This introductory lesson has three aims: to outline how the beatitudes should be read, to define the word ‘blessed’, and to identity a pattern in the eight beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are among the most commonly read, and commonly mis-read, passages in the New Testament. One problem we have with reading them is simply their familiarity—they’ve become so normalized that we fail to grasp their often piercing bite. Another problem is that, in part because of our Bible’s division into verses, we read them as individual statements and not as a whole. Many people read them, in fact, like signs of the zodiac, rendering their approach to Scripture similar to the approach to a horoscope. Such readers look for their current status (today I’m feeling poor, or sad, or pure), and then perform a kind of matching game to see what blessing they are due accordingly (I will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, or comfort, or I get to see God). When we read the beatitudes this atomized way, we miss something significant.
That significant thing? Not only are the eight beatitudes meant to be read as a whole, but as a whole they provide a kind of programme for the Christian life. Think about it—why should the poor in spirit and the persecuted receive the same reward? The best answer is that these are not different rewards for different statuses, but one reward for persons on a progressive journey towards the Christ-life.
That’s way I’ve called this series of studies ‘The Way.’ Early Christians, before they were even called Christians, were called ‘followers of the Way.’ It was immediately understood that following Christ involved a road, a journey. If we take the beatitudes as a kind of road map, then that journey begins with becoming poor in spirit, leads into mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, then grows into mercy, purity, peacemaking, and finally persecution.
So, what does it mean to be ‘blessed’? Regrettably, ‘blessed’ is a word that has also become so commonly used (and misused) that it may even obscure our reading of Jesus’s beatitudes. But we can attempt to redress this problem by situating the word in its more ancient context.
Formally, the word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin translation of the New Testament, where the opening of each statement reads, beati (pronounced bay-ah-ti). That Latin word means ‘happy,’ and yet translating the idea into English hasn’t been all that clear-cut. Is it really ‘Happy are the poor?’ Intuitively, poverty rather seems like the opposite of happiness. If we resist translating it and go for something like ‘God blesses the poor’ does that make it better? Blessing is something of a foreign concept today as well—what is the meaning of this word?
The place to begin is with a simple definition. The Greek word used by the New Testament authors for ‘blessed’ is the word makarios, and that word means, essentially, to be in a state of well-being which is influenced by heaven. When the ancient Greeks used this word, they used it to speak of the life of an individual for whom the gods were acting personally. Such a person (or even a group of people) was ‘blessed’ because the gods were touching that person in order to achieve certain ends. That person’s life, then, became a kind of ‘thin space’ between heaven and earth, a place where the power of the gods was intervening.
This would imply, here, that when Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven—the reign of God—he is declaring its followers ‘blessed’ because we have God’s Kingdom helping us to achieve the promises which Jesus outlines. In following Christ, our lives become ‘thin spaces’ where the power of God becomes visible and active. To be makarios, then, means that the blessed individual is in a state of peace with heaven, a state of well-being and contentment because you have a certain knowledge that God is helping you.
Some reasonable and fair alternate translations of the word, then, might be as follows:
‘God-favoured!’—‘God-favoured are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Such people are experiencing a special blessing of God’s presence.
‘Heaven-lucky!’—‘Heaven-lucky are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ To be clear, ‘Luck’ is not a concept I believe in (simply because I don’t believe in the existence of the deity Fortuna). But the idea of luck might be useful here inasmuch as it captures the sense of touched or anointed. Those people who are willing to mourn, then, are experiencing the good influence of heaven.
‘Happy’ is also a viable translation, but we must resist the idea of ‘happiness’ as defined by culture—the possession of things, the absence of sorrows, the freedom to do as we please. Happiness for the Christ-follower is more likely a matter of contentment and shalom (that is, peace). ‘Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ They are not happy because they possess everything, they are happy because despite their possessions they have a contentment with God.
Lastly, and my favourite of the possible translations is ‘On-the-right-track.’ This captures the idea that God is moving somewhere, and that those people who choose to follow Him are on track with God’s Kingdom. ‘On-the-right-track are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.’ By implication, those who are not hungering or thirsting for righteousness are not on the right track—they are on a path of injustice.
In the face of all this variety, there is still but one word used in the New Testament—makarios, blessed. And ‘blessed,’ for us, will have to do the work of all those meanings outlined above. So when we speak of ‘blessed’ in the coming lessons keep in mind that such a person possesses a state of well-being which is influenced by heaven, a kind of shalom, a true happiness established upon God’s standards, the favour of God, the ‘luck’ of heaven, and the anointing of being on-the-right-track with God. Throughout it all, the person walking in the beatitude way is infused by the presence of God—his or her life becomes a thin place where Heaven is breaking into the earthly realms.
There is one final comment to make before we begin to approach the beatitudes proper—and this is to identify a simple pattern in the eight beatitudes. The pattern is this: that the first four statements involve rejections of the world, while the latter four involve likenesses to God. In the first beatitudes we are rejecting wealth, power, false comfort, and the status quo—each places of potential false trust for the Christian. In the latter beatitudes we are seeking to become like our God in his mercy, purity, peacemaking, and even in persecution.
In view of this, the beatitude life inaugurates a kind of mission. The man or woman who would see God’s hand at work, who would be God-touched, Heaven-lucky, or on-the-right-track, will discover that blessing by rejecting the world and seeking to become like our God. Each beatitude is therefore an attitude, a certain disposition recommended to the follower of Christ. That attitude is in turn paired with a promise of inheritance; follow the attitude, and you will receive the inheritance. The nexus between attitude and promise becomes a place of invasion—a place where, because of the thin space, God can draw near to us and make Himself known in the world. In the lessons that follow, these three ideas—of attitude, promise, and invasion—will provide a basic framework for reflecting back on the content of each beatitude at the close of each lesson.