There are two quite different accounts of the Beatitudes in the Gospels, one in Matthew and the other one presented to us today in the Gospel of Luke. The one more usually quoted is Matthew’s version while the set given to us by St Luke is much less well known.
Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes marks the beginning of his rather long Sermon on the Mount while in contrast Luke’s version is set on a Plain and although it is followed by a sermon this is much shorter than the one given to us by Matthew.
Another difference is in the structure of the Beatitudes; Matthew gives us eight blessings but Luke gives us a group of four blessings followed by four opposites sometimes called ‘woes’. Here in the Jerusalem translation we say, ‘Alas to you who are rich’, but most other translations render it as, ‘Woe to you who are rich.’
The Beatitudes are often regarded as the very heart of Jesus’ teaching. In the Beatitudes Jesus sets out the most radical part of his Gospel. He presents to his disciples and his other listeners a vision of the world turned upside down. He presents his values as being the direct opposite of the values of this world. In the Kingdom of God, he is telling us, it is the poor, the hungry, the mourners and the persecuted who are valued while it is the rich, the satisfied, the jovial and those who are lauded that are at the bottom of the heap.
The values then of the Kingdom of God are the direct opposite of the values of this world. And with a few adjustments it is pretty much the same today as it was at the time of Christ. The values of this world are the acquisition of wealth, power and influence. Those who are admired by society at large are those who have single-mindedly risen to the top of the social elite. Usually this has meant them having become extremely self-centred, if not utterly selfish. It has often also meant them disconnecting themselves from their families and friends in the single-minded pursuit of what they regard as excellence.
Such people often end up becoming totally dysfunctional as human beings; they frequently become detached from ordinary life experiences and the stresses and strains of normal human relationships. They end up being in thrall to fame and excitement; they commonly become obsessed with their own self-image and often get hooked on such things as cosmetic surgery and other treatments with the aim of presenting to the world the perfect body. The more we think about people who live their lives like this the shallower we realise that they have become. In their case image has triumphed over reality.
The truly committed Christian cannot live like this. A dedicated follower of Jesus realises that there are more important things in life than celebrity and achievement. An Apostle of Jesus understands that true fulfilment is only to be found in acquiring the virtues of goodness, faith, hope, kindness, trust and so on. It is only by embracing the Christian virtues that we can ever achieve real and lasting human contentment. The disciple of Christ realises that true achievement in life only comes about through becoming more authentically human and that the best way to do this is to embrace the values of the Gospel.
Of course, no one wants to be poor, or to be hungry, or to mourn, or to be persecuted. No one in their right minds would actively seek out such a state in life; unless, of course, they were truly a great saint. And we can think of certain saints who have embraced complete poverty such as Anthony of the Desert, Francis of Assisi, Benedict Joseph Labre or, in more recent times, Charles de Foucault. These are truly great saints who adopted the life of a hermit or mendicant and became utterly dependent on the kindness of others while they whole-heartedly devoted themselves to a life of prayer and penance. Their lives were tough but they won the admiration of God and man.
Most of us, however, cannot adopt such a life because we have families to feed, houses to maintain and jobs of work to do. We are not cut out to be a wandering saint who sleeps in a hedge. Instead what we should concern ourselves with is acquiring the virtues, focussing on the maintenance of our relationships and living our lives in a truly unselfish way. We should aim to live our lives for others in accordance with the Gospel values and, in this way, we will acquire virtue and so become great in the eyes of God.
If we live our lives in this way but then find ourselves experiencing some of those things that Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes, such as periods of poverty or hunger or bereavement or persecution, we will not see these things in a negative way. We will see them rather as gifts from God which are intended to strengthen us. We will realise that they have been given to us for the furtherance of our spiritual growth. Of course, we will still suffer privation and perhaps even extreme need but we will know that these outwardly negative things actually have a true and lasting spiritual value.
What we should be attempting to achieve is true authenticity as human beings. What we should be striving for is to live real and genuine lives. What we should be cultivating is human warmth, generosity and goodness. We might not end up as people with fame or wealth but we will most definitely end up as people who are appreciated by others. We will most definitely end up as well-rounded human beings who are making a real and effective contribution to our families and to society at large. We will most definitely end up as people who have a real and deep spirituality and find ourselves being led into an ever-closer union with our loving Saviour.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket