Today we’re rewinding a bit although we remain in the Gospels. We go back to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry … before the Pharisees attempted to trap him, before hordes of people wanted to just try to touch him in hopes of some of his blessedness falling upon wretched hands, before Jesus even had much of a name (if any) for himself.
Specifically, Jesus is telling those who listen who are blessed. We don’t really have the same concept nowadays, however, at least in the way that he meant it. We live in a different culture, speak a different language, and Christianity is a radically different religion than first-century Judaism which Jesus was trying to reform.
However, this coming Sunday is All Saints Day, a wonderful holiday in which we (as Christians) celebrate all of our saints. In Congregationalism and many reformed traditions, all Christians have the potential to be saints … so we are not just celebrating people who have come and gone before us, people we never could have met, people who are too great for us to comprehend. Instead, we are celebrating our grandparents, our mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, our spouses, our loved ones, our brothers and sisters, and even our children and our children’s children.
We don’t need a pope to attribute miracles to us after our death to qualify us for potential sainthood. We only need Jesus to recognize our inner goodness and piety – and he began two thousand years ago with the Beatitudes in Matthew, Chapter 5.
What Makes a Saint?
First, as always, we must get down to the language.
The Beatitudes are a series of proclamations that Jesus made beginning with “blessed are those”… which is wonderful, beautiful language. Unfortunately, it loses much in translation and has gotten a bit mangled across the many centuries since Jesus spoke them.
Problem #1 is that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the language of Galilee, and Matthew was written in Greek—which is from another language group entirely. When our translations say “blessed are” words are actually being inserted so it makes sense to us. In reality, in the Greek, we have a strange situation. When our English Bible tells us “blessed are the poor in spirit”, Matthew instead wrote “blessed” = “the poor in spirit.” The blessed, as it were, are not poor in spirit. The “blessed” are simultaneously “poor in spirit.”
Now, I’m certain that as you’re reading this at home or on your computer, you most likely don’t see the difference and that’s because the concept doesn’t exist in English. So our grasping it becomes a bit of a mental exercise.
So, I’m going to give a strange example (and please bear with me).
Right now “I am hungry” even though I already had breakfast. Or, in simple terms “Averill is hungry.” I am undoubtedly Averill. I am also undoubtedly hungry. But hungry is explaining my state of being. I am not physically embodying hunger. I am Averill. I am not, in any way shape or form, an embodiment of hunger or even the embodiment of hunger. (The embodiment of hunger in this instance being some primordial being that is hunger incarnated.)
For those of you who want to point out that being hungry and being Hunger-with-a-capital-H are two different things, you’re right … we can see that in the English language, just as there would be a difference in the Greek when Jesus stated “blessed are those who are poor in spirit.”
So, taking the first: “blessed are the poor in spirit” being “blessed” and being “poor in spirit” are embodiments of the same thing. To be one is to always be the other. If we want to use a common phrase in English, they are two sides of the same exact coin. You can’t have a coin with just the one side. One side might be blank, but there will always be two sides making up one coin.
Problem #2 is the word “blessed.” Blessed unfortunately does not have the same connotation in Modern English. In the Greek – Makarios – is a type of joy. Specifically, it is joy that is found within oneself. This type of joy does not come from outside forces, from your situation, from how you’re treated. It’s almost your internal self-value and self-respect that translates to a feeling of joy or … in English … blessedness.
So Let’s Back Up and Put it Together
One is blessed if one is simultaneously the second half of the Beatitude.
And this blessedness is an internal joy that can be derived only from yourself.
This is a tall order. It is difficult to completely embody an emotion or a state of being. It is difficult to have that sort of acceptance and perseverance all at once. It is also really difficult to rely upon yourself – and not on others, on society, or possessions – for happiness.
The advertising industry (sorry, Madison Avenue) would not be so successful not only in America but around the globe if advertisers couldn’t convince us that they had the solution to our constant unhappiness – whether it’s a new blouse, the latest smartphone, or a vacation away from our miserable existence.
Sometimes I think we’ve lost all true joy. We tend to replace it with simple wish-fulfillment that is all too fleeting.
Jesus, though, is talking about a joy or blessedness far deeper than this fleeting sense of fulfillment, a joy that proves extremely elusive, and a joy that once in place cannot be extinguished.
What – then – is blessedness in deeply rooted joy?
Jesus offers us several candidates, and all are not exactly what they appear to be. Too much time has passed, our culture has shifted, and so much can be lost in translation.
Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in Spirit
If we remember the cultural divide, then we should look at what poor meant in Galilee and greater Jewish society. Poor meant “poor” – not having money – but it expanded from that. If you had no money then you had no influence or power. If you had no influence, then you were downtrodden and oppressed by others.
Having not enough money to buy a nicer coat for winter is very different than being oppressed by all of society. Oppression kills your spirit, oppression robs you of dignity, oppression creates hatred and anger inside your soul.
But it is the oppressed in society, the downtrodden, that Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven. They do not have a place in the earthly kingdom (or Roman occupied Israel), but there is a better kingdom waiting for them.
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who Mourn
To mourn here means to mourn passionately – to mourn excessively for those dead. This is the cry of the mother whose child is gunned down in the street. This is the cry of the husband who loses his wife in childbirth. This is the gut-wrenching pain that knows no limits.
It is here, however, that God is known. In such anguish, nothing on earth – not riches, not food, not friends, not loved ones who survived – can comfort the soul. But God can comfort those in the deepest of sorrows, and Jesus promises that God will in fact offer that comfort.
Matthew 5:5 Blessed are the Meek
This is undoubtedly my favorite of those we discuss today, and all because of a joke from a 1980s British sitcom. But the punchline would not have been so effective if there weren’t translation difficulties between the original Greek and our English.
Meek is a terribly insulting word. Sometimes you hear people described as “meek as a mouse” and – really – it’s insulting and highly condescending. The idea that you’re simpleminded, that you don’t know any better, that you have no proper survival instinct—that is what “meek” means to us in our language, now.
The term “meek” was not, however, insulting in the Greek. Praotes is difficult to translate. We don’t have a word or a concept for anything close. When you are praotes you get angry when it is right to be angry, but only in moderation. When you are praotes you act on your impulses but you also control them when necessary. I suppose I would say that a better translation is “blessed are those who know emotion but control it appropriately”, which is longwinded and rather vague.
This translation, as you can tell, is very different from the English word “meek.”
But it is people who acknowledge their emotions but control them, so they are not impulsive and destructive who inherit the earth. They are the ones who are controlled enough to care for it, for its people. And they are the ones who are passionate enough to want to care for it.
Matthew 5:6 Blessed are those who Hunger and Thirst
This is a Beatitude of contrast.
To hunger is to starve, to be on the point of death, to be so desperate for food you would give the last you possessed and perhaps sell your very soul for a piece of stale bread.
To thirst is to be dying for lack of any liquid even (forgive me) boiled urine, to be parched beyond reason where you would go insane if you didn’t have just a drop of water.
Fortunately, most of us have never experienced true all-encompassing hunger and/or thirst, but it is this desperate extreme that Jesus describes.
As a person dying of hunger and thirst would yearn for food and water – would think of nothing else – so would the blessed crave righteousness … and ultimately receive it.
Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the Merciful
Here we once again must look at the language. Mercy in English is Eleemon in the Greek, which is used in place of the Hebrew Chesedh. Now, Chesedh does mean “mercy” but it’s more than that. It’s true spiritual understanding of another. It’s cracking a person’s head open (metaphorically), climbing inside, and empathizing completely with that person’s point of view.
It’s not a very easy thing to do. Most people fall short with false sympathy and forced smiles while trying to show mercy.
This mercy here in the Beatitudes is true, visceral, and complete.
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the Pure of Heart
“Pure of heart” is a phrase common among Christians. But what does “pure” mean? Well, the Greek Katharos meant clean … and usually was used in terms of corn and sometimes milk. Something that is Katharos is pure, unmixed, unadulterated.
The Christian heart – as Jesus describes it – must be unmixed with baser emotions. It must be untainted by foreign desires. Your heart must be unsoiled in its entirety.
It’s a slightly different picture and grittier, certainly. But these people who are unblemished in heart will see God – because they will be seeing with clear spiritual eyes untainted by anything unholy.
Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the Peacemakers
“Peace” or shalom in Hebrew is a very potent concept in the world of Jesus. To this day in the Middle East, when you see a friend or a stranger, you great him/her with Shalom or Salaam – meaning “peace.” When you wish a stranger peace, you are not wishing him the absence of all bad things, but the presence of all good things.
“Peace” in this concept is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of good will.
The second half of this Beatitude is “they will be called children of God.” This is a gross mistranslation from Hebrew into Greek. The original Hebrew phrase is “sons of God.” This, however, is not a sexist saying that leaves out women that, therefore, must be corrected to be inclusive. Instead, it was a common phrase that meant “those who were godly” or “those who did godly works” … that was then translated nearly literally into the Greek as “children of God” and then into English as the same.
However, that is not what Jesus meant, as we can see.
The beatitude should really translate as “those who make good will” will be seen as “those who do godly works.” So “good will” becomes “godly.” It’s a beautifully simple concept that unfortunately has been lost through translation.
Matthew 5:10-12 Blessed are the Persecuted
This was unfortunately taken up as a badge of honor by early Christians who, when persecuted, used this to justify their martyrdom. But Jesus, in this moment, did not mean for it to go to the extreme. It is merely a warning and a comfort rolled into one. Christianity – following God’s true way – would disrupt almost every aspect of an early Christian’s life.
It would be – in every way, shape and form – unpopular. This would lead to persecution, being reviled, misconceptions, slander, &c.
Jesus is telling those who might have their brethren turn from them that they should take heart. God is with them, God recognizes them, and God loves them.
… And Finally
These early words of Jesus are blueprints on how to be a good Christian – or how to take heart in the knowledge of God’s love when life on earth proves a pale comparison to the life promised in heaven.
The men and women who believed in Christ, who followed his teachings, who listened to the Beatitudes that day on a mountain two thousand years ago, they became the original saints of heaven. Their children and their children’s children too joined the ranks. We as Congregationalists believe that one day we will go to heaven and join among their evergrowing number.
My favorite hymn – “I sing a song of the Saints of God” – ends with the beautiful line: “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
Take that to heart this week.