The Sermon on the Mount, Cosimo Roselli, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.
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And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Luke 6:20
First, let me confess that the picture above is taken from the gospel of Matthew, not Luke, today’s gospel writer. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes takes place on a mountainside; Luke’s “on a stretch of level gound”. Matthew’s is the better known, so that is perhaps why painters have concentrated more on the sermon on the mount rather than the plain… But both, of course, deliver the same message, considered by many to be the crucible, the essence, of Jesus’ teachings on earth. The are called the Beatitudes, and I would like to look at that word for a moment. It comes to English through the French from Latin, “beatus”, from the verb beare, to make happy. It gets better. The ultimate root meaning and source of beare is bellus, beautiful. So, instead of saying Beatitudes, one could equally and correctly call them the Happinesses. So Jesus here was giving a recipe for happiness, for the beautiful life. Armed with that, I searched out a modern psychological understanding of happiness which was highly illuminating. Another more detailed definition can be found here, highlighting faith, family, community and work. It wasn’t the happiness that is suggested night after night on TV: a new car, loads of drugs, a great pizza, soaps and shampoos and the rest of it. True happiness is much deeper, or, as that first link says, “finding purpose beyond oneself” – a key ingredient for achieving happiness. So how do you do that? Well that’s where we come to today’s gospel.
Firstly, we humans are not simply material beings; we have spirit, or soul. The material world is important in many ways, essential ways even, enough to eat, a roof above and so on. But deeper down there is a spiritual reality which must also be addressed in the search for real happiness and fulfillment. Jesus was much more concerned with that spiritual reality than the physical here and now, because that’s where true reality lies. Consider the first beatitude which open today’s gospel passage, blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of heaven is yours. “Poor” can be understood in many ways. Financial poverty is the obvious first reading. Jesus himself was never wealthy, though he never seems to have gone hungry. He does seem to have been dependent on the generosity of others to get by, however. So a certain level of means to survive is implicit in this first beatitude; I cannot imagine anyone being happy and desperately poor, with no-one helping you at all, all at the same time! So what does it mean? Traditionally it is taken to mean “poor in spirit”. That means that when compared to God, we are as nothing, and accept that. But we possess the kingdom of heaven! Remember that Jesus begins many of his parables with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…..” I have always taken that to mean that if we fulfill the message contained in the parable, then the kingdom of heaven is here and now. We will stand in God’s presence as God’s child and God’s humble servant, rejoicing in God’s presence, the meaning of heaven, for God’s presence is the kingdom of heaven! Grace is the presence of God, and that we can achieve in the here and now, when we fulfill God’s commands. And so happiness is achieved, and we are beautiful and blessed in the eyes of God. And so on with the other beatitudes. The hungry are those who recognize their own emptiness compared to God’s abundance of grace which God yearns to share, and hence satisfy us. Look at one of the following woes: “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry”. Filled with our own self-importance or pride, it will not last says the Lord. Where will all that be when we are called from this life? The same idea is carried in the “Woe to you who are rich, you have received your consolation”. Enjoy it while you can – eternity is much longer than these few days on earth, whereas God’s grace lasts forever.
So here is Jesus’ message for the good life as seen through God’s eyes, hence its importance. Here in a nutshell is the life that leads to life, the opposite of what many would consider to be life at its best, created and lived by us, just as Adam and Eve did, and leading to the exact same conclusion. That might result in earthly happiness, which unhappily is not long-lasting, not eternal. it is temporal and ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow, in fact, the life as described in Jesus’ woes in today’s gospel. Consider this movie as a natural result of such a life. The sort of life presented there is the consequence of Jesus’ “false prophets” who extol such earthly abundance as resulting in happiness, but in fact leading to misery. There is but one way to true beauty, happiness and blessedness, and today we have been shown it and are invited into it.
The Sermon on the Mount, CBCP News.