Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
3 Happy the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
4 Happy those who weep, for they will be consoled!
5 Happy those who are gentle (or humble), for they will inherit the earth!
6 Happy those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will be satisfied!
7 Happy the merciful, for they will obtain mercy!
8 Happy those who have a pure heart, for they will see God!
9 Happy those who bring peace, for they will be called sons of God!
10 Happy those who are persecuted because of justice, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
This beautiful text, known as the “beatitudes”, is rightly well-known and absolutely essential.
It comes in the gospel of Matthew and is presented as the real beginning of Jesus’s preaching.
What is immediately noticeable is the eight-fold repetition of “happy”. So, the Gospel is a way of happiness and of joy. It isn’t making oneself unhappy in everything in order to inherit paradise. The Gospel is joy, joy and joy, eight times over.
Then we notice that there are four positive beatitudes: being gentle (or humble), being merciful (in other words, full of love), having a pure heart, and bringing peace; and four negative beatitudes, for the poor, those who weep, those who are hungry and those who are persecuted.
The four positive beatitudes don’t cause much of a problem; in fact they point to the way of the Gospel.
- Gentleness or humility: that means that the Gospel does not consist in wanting to crush everyone, to tread on people’s toes in order to think that we are greater, but Jesus said: You know that the leaders of the nations tyrannise over them, and that the great men enslave them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25-26)
- Mercy: this is a positive feeling as far as the Bible is concerned. It has nothing to do with “misery”, or else in the sense of sympathising with the misery of others. In contemporary usage, mercy is love. Love is the master word of the Gospel and it is in the end all that God asks of us. That is affirmed in what is called “the summary of the law”, in other words the summing-up of the whole will of God: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the second: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31), or again as Jesus says: ” This is my commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
- Purity of heart, has nothing to do with feeling. In the Bible, the heart is the centre of our life, the place from which we decide and orient the whole of our life. The important thing, then, is to choose well the heart of our life, what we believe in and want to build on.
- and finally peace, which is a very important thing. God is a tremendous source of peace for the person who knows how to pray; but before wanting it for ourselves, the most important thing is to want to give it to others.
Furthermore we will notice that all the beatitudes relate to what we can do and not to what we suffer. In fact, our happiness does not depend so much on the good luck or bad luck that we have as on our attitude in life. Jesus does not say “happy those who are left in peace”, but “happy those who bring peace”, he doesn’t say “happy those who are loved”, but “happy those who love”…
The four negative beatitudes are more complicated: there is one interpretation to avoid, namely that you have to be unhappy, poor, persecuted in order to inherit in the other world a sort of compensation, to be unhappy on earth in order to be happy in paradise. It is false, or even if it were true it would be a bad way of orienting our life to be preoccupied with it. Paradox does not directly concern us today, as we can see. And these beatitudes are for today, not tomorrow. So we have to believe that even if we weep, we can see a sort of happiness, which is beyond the reality of grief or celebration, and being poor is not an obstacle to being happy.
But above all, this is not about material situations, but spiritual ones: the fact of being rich or poor has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God; as far as happiness is concerned, it is the state of the spirit which matters. Happy are those who have a “spirit of poverty”; in other words, even if they have plenty of money, they know that in the final accounting they possess nothing eternally and that possessions are only temporary things. On the other hand there are some poor people who have a “spirit of riches”; they have little, but they hang on to it, don’t want to share, nor to give anything; that is unhappy. And then knowing that we are poor, spiritually, is knowing that we don’t have everything, and that we always need to learn, in this way, that we need others, and God, too. Just as happiness is not so much about avoiding unhappiness as about having a friend to console you. And in the end, what counts in life is to be in a dynamic: “to hunger and thirst for justice”; it is to have in our life a desire, a will, a project, a goal. That is what faith is, not so much the sense of God’s presence as the fact of having a goal, somewhere where we want to go, to go forward.
Happiness is being on the way, it is not a situation of immobility which we would like to last forever, but one that is dynamic. And in relation to that, what is needed is desires, wants, quests; and even difficult events can have the merit of setting us in motion.
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