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Solemn blessings which mark the opening of the Sermon on the Mount

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Beatitudes, THE EIGHT, the solemn blessings (beatitudines, benedictiones) which mark the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, the very first of Our Lord’s sermons in the Gospel of St. Matthew (v, 3-10). Four of them occur again in a slightly different form in the Gospel of St. Luke (vi, 22), likewise at the beginning of a sermon, and running parallel to Matthew, 5-7, if not another version of the same. And here they are illustrated by the opposition of the four curses (24-26). The fuller account and the more prominent place given the Beatitudes in St. Matthew are quite in accordance with the scope and the tendency of the First Gospel, in which the spiritual character of the Messianic kingdom—the paramount idea of the Beatitudes—is consistently put forward, in sharp contrast with Jewish prejudices. The very peculiar form in which Our Lord proposed His blessings makes them, perhaps, the only example of His sayings that may be styled poetical—the parallelism of thought and expression, which is the most striking feature of Biblical poetry, being unmistakably clear.

The text of St. Matthew runs as follows:

3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
5. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
6. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
7. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8. Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

TEXTUAL CRITICISM.—As regards textual criticism, the passage offers no serious difficulty. Only in verse 9, the Vulgate and many other ancient authorities omit the pronoun autoi, ipsi probably a merely accidental omission. There is room, too, for serious critical doubt, whether verse 5 should not be placed before verse 4. Only the etymological connection, which in the original is supposed to have existed between the “poor” and the “meek”, makes us prefer the order of the Vulgate.

First Beatitude.—The word “poor” seems to represent an Aramaic anya (Hebr. ani), bent down, afflicted, miserable, poor; while “meek” is rather a synonym from the same root, anwan (Hebr. Äòanaw), bending oneself down, humble, meek, gentle. Some scholars would attach to the former word also the sense of humility; others think of “beggars before God” humbly acknowledging their need of Divine help. But the opposition of “rich” (Luke, vi, 24) points especially to tile common and obvious meaning, which, however, ought not to be confined to economical need and distress, but may comprehend the whole of the painful condition of the poor: their low estate, their social dependence, their defenseless exposure to injustice from the rich and the mighty. Besides the Lord’s blessing, the promise of the heavenly kingdom is not bestowed on the actual external condition of such poverty. The blessed ones are the poor “in spirit”, who by their free will are ready to bear for God‘s sake this painful and humble condition, even though at present they be actually rich and happy; while on the other hand, the really poor man may fall short of this poverty “in spirit”.

Second Beatitude.—Inasmuch as poverty is a state of humble subjection, the “poor in spirit” come near to the “meek”, the subject of the second blessing. The `anawim, they who humbly and meekly bend themselves down before God and man, shall “inherit the land” and possess their inheritance in peace. This is a phrase taken from Ps., xxxvi (Hebr., xxxvii), 11, where it refers to the Promised Land of Israel, but here, in the words of Christ, it is of course but a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, the spiritual realm of the Messiah. Not a few interpreters, however, understand “the earth”. But they overlook the original meaning of Ps., xxxvi, 11, and unless, by a far-fetched expedient, they take the earth also to be a symbol of the Messianic kingdom, it will be hard to explain the possession of the earth in a satisfactory way.

Third Beatitude.—The “mourning” in the Third Beatitude is in Luke (vi, 25) opposed to laughter and similar frivolous worldly joy. Motives of mourning are not to be drawn from the miseries of a life of poverty, abjection, and subjection, which are the very blessings of verse 3, but rather from those miseries from which the pious man is suffering in himself and in others, and most of all the tremendous might of evil throughout the world. To such mourners the Lord Jesus carries the comfort of the heavenly kingdom, “the consolation of Israel” (Luke, ii, 25) foretold by the prophets, and especially by the Book of Consolation of Isaias (xl—lxvi). Even the later Jews knew the Messiah by the name of Menahhem, Consoler. These three blessings, poverty, abjection, and subjection, are a commendation of what nowadays are called the passive virtues: abstinence and endurance, and the Eighth Beatitude (verse 10) leads us back again to the same teaching.

Fourth Beatitude.—The others, however, demand a more active behavior. First of all, “hunger and thirst” after justice; a strong and continuous desire of progress in religious and moral perfection, the reward of which will be the very fulfilment of the desire, the continuous growth in holiness.

Fifth Beatitude.—From this interior desire a further step should be taken to acting; to the works of “mercy”, corporal and spiritual. Through these the merciful will obtain the Divine mercy of the Messianic kingdom, in this life and in the final judgment. The wonderful fertility of the Church in works and institutions of corporal and spiritual mercy of every kind shows the prophetical sense, not to say the creative power, of this simple word of the Divine Teacher.

Sixth Beatitude.—According to Biblical terminology “cleanness of heart” (verse 8) cannot exclusively be found in interior chastity, nor even, as many scholars propose, in a general purity of conscience, as opposed to the Levitical, or legal, purity required by the Scribes and Pharisees. At least the proper place of such a blessing does not seem to be between mercy (verse 7) and peacemaking (verse 9), nor after the apparently more far-reaching virtue of hunger and thirst after justice. But frequently in the Old and New Testaments [Gen., xx, 5; Job, xxxiii, 3; Pss., xxiii (Hebr., xxiv), 4; lxxii (Hebr., lxxiii), 1; I Tim., i, 5; II Tim., ii, 22] the “pure heart” is the simple and sincere good intention, the “single eye” of Matt., vi, 22, and thus opposed to the unavowed by-ends of the Pharisees (Matt., vi, 1-6, 16-18; vii, 15; xxiii, 5-7, 14). This “single eye” or “pure heart” is most of all required in the works of mercy (verse 7) and zeal (verse 9) in behalf of one’s neighbor. And it stands to reason that the blessing, promised to this continuous looking for God‘s glory, should consist of the supernatural “seeing” of God Himself, the last aim and end of the heavenly kingdom in its completion.

Seventh Beatitude.—The “peacemakers” (verse 9) are those who not only live in peace with others but moreover do their best to preserve peace and friend-ship among mankind and between God and man, and to restore it when it has been disturbed. It is on account of this godly work, “an imitating of God‘s love of man” as St. Gregory of Nyssa styles it, that they shall be called the sons of God, “children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt., v, 45).

Eighth Beatitude.—When after all this the pious disciples of Christ are repaid with ingratitude and even “persecution” (verse 10) it will be but a new blessing, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

So by an inclusion, not uncommon in Biblical poetry, the last blessing goes back to the first and the second. The pious, whose sentiments and desires, whose works and sufferings are held up before us, shall be blessed and happy by their share in the Messianic kingdom, here and hereafter. And viewed in this light the different kinds of blessing enumerated in the intermediate verses seem to express, in partial images of the one endless beatitude, the same possession of the Messianic salvation. The eight conditions required constitute the fundamental law of the kingdom, the very pith and marrow of Christian perfection. For its depth and breadth of thought, and its practical bearing on Christian life, the passage may be put on a level with the Decalogue in the Old, and the Lord’s Prayer in the New, Testament, and it surpasses both in its poetical beauty of structure.

Besides the commentaries on St. Matthew and St. Luke, and the monographs on the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes are treated in eight homilies of ST. GREGORY OF NYSSA, P.G., XLIV, 1193-1302, and in one other of ST. CHROMATIDS, P.L., XX, 323-328. Different patristical sermons on single beatitudes are noticed in P.L., CXXI (Index IV), 23 sqq.


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