleship that incur blessing. In each we have a state of being for which the holder is blessed; ‘for they shall’ receive some good thing as a result. When younger I tended to think the blessing was by divine intervention, and that ultimately these blessing were granted in the Last Days, and so they were only cursorily related to blessings in this life. This is a common problem in a certain kind of Christian exegesis. It is a heuristic fallacy; the fallacy of comparison to the eternal. Because Christians are in some way looking beyond the temporal to the eternal, we can tend to compare everything we discuss to the magnitude of God, and every temporal concern to the eternity of Glory, and so render all current concerns into oblivion.
Lent is a time we live close to the bone though. For this reason we should be looking at the quite immediate rewards these beatitudes point to, and the natural spiritual progression they describe. So laying out the first half of each beatitude we get the following list:
Poverty of spirit
Hunger for righteousness
Persecution for righteousness
Though it may not be obvious the order is purposeful, it will become clear that the first and last are quite deliberately placed; that moving them would make this into a random list rather than a description of the unfolding growth of discipleship. Luke’s shorter version of the beatitudes in his chapter 6 confirms this ordering. He starts with ‘blessed are you poor’ and finishes with ‘blessed are you when men hate you. . . for the Son of man’s sake.’
Looking at the first three we can see why our detractors think Christianity is a faith of maudlin wimps. The whole list though tells a fuller story of the process from humility and sorrow leading to a desire for best things, and this desire leading to fuller spiritual development granting wisdom to act in the world for its betterment, with quiet courage in the face of opposition.
Quite finely, this list shows a progressive development in three active dispositions or virtues: meekness, mercy, and peacemaking. Meekness describes a general disposition of quiet strength, mercy is a way we respond to the actions of others toward us, and peacemaking is a positive action on our part into the world. So we go from how we are, to how we respond, to what we do. These different stages of being and action are not possible without the spiritual development of the preceding ones.
Enough generalities for now. In the following posts we will flesh out this general conception by looking at each beatitude of the Master closely, and how they might relate to each other as a whole; a heuristic of discipleship.
Image: Detail of The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch.