What are the Beatitudes?

One thousand nine hundred and ninety years ago, on a low hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus Christ sat down and spoke to his disciples. The site is the present-day location of the church of the Beatitudes, memorializing the spot where the transformative Sermon on the Mount was pronounced. The Sermon contains the Beatitudes, nine poetic expressions of God’s values.[1] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is the first Beatitude, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew at 5:3.

What are the Beatitudes? What is their significance, especially for people nowadays? A common, but mistaken, impression is that the Beatitudes are just a set of rules that Jesus added, over and above the Ten Commandments, for people who aspire to a higher level of holiness. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us this common interpretation “totally misconstrues these words of Jesus.”[2] So, what are the Beatitudes?

The Beatitudes are paradoxes—they turn the standards of the world upside down because they see things from God’s perspective; they state God’s values.[3] “The Beatitudes are promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his ‘transformation of values.’”[4] The Beatitudes tell us that it is not the rich and successful, the powerful and praised, who will be rewarded; rather, it is the poor in spirit, for their reward will be eternal life in heaven. As such, “the Beatitudes stand opposed to our spontaneous sense of existence, our hunger and thirst for life.”[5]

But the Beatitudes are not just some contrarian philosophy of life. They give “a proper ordering to our lives.”[6] Ancient Greeks were “deeply aware that man’s real sin, his deepest temptation, is hubris—the arrogant presumption of autonomy that leads man to put on airs of divinity.”[7] “This awareness that man’s true peril consists in the temptation to ostentatious self-sufficiency, which at first seems so plausible, is brought to its full depth in the Sermon on the mount in light of the figure of Christ.”[8]

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” says Jesus in His third Beatitude. The Beatitudes are revealed truth; they are the words of God, instructing us on how to live, about what is valuable and right. They give us “the correct image of man and his happiness.”[9] As promises, the Beatitudes foretell the great reward that will be given to those who adopt the Beatitudes as their attitude of life: reasonable happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next. As such, “they are directions for discipleship[10],” for following Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Luke also gives an account of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke recounts a warning added to the Beatitudes: “But woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Lk 6:25). The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asked “what has been the greatest sin on earth so far? Surely, the words of the man who said ‘Woe to those who laugh now’”.[11] Though Nietzsche died of mental illness, much of his philosophy “has found its way into the modern mindset…”[12] His philosophy worked its way into the minds of the Nazis, whose ideology resulted in the greatest man-made catastrophe in human history.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt. 5:4). “The mourning of which the Lord speaks is nonconformity with evil; it is a way of resisting models of behavior that the individual is pressured to accept because ‘everyone does it.’”[13] The Beatitudes present us with a challenge. We can exercise our freedom to follow them or we can exercise our freedom to be indifferent to them, as did Nietzsche.[14] The choice to live the Beatitudes results in a freedom of excellence.[15] On the other hand, history teaches us that we laugh at the Beatitudes at our own peril.

[1] (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth-from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 71).

[2] (Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, 70).

[3] (Jesus of Nazareth, 71).

[4] (71-72).

[5] (98).

[6] (98).

[7] (Id.).

[8] (98-99).

[9] (99).

[10] (74).

[11] (97).

[12] (97).

[13] (87-88).

[14] (Dr. Matthew Ramage, PhD.,lecture on The Sermon on the Mount: Beatitudes (Cromwell, CT: Holy Apostles College & Seminary, recorded 12 September 2016).

[15] (Id.).