The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 58, No 3, May-June 2005

Theology for the Laity

The Beatitudes, part 1

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


       "Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them...." St. Matthew tells us that Jesus began his public ministry by going about preaching, "... saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’" Matthew then tells us that Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John. "And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people" (Mt. 4:17 - 24).

       These events take place in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, which records the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The remaining twenty-four chapters of the gospel read very much like a footnote to what Matthew tells us here. Until we read of the passion and resurrection of Our Savior, we must search the gospel very hard to find Jesus doing anything except preaching, calling, teaching and healing.

       For most of us, the Beatitudes are synonymous with the Sermon on the Mount, but in fact the Beatitudes are only the introduction to the sermon. The sermon itself takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, and includes the Our Father as well as Jesus’ telling the disciples they are the light of the world and salt of the earth. This long sermon is the first of Jesus’ sermons that we hear, and it stands as a summary of nearly everything else Jesus will preach. He will amplify the message with parables and other examples, but he will never change the message he preaches here.

Two Linguistic Points: "Who" & "What" in the Beatitudes

       Whenever we read Jesus’ words in the gospel we must pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking. All His words are important, but some are aimed more directly at us than others. When Jesus preaches His Sermon on the Mount, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus addresses his disciples. This means we ought to sit up and take notice, because whenever we find Jesus talking to the disciples, he is talking to us, the Church.

       St. John Chrysostom said,

       Chrysostom also remarks, "He doth not introduce what he saith by way of advice or commandments, but by way of blessing, so making His word less burthensome, and opening to all the course of His discipline" (Ibid.).

A Connection to the Past

       By telling us that Jesus went up a mountain to preach, St. Matthew wants us to identify Jesus - the giver of the New Law - with Moses, the giver of the Old. Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, imperative instructions for the Israelites to obey. But he says

       Moses’ spoken words suggest that the words written on the tablets are a reminder of something the Israelites already knew, i.e., commandments written on their hearts. The new Moses doesn’t use an imperative at all; He knows the law is in our heart. Jesus simply states things as they are, states them for the benefit of everyone, and invites us to consult our hearts to see whether they equip us to enjoy the happiness he describes.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Happiness

       St. Thomas Aquinas says that there are three kinds of happiness (ST I-II, 69:3): the happiness of sensuality, the happiness of activity, and the happiness of contemplation. Sensual happiness is an obstacle to future happiness, because (as we shall see) it is opposed to reason. A second kind of happiness is the happiness of the active life. This is a life of good work, not simply exercise or mindless running around, and it disposes us to future happiness.

       The third type of happiness is the happiness of the contemplative life. The mystics among us enjoy perfect contemplative happiness even now, as the writings of St. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila demonstrate. This happiness is something the rest of us will enjoy fully only in heaven. If our contemplative happiness is imperfect - and that is what most of us experience - it is an introduction to what we have to look forward to in the future.

The True Meaning of Perfection

Here It might be worthwhile to point out that when our theology says something is "imperfect" it does not mean that it is deformed, or ugly, or bad; it means that it is incomplete. Imperfect diamonds are still diamonds, after all, and imperfect contrition is sufficient to gain forgiveness for sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our happiness will be perfect in heaven because in heaven there will be nothing to add to it. In the meantime, the imperfect happiness we enjoy as a result of our sacramental and prayer life is a powerful aid to virtue, and a powerful reminder of what we have to look forward to in heaven.

Sensual Happiness

       When we think of sensuality, the first things that come to mind are probably food and sex. But "things", in general, power, the honors that distinguish us, and simply the indulgence of following our own inclinations are also a part of this defective happiness. And the first three beatitudes promise a reward to those who are willing to forego this happiness, either by moderating our use of the "things" that make us happy, or, for the truly heroic among us, by turning aside from them altogether.

Poverty of Spirit & The Responsibility of Wealth

       When we consider poverty of spirit, the first thing we need to remember is that economic destitution in itself is neither noble nor ennobling. Nor is there anything intrinsically degrading about being rich. Scripture commends the poor because the economically deprived have nothing to hang onto except the promise that things will be better in a better world. And the Bible condemns the rich because a spirit of irresponsibility often accompanies wealth.

A Cautionary Example

We see this spirit of irresponsibility, of course, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is condemned to hell both for what he has done and for what he has failed to do. His sin of commission, St. Luke tells us, is that he dressed in linen and ate "sumptuously" every day. The law says that we shall enjoy a Sabbath’s rest on one day and labor on the others. What we wear to dinner on the Sabbath may be optional these days, but many of us still look forward to a better meal on that day than we enjoy the rest of the week. The rich man’s sin is that he has turned every day into a Sabbath, and is doing nothing productive with his time. His sin of omission is not some wrong he has done to Lazarus, but that he has failed even to see him.

       St. John Chryostom, always alert to the world’s injustice, commends the voluntary Poverty of Spirit, by which we are willing to deny ourselves to relieve the distress of others. He says,

The Irrationality of Sensual Happiness

       Sensual happiness, such as the Rich Man in the parable enjoys, is not wrong because food or sex, or wealth are inherently bad, but because we want too much of these things or because we will accept only the highest quality in them. Excellence and abundance - we might also call them quantity and quality - are attributes of heaven, because only God can satisfy our desire for everything good. Because we cannot expect complete abundance or absolute excellence in this life, St. Thomas concludes that sensual happiness is unreasonable. A more modern writer, G.K. Chesterton likewise observed that a person can be a glutton by eating very little but at the same time being very picky about what one will eat.

The Heroic Example of the Saints

       St. Francis of Assisi, not surprisingly, is the exemplar of Poverty of Spirit. At the Franciscans’ first general chapter, we are told, some in the community argued for greater economic practicality in their rule, and Francis moved to indignation said:

       In our own time, when Blessed Theresa of Calcutta used to send her Sisters shopping, she ordered them to buy the cheapest example of whatever they were seeking. Invariably, someone would object that to pay more would buy a better quality product that would last longer. Mother Theresa’s answer was always the same, "We have not taken a vow of economics; we have taken a vow of poverty."

       Good capitalists (and economists will argue that we are all born capitalists) may decline to embrace St. Francis’ or Blessed Theresa’s moral completely, but their words teach us very clearly that Poverty of Spirit is an attitude by which we judge, value, use and desire the good things of the world.

The Example of the Blessed Virgin

       In his True Devotion to Mary, St Louis de Montfort remarked, "I am speaking mainly for the poor and simple who have more good will and faith than the common run of scholars" (26). Economic poverty forces one to see the world in very real, life and death terms. Voluntary poverty, which is closely allied to humility, confers a similar clarity in which we see ourselves as we truly are in relation to God. When she utters the majestic words of her Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin turns her back on the very hint of false modesty. "All generations will call me blessed," she says, for he has "exalted the lowly." To be poor in spirit is to see all we are capable of because of God.

Poverty of Spirit & the Happiness of Activity

       If we seek the world’s goods only for themselves we unreasonably look for a perfection on earth that we can only expect to find in heaven. If we use them so that our dealings with others are characterized by justice, we have achieved the happiness of activity and drawn closer to perfect happiness, because we have made the kingdom of this world a little more like the kingdom of heaven. And if we can school ourselves not to want more than we need, then we have discovered the happiness the saints enjoy in heaven because we have discovered that God is the only source of the excellence and abundance that will make us happy.

"Today" & "Tomorrow" in the Beatitudes

       Here we should consider a third linguistic point in the beatitudes. The reward for blessedness is something we look forward to in the future, so Jesus appropriately uses the future tense to describe what we can anticipate. But he uses the present tense to describe the life-conditions and actions by which we are blessed. "Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who mourn." We can look forward to the perfection of happiness only in Christ’s kingdom, but if we are poor in spirit, or meek, or if we mourn now the blessing has already begun.

       One of the early Church writers taught that Christ saved us by taking on our flesh and going through every moment of our lives, teaching us, by his example, how to act rightly when we had grown used to acting wrongly by following the example of our First Parents. Another early writer (Basil of Caesarea, 329 - 379), pointed out that the teaching in the beatitudes is always preceded by an action. Christ can urge us to Poverty of Spirit, he said, because,

The Beatitudes & The Eucharist - Gift & Challenge

       Our Holy Father has declared 2004 - 2005 the Year of the Eucharist, so we should consider the connection between what we are - and what we hope to be - and what we eat at the Mass. Every other food we consume is turned into us. But our faith tells us that "when we eat this bread and drink this cup" we become what we eat, and are transformed into the Body of Christ. This is at once a gift beyond any we might hope for, and a challenge to transform the world. In the life of Christians, gifts are never given simply to enrich the individual who receives them; they are given for the building up and the sanctification of the Church.

       Not long ago, the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, speaking on the relation of moral life to moral law, said,

       The Eucharist, then, is not only the focus of our worship, it is the first principle of our morality. Our Holy Father makes explicit the connection between the Christian’s obligations in and to the world, and the Eucharistic food that equips us for these challenges. He says,

       The Eucharist is blessing in the present, promise for the future, and strength for the journey. Christ became poor to teach us where we ought to look for wealth. The Eucharist is the point of connection that unites our hope for the future with beatitude here and now, by transforming us into the Christ who allowed himself to be transformed to look like us.

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