In the gospel reading from last week, Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This week, he begins to flesh out what it means to live a repentant life in that kingdom, in his famous Sermon on the Mount.[i] He opens his sermon by pronouncing a series of blessings, known as “the beatitudes”. If, as St. Augustine suggests, the Sermon on the Mount is “the perfect standard of the Christian life,”[ii] then the beatitudes are the very heartbeat of that life.
The beatitudes are some of the most referenced bits of scripture in both the ecclesial and secular spheres, and they are often employed to satisfy a particular political, theological, or ethical purpose. While the beatitudes may indeed have something to say about individual ethics or politics, they do so as part of a discussion on the communal life and identity of the people of God. It is helpful, then, for us to remind ourselves what the beatitudes have to say today about our life together as the blessed community of the baptized.
First, the beatitudes declare an objective reality about the Church. Matthew depicts the sermon as primarily given to the disciples who follow Jesus up the mountain. Since only four of the “Twelve” have been called up to this point in Matthew’s narrative, we are meant to understand that the disciples in this passage are stand-ins for the Church.[iii] Jesus is not pronouncing a series of unrelated blessings for individuals, or describing a list of character traits that would get one into heaven. Rather, he is declaring that the entire community living a life of repentance and humility in anticipation of the coming kingdom is blessed.[iv] Being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, and persecuted are not simply individual qualities of a heaven-bound person, but they are the “marks of the Church.”[v]
Second, the beatitudes represent both present and future realities for the people of God. Jesus has already declared the faithful community of disciples—the Church—to be blessed in the present. However, the rewards promised to that faithful community will not be fully realized until the kingdom comes in its fullness. This present/future dynamic of the beatitudes reminds us that, though our present conditions will often seem unbearable, Jesus’ promises of blessing encourage us to always fix our eyes on the wonderful hope set before us. The beatitudes remind us that the Church is a community oriented toward the hope of resurrection and new creation.
Finally, something that lies in the background of this text is the image of the Lord Jesus as both the one who blesses, and the one who is blessed. Of course, as the Lord of the already-but-not-yet kingdom of heaven, Christ is the one who blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc. Yet, he is also the one who is blessed by the Father: Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience and humility, even unto death, and he was ultimately raised and exalted to His Father’s right hand. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus perfectly modeled how we, the community of the baptized, should also live—a life that is fundamentally cruciform. It means taking up our cross, just as our Lord did, in humility and obedience to God. It means emptying ourselves of pride and self-importance, forsaking our own will and conforming to the will of Christ. We must lose our life in order to find it in Him. This is, after all, what happens in our baptism. We are buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.[vi]
[i] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 1999, 160.
[ii] St. Augustine, On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Chapter 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm.
[iii] Leander E. Keck, et al, The New Interpreter's Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books in Twelve Volumes Vol. 8, Vol. 8, The New Interpreter's Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 175.
[iv] Ibid., 178.
[v] Ibid., 177.
[vi] Romans 6:4