Commentary by Fr. Donagh O’Shea OP (www.goodnews.ie)
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: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The sermon on the mount is the heart of the Gospel, and the Beatitudes are the heart of the sermon on the mount. Here is to be seen the focused image of the Christian life. Here in fact is the face of Christ himself.
To be ignorant of the Scriptures, St Jerome said in the 4th century, is to be ignorant of Christ. Not to read and study the Beatitudes is not to read and study the face of Christ.
When I was a child I could tell you what was commanded and forbidden by each of the ten commandments, and what else was commanded and forbidden by each of them – even though I didn’t understand what many of the words meant. “Rash judgment, calumny and detraction” were illnesses, I thought – like measles, chicken pox and mumps (the word ‘rash’ put me off on the wrong track). But I have no memory at all of the Beatitudes. We never learned what was forbidden or commanded by any of them, nor even recommended. This, as I now suppose, is because it was so much easier to handle codified laws than deeper matters of the spirit.
The commandments are basic rules of behaviour from the Old Testament. They are what made that society (and indeed any society) capable of continuing without destroying itself. But the Beatitudes are as new a reality in the world as Jesus himself.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This was entirely counter-cultural, and still is. It is a challenge in every age. Today’s popular culture is about getting ahead and winning and becoming rich; and after rich, famous. It is more about appearances than reality. This is not exceptional; it is the normal life of the ego in every age. Even the Old Testament would tell us that success and victory and wealth are so innocently desirable that they are signs of God’s favour. Today we leave God out of the equation and go for the thing ourselves. We are better organised, that’s all. But in the Gospel, and crucially in the Beatitudes, we have a much more subtle and a deeper understanding; you could say that the Gospel takes account of the paradoxical and tragic side of life. It tells us that wealth and success often destroy people; that it is often through our very strength that we fall (Judas was good at buying and selling, and he ended by selling his Lord). The other side of it is that defeat and failure can be a profound victory (Jesus was defeated on the cross, but God raised him up).
In a way, the first Beatitude contains all the rest. One of Meister Eckhart’s most famous sermons is on this Beatitude. He said that poverty of spirit is even more fundamental than love. Strange saying for a Christian! But what he meant was that without poverty of spirit you cannot love as Christ loved. The ego knows about love, but only self-love and love of one’s own circle (extended self-love). It knows nothing of the spirit of Christ.