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:
“After he sat down....” This is a significant detail. Rabbis would assume any posture as they discussed matters with their students; but when it came to teaching officially – expounding the Law – they always sat. In saying that Jesus sat down, Matthew is telling us that what follows is no small-talk but the heart of the matter. The Beatitudes are the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, as the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of the whole Gospel.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Another translation, less happily, says “How happy are the poor in spirit.” But there are differences between ‘blessed’ and ‘happy’.
You can be blessed without knowing it. I saw this clearly as I watched a young couple almost competing with each other to hold their baby, while the baby slept through it all. You can also be blessed without appreciating it. “You’re blessed with good health,” someone says to you; but you don’t feel blessed at all, you feel just normal. It is only when you fall ill that you appreciate health. “When you have a toothache,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “you realise how wonderful it is not to have a toothache.”
Happiness, on the other hand, is just a passing state of feeling. The word ‘happiness’ is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’: it is about randomness, it is about hit and miss. Feelings, like the weather, come and go and are constantly changing. You can't stake a claim to happiness because it is not firm ground and stakes take no hold there.
Jesus doesn’t tell you that you are happy. He tells you that you are blessed. He tells the poor in spirit that whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not, they are blessed. Blessedness comes from beyond the changeable world of feelings and ideas. The mediaeval theologians spoke about ‘beatitudo’. The word is normally translated as ‘happiness’, but it was not referring to the subjective feeling of happiness; rather to the objective state of being rightly aligned in one’s life.
As we go through our phases we are to know that there is a loving God who cares for us with the love of a father and mother. It is especially when we are weak and without resources of our own that we come to know it. It is when we ourselves begin to embody some of God's own qualities, made visible in the life of Jesus, that we know it. The Beatitudes are the best portrait we have of Jesus himself, and he honours us by telling us they are our portrait too.
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