We Christians often count our many blessings: family, a nice home, friendships that enable us to flourish.
But it is the strange Christian who says, I count as blessing poverty, mourning and the existence of persecution. Yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reveals to us the strangeness of blessing in the kingdom of God.
Matthew 5 begins by locating Jesus’ preaching geographically: “He went up a mountain” (Mt 5:1). For us modern readers, this may seem like an unimportant detail. But in the history of Israel, God reveals things on mountains. In the Book of Exodus, Moses receives the Law on the mountaintop.
Jesus now speaks this Law anew in the midst of a reconstituted, remnant people. The Law was never merely a series of commands that led Israel to fear. Instead, the Law is that which sets Israel apart as the chosen people who walk in the way of the Lord. Through the Law, Israel becomes a remnant in the world, “a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord” (Zep 3:12).
Thus, what now we refer to as the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew serve as the foundation of this remnant identity as citizens in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit. Give up any reliance upon yourself, becoming a beggar before God in prayer. Attend to the poorest of the poor, who are favored by God throughout the Old Testament.
Jesus says blessed are the mourners. Our Lord is not speaking about a general experience of mourning per se but about the way that we must become like the Israelites who weep over the sins of Zion, longing for God’s final redemption of the world.
Jesus says blessed are the meek. The meek are the poor in spirit, who do not seize power but like Jesus reign out of the humility of love itself.
Jesus says blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God is the source of all justice in the world. To hunger for righteousness is to long for God’s justice to reign, to commit ourselves to the radical self-emptying love revealed in Jesus.
Jesus says blessed are the merciful, for they have become missionaries of mercy. They have let their hearts be wounded by divine love, offering in consequence this love to the world.
Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart. The pure in heart are those who can approach Mt. Zion, offering the sacrificial offering. These pure in heart have let the law of divine love infuse every dimension of their being, becoming a living sacrifice in the presence of God.
Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers, for they will become like angels in heaven seeing God. They abide by the peace of the kingdom and not the violence of the earthly reign.
Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted, who dwell in a world that refuses to understand that the kingdom of God is not about power and prestige.
These Beatitudes are not simply a matter of behavior modification. For Jesus alone is the one who can live these Beatitudes as the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, the King of Peace.
Jesus reveals in the Sermon on the Mount what we must become to belong to the Church. We must become like Jesus, our very Lord.
We must receive a strange blessing indeed!
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.