Matthew invites the reader to listen to the beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus with a rich concentration of details. First he indicates the place where Jesus proclaims his sermon: “Jesus went onto the mountain” (5:1). That is why exegetes call this the “sermon on the mount” even though Luke places this sermon on level ground (Lk 6:20-26). The geographic location of the “mountain” could be a veiled reference to an episode in the OT quite like ours: that is, when Moses proclaims the Decalogue on mount Sinai. It is possible that Matthew wishes to present Jesus as the new Moses who proclaims the new law.
Another detail that strikes us is the physical posture of Jesus as he proclaims his words: “when he was seated”. This posture confers upon him a note of authority in the legislative sense. The disciples and the “crowd” gather around him: this detail shows what Jesus had to say was for all to hear. We note that Jesus’ words do not present impossible matters, nor are they addressed to a special group of people, nor do they mean to establish a code of ethics exclusively for his inner circle. Jesus’ demands are concrete, binding and decisively radical.
Someone branded Jesus’ sermon as follows: «For me, this is the most important text in the history of humankind. It is addressed to all, believers and non, and after twenty centuries it is still the only light still shining in the darkness of violence, fear and solitude in which the West finds itself because of its pride and selfishness» (Gilbert Cesbron).
The word “blessed” (in Greek makarioi) in our context does not say “softly” but cries out happiness found throughout the Bible. For instance, in the OT, those called “blessed” are those who live out the precepts of Wisdom (Sir 25,7-10). The prayerful person of the Psalms defines “blessed” as those who “fear”, or more precisely those who love the Lord, expressing this love in the observance of the precepts contained in the word of God (Sal 1,1; 128,1).
Matthew’s originality lies in adding a secondary phrase that specifies each beatitude: for instance, the main assertion “blessed are the poor in spirit” is clarified by an added phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Another difference with the OT is that Jesus’ words proclaim a saving blessedness here and now and without any limitations. For Jesus, all can attain happiness on condition that they remain united to Him.
The first cry concerns the poor: “How blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs”. The reader may be shocked: how can the poor be happy? In the Bible, the poor are those who empty themselves of themselves and above all renounce the presumption of building their own present and future alone, and thus leave room for and focus on God’s project and his Word. The poor, always in the biblical sense, is not someone closed in on himself, miserable, negative, but someone who nurtures being open to God and to others. God is all his/her treasure. We could say with St.Teresa of Avila: happy are those who experience that “God alone suffices!”, meaning that they are rich in God.
A great modern spiritual author described poverty as follows: «As long as one does not empty one’s heart, God cannot fill it with himself. As you empty your heart, so does the Lord fill it. Poverty is emptiness, not only in what concerns the future but also the past. Not a regret or memory, not a worry or wish! God is not in the past, God is not in the future: He is in the present! Leave your past to God, leave your future to God. Your poverty is to live the present, the Presence of God who is Eternity» (Divo Barsotti).
This is the first beatitude, not just because it is the first of many, but because it seems to encapsulate all the others in their diversity.
“Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted”. One can mourn because of a great pain or suffering. This underlines the fact that we are dealing with a serious situation even though the motives or the cause are not mentioned. If we wish to identify today “those who mourn” we could think of all the Christians who hold dear the demands of the kingdom and suffer because of many negative aspects in the Church; rather than focus on holiness, the Church presents divisions and lacerations. They may also be those who suffer because of their sins and inconsistencies and who, in some way, slow down their conversion. To these, only God can bring the news of “consolation””.
“Blessed are the gentle, they shall have the earth as inheritance”. The third beatitude is about gentleness. This is a quality that is not so popular today. Rather, for many it has a negative connotation and is taken for weakness or the kind of imperturbability that knows how to control calculatingly one’s own emotions. What does the word “gentle” mean in the Bible? The gentle are remembered as those who enjoy great peace (Ps 37:10), are happy, blessed and loved by God. They are also contrasted with evildoers, the ungodly and sinners. Thus the OT gives us a wealth of meanings that do not allow for one single definition.
In the NT the first time we meet the word is in Matthew 11:29: “Learn from me because I am gentle and humble of heart”. A second time is in Mt 21:5, when Matthew describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and cites the prophet Zechariah 2:9: “Behold your servant comes to you gentle”. Truly, Matthew’s Gospel may be described as the Gospel of gentleness.
Paul too says that gentleness is an identifying quality of the Christian. In 2 Corinthians 10:1 he exhorts believers “I urge you by the gentleness and forbearance of Christ”. In Galatians 5:22 gentleness is considered one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers and consists in being meek, moderate, slow to punish, kind and patient towards others. Again in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:12 gentleness is an attitude that is part of the Christian and a sign of the new man in Christ.
Finally, an eloquent witness comes from 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your adornment should be not an exterior one, consisting of braided hair or gold jewellery or fine clothing, but the interior disposition of the heart, consisting in the imperishable quality of a gentle and peaceful spirit, so precious in the sight of God”.
How does Jesus use the word “gentle”? A truly enlightening definition is the one given by the gentle person of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini “The gentle person, according to the beatitudes, is one who, in spite of the fervour of his/her feelings, remains docile and calm, not possessive, interiorly free, always extremely respectful of the mystery of freedom, imitating God in this respect who does everything with respect for the person, and urges the person to obedience without ever using violence. Gentleness is opposed to all forms of material or moral arrogance, it gains the victory of peace over war, of dialogue over imposition”.
To this wise interpretation we add that of another famous exegete: “The gentleness spoken of in the beatitudes is none other than that aspect of humility that manifests itself in practical affability in one’s dealings with the other. Such gentleness finds its image and its perfect model in the person of Jesus, gentle and humble of heart. Truly, such gentleness seems to us like a form of charity, patient and delicately attentive towards others” (Jacques Dupont).
This reflection was the work of the Carmelites at ocarm.org
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