A Deeper Look at the Sermon on the Mount
There are three general questions about Jesus’ Beatitudes which need to be asked. These concern the people described, the qualities commended and the blessings promised.
The People Described
The Beatitudes set forth the balanced and variegated character of Christian people. These are not eight separate and distinct groups of disciples, some of whom are meek, while others are merciful and yet others are called upon to endure persecution. They are rather eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted.
Further, the group exhibiting these marks is not an elitist set, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from the common run of Christians. On the contrary, the Beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be. All these qualities are to characterize all his followers. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit which he distributes to different members of Christ’s body in order to equip them for different kinds of service, the same Spirit is concerned to work all these Christian graces in us all. There is no escape from our responsibility to covet them all.
The Qualities Commended
It is well known that there is at least a verbal discrepancy between the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel and those in Luke’s. Luke writes, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), while Matthew has, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s “Blessed are you who hunger now” (Luke 6:21) is recorded by Matthew as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
In consequence of this, some have argued that Luke’s version is the true one, that Jesus was making a social or sociological judgment about the poor and hungry, and that Matthew spiritualized what were originally material pledges. But this is an impossible interpretation, unless we are prepared to believe either that Jesus contradicted himself or that the Gospel writers were clumsy enough to make him appear to do so. Consistently throughout his ministry Jesus repudiated the idea of establishing a material kingdom. When Pilate asked him if there was any substance in the Jewish leaders’ charges against him and whether he had any political ambitions, his reply was unambiguous: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). That is, it has a different origin and therefore a different character.
The poverty and hunger to which Jesus refers in the Beatitudes are spiritual states. It is “the poor in spirit” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” whom he declares blessed. And it is safe to deduce from this that the other qualities he mentions are spiritual also.
The Blessings Promised
Each quality is commended, inasmuch as each person who exhibits it is pronounced “blessed.” The Greek word makarios can and does mean “happy,” and several commentators have explained them as Jesus’ prescription for human happiness. There is no need to dismiss this interpretation as entirely fallacious. For nobody knows better than our Creator how we may become truly human beings. He made us. He knows how we work best. All Christians can testify from experience that there is a close connection between holiness and happiness.
Nevertheless, it is seriously misleading to render makarios as “happy.” For happiness is a subjective state, whereas Jesus is making an objective judgment about these people. He is declaring not what they may feel like (“happy”) but what God thinks of them and what on that account they are: they are “blessed.”
What is this blessing? The second half of each Beatitude elucidates it. They possess the kingdom of heaven and they inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the children of God. Their heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together. Just as the eight qualities describe every Christian (at least in the ideal), so the eight blessings are given to every Christian. These eight qualities together constitute the responsibilities, and the eight blessings the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s kingdom. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means.
Are these blessings present or future? Personally, I think the only possible answer is “both.” Some commentators have insisted that they are future, and have emphasized the eschatological nature of the Beatitudes. Certainly the second part of the last Beatitude promises the persecuted a great reward in heaven, and this must be future. Nevertheless, it is plain from the rest of Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God is a present reality which we can receive, inherit or enter now. Similarly, we can obtain mercy and comfort now, can become God’s children now, and in this life can have our hunger satisfied and our thirst quenched. Jesus promised all these blessings to his followers in the here and now. So then the promises of Jesus in the Beatitudes have both a present and a future fulfillment. We enjoy the firstfruits now; the full harvest is yet to come.