This is a paper presented by Fr. Nicolae Stoleru, professor of moral theology and publisher in Bucharest, Romania, at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat at the Bethanie Community in Gorze, France, in March 1998.
The first of the few great sermons of the Savior is the one known as the sermon on the Mountain written in short by evangelists Matthew (chapters 5-7) and Luke (chapter 6).
The sermon on the Mountain is essentially an extensive confrontation between the content of the old law and that of the new one, with special stress on the new superior character of the latter in comparison with the former one, a moral program entrusted to the Church to be fulfilled unto the age of ages.
If the sermon on the Mountain represents the essence of the new Gospel, the beatitudes are its best and most concise summary.
It is almost two thousand years since these sentences have been first uttered but they will always be vivid and exemplary. The context in which they are related by the evangelists reflects the enthusiasm of the crowds of people eager to hear the divine wisdom. The Mountain of the beatitudes, a promontory lying halfway between Tabor and Caparnaum, near the city of Tiberias, in Galilee, is the place where Christ sums up in nine sentences and recommendations, the Messianic teaching about how the Christian can inherit the Kingdom of heaven, as a target and sense of life, as an evangelical ideal. The respective sentences are both ways and steps of perfection, a bunch of virtues through which eternal happiness can be acquired. Both guide marks, perfection and happiness, imply each other. In the content of each of them we obviously distinguish the urge and the promise of eternal happiness.
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5,3)
It is the first virtue to be acquired and the need to be assumed in the hope to get the Kingdom of Heaven. By those “spiritually poor” St. John Chrysostom means those humbled of their own accord, those who lack the pride of mind, the unlimited love for themselves, as these are sins through which the angels and the first people fell. He does not mean at all those lacking wisdom or knowledge. Those spiritually poor are also those who, craving permanently for divine perfection, are sure that they are far away from it as long as they live in a body; these ones empty out their minds and release themselves from the deceiving, useless, temporary things. Their mind is filled both with the richness of the divine glory and the thirst of eternal things. Such Christians, however virtuous, never consider themselves perfect but always climb, step by step, the stair of moral perfection, fighting for the triumph of good. They think that everything
they have: good health, fortune, talent are gifts of God, which they multiply both for their own good and for that of their fellows. “Those spiritually poor” are the humble ones, in body and soul, in mind and feelings, in words and deeds.
The first beatitude is based upon humbleness, an eminently Christian virtue which must be accompanied by a genuine love for God and permanent fight against passions. The virtue of humbleness brings about the removal of the mean impulses from our being.
“The poor in spirit” is the man strong in faith, insisting in prayer, in proper obedience and frank repentance. The humbleness of the mind of the “spiritually poor” brings about a greater crave for the divine grace for the peace of the soul, for knowing himself. The fruits of humbleness are also the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, patience, restraint, piety etc. (Gal. 5,22).
The divine paradigm “… and learn from Me, because I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11,29) as well as the remarkable words of St. Peter the Apostle “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5,5) are illustrative for what the specific character of what “spiritually poor” means.
2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5,4)
There are many people in the world who weep because of poverty, needs, troubles and pains of all kind, of the death of their beloved ones, but they comfort themselves with the words of the right Job “The Lord gave and now the Lord has taken away…” (Job 1,21). It is to them that Christ gives the hope for the better and the divine comfort.
But there are also people who mourn and repent all their life for the sins committed, for the many offenses brought to God as well as for the prejudices their sins caused to other people. The sin which has not been washed with the tears of repentance is a hard burden when we pass away.
The Savior wept for the sins and crimes the inhabitants of Jerusalem committed (Luke 13,3) for Lazarus, His friend (John 11,35). St. Archdeacon Steven wept for his killers (Acts 7,60).
To all those who wept both for their sins and for those of their fellows, the Savior promises the forgiveness of their sins on earth and eternal comfort and happiness in the life to come.
Do we have troubles, trials, temptations? Do we suffer in our soul, in family and in society? Let us be patient, wise, strong in faith and most of all let us have firm faith in God.
3. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5,5)
Here the Savior refers to the inter human relations just as He did when He spoke about humbleness. Nobody can be good, gentle, humble only for himself but in relation with someone else.
To be kind means — from a human point of view — to be good, kind, understanding, patient and calm, not to offend your neighbor.
The kindness Christ refers to and of which result is the inheritance of the Kingdom of God is the most faithful and characteristic expression of the new law, the Law of love, kindness and grace.
Kindness is seen when we do not react against the moral and material damages caused, when we show understanding, sympathy and compassion for those despised and avoided by everybody else. A kind man is the friend of all those without friends, a man who always has some good words for his fellow who suffers.
According both to the old Law and to the human understanding, it is natural to be good with the kind one and to hate the one who does you harm. In the new law the Savior urges: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5,44). That is the kindness which Christ wants from us. If kindness remained within the limits of human understanding the endeavor as such would not have too great a value. “Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the pagans do that. (Matthew 5, 46-47). The Savior spoke of kindness and He was a perfect model of kindness. “Take my yoke upon you… and learn from me, because I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11 ,29). The Savior’s gentleness is a permanent state of sacrifice for the good of all people. He was gentle with all the oppressed and despised people of His society: He healed lepers and paralytics and He forgave the sinful woman. The supreme expression of Jesus’s gentleness and kindness was the sacrifice on the cross and the death which He received “just like an innocent lamb”.
The evangelical gentleness is not an innate feature of man but one acquired through his own endeavor and assesses with the help of the divine grace.
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5,6)
When saying that, Jesus refers to those who do wish good to be done for them and for their fellows. This desire is as natural as hunger or thirst, absolutely necessary for life.
Justice is an essential virtue and its perfect image is in God, the spring and the father of justice. The image of the evangelical justice must be found in the life and deeds of the Christian. Justice should be enriched and completed through love, while love, in its turn should be built on justice. The full satisfaction of justice should be understood as a fulfillment of the hope of perfection and holiness, partially in the earthly life and completely in the life to come (Matthew 19,29).
Although the word “justice” is understood especially as a fullness of virtues, moral perfection, spiritual horizon, it can be also interpreted as a social virtue, in which sense the one wishing justice from the bottom of his heart endeavors to fulfill it for himself, for others and for the human relations.
5. “Blessed are those who are merciful to others, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5,7)
Mercy is a divine commandment (“It is kindness that I want…” -Matthew 9,13) expressed in every good deed.
The Savior often felt mercy for the people and gave them parables: that of the Good Samaritan in order to unite love with deed and that of the merciful wealthy man to condemn the lack of mercy, of kindness, that is the unfulfillment of the commandment to be merciful and its consequences.
At the great just judgment the criteria of estimation and reward of the richness of our faith will be the mercy we have for our fellows with whom Christ identifies Himself “… whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of Mine, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25, 40).
So, the object of our mercy is our fellow, any man whom we show our love, kindness, comfort and sacrifice. The merciful one is very sensible to the material and spiritual needs of our neighbor, he diminishes and gives up his selfishness while his faith becomes “work through love” (Gal. 5,6). Mercy is the sublime act of human and brotherly solidarity, up to “pro-existing” with all those in material and spiritual need and who are really entitled to our assistance, encouragement and sacrifice.
The characteristic features and qualities of mercy are: discretion, lack of ostentation, promptness, lack of praise, humbleness and pure mind. Good advice for the growth and improvement of our neighbor is also mercy.
The model of perfect mercy is God. “Be merciful just as your father is merciful” (Luke 6,36). The liturgical formulae which bring honor to the virtue of mercy are revealing for all of us: “mercy of God”, “with mercy and endurance” ”that You are a merciful God who loves people”.
6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5,8)
To “see” God is the happiness of all happiness, the fulfillment of the Christian’s life, and that is to be done through what the Savior calls “purity in heart”. So, God can be seen. He himself ensures us that this is possible and also shows us the way to do it. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory…” (John 1,14). The divine promise becomes a reality for us, through the ever growing ascension to perfection “a perfect man to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4,13). The very hardships and the steps of the ascension are the beatitudes, such as “the spiritual poverty”, that is the purification of the inner side of our being of all the impurities of sin, the weep, as a gift of tears, gentleness, the permanent hunger and thirst of justice and the sufferance to reach it; mercy — the “wing” of Christian love.
Pureness of the heart means the overwhelming of all our being with good after emptying it out of anything damaging and opposite to love. The same as a physical healthy heart gives good health to the whole body, so gives a pure heart spiritual health to the whole being. The great spiritual men cultivated “the prayer of the mind in the heart”, the pure prayer, as a proof of the permanent vigilance against sin.
The one “pure in heart” resists the avalanche of bad thoughts and always remains in a wakeful state and sacrificial love. Seeing God is the aim of Christian life, through permanent and ever bigger spiritual renewal “Pure heart.., humble heart give me God” (Ps. 50,11,18).
7. “Blessed are pacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5,9)
Peace is the essence of the Messianic call of the Gospel having in the foreground the Savior Christ “God of Peace” (II Cor. 13,11). The redeeming work of Christ is a message of peace “so that he may bring back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven…” (Col. 1,30).
So great a value peace has that those who achieve it become children of God. “To wish peace means to be with Christ Himself’ says St. John Chrysostom.
Peace means equilibrium, understanding, justice, mercy, sacrificial love, complete harmony. “To be a peacemaker means to quench the desire of revenge and everything which is against Christian love. Peace means co-existing in love with your neighbor. The opposite of love is hate, anger, envy, revenge, hypocrisy, conflict…” says St. Gregory of Nyssa.
The Christian prays for peace but also contributes to its implementation, with all his physical and spiritual strength, seeks peace with God and with all people, “preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4,3).
For the religious man peace is the most valuable thing, essential for life and the expression of the fulfillment of God’s will. If for all the other people the work of peace springs both from the permanent universal postulates of natural morality and from the respect for human rights, for the Christians it becomes the argument of divine affiliation.
The perfect model of peace and harmony is the Holy Trinity, “the structure of supreme love”, the life of the three divine hypostasis in the unity of deification. Through Christ peace becomes a living reality receiving a rich moral content.
St. Basil the Great says that “to have peace means especially to love. Nothing becomes more characteristic to our nature than to be in communion with other people”, while St. Cyprian of Carthagena adds: “love is the bond of fraternity, the spring of peace, the permanence and strength of unity”.
The Christian “peacemaker” lives in the spirit of the Gospel, remains in the peace of Christ, integrates himself in the life of the Church and identifies himself with the noble aspirations of humankind and of his time too.
8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5, 10)
We return to moral objective of justice, fully aware that it generates from God, that it is eternal (Ps. 120, 42). Christ brought complete justice into the world, which will be one of the criteria of the last judgment. At the same time with the incarnation of Christ “Love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will embrace” (Ps. 85, 10). If in the old covenant justice was especially a social virtue, in the Law of grace it is a fruit and a sign of man’s reconciliation with God and the necessary condition to get the citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Those “persecuted for justice” mentioned by this beatitude are all those who implement good through their deeds, words and thoughts but are rewarded with evil and injustice. The Savior promises the heavenly happiness to all those persecuted by their fellows both for the strength of their faith and their pure life, for the victory against sin and the sacrifice of life, in the name of divine justice. The perfect parable, in this regard, is Christ Himself who received crucifixion and death because He preached and served justice. “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you… But I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15, 18-19). The beauty of the martyrs’ life and of all those persecuted for justice” consists in that neither trouble, nor need, hunger, persecution, sword “separated them from the love of Christ” (Romans 8,35).
9. “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil lies against you falsely for My sake.” (Matthew 5,11)
The last states of conflict are mentioned here which the obedient of Gospel could come across, before getting the communion with God, in His Kingdom. The painful side of the human relations in comparison with the Christian mission, the insult, persecution, calumny is also taken into consideration, as this is endured by those who witness Christ and the truth of His Gospel, that is the verticality of moral life. Therefore, according to our Savior’s words, the confessors affected by the hostility of the people around them have the certitude of a heavenly reward: “Therefore, whoever confesses he before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10,32).
Many of the Christians of the first centuries, before getting the religious freedom in the Roman Empire, assumed plenary the preaching of the Gospel of Christ in the world and sealed it with the love of the truth of their confession, suffering a martyr’s death (St. Steven, the first of the martyrs). The Savior warns the apostles and all those who were to confess Him: “they will persecute you, kill you and hate you all for My name
God has always rewarded the faithful and courageous ones in His confession, those who faced the persecution of the world in order to defend the dignity of the divine truth, the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God and of His resurrection. All confessors endured physical and moral suffering always thinking of Christ, wherefrom they received patience and courage, especially the strength to forgive their persecutors.
“Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5,11)
The Savior ends up the nine beatitudes urging to joy and gaiety, for the full comforting reward in the Kingdom of Heaven, which crowns the hardships faced on the way to perfection.
But the urge to joy and gaiety sends us to the Gospel of Christ, to the good news which brought joy to all nature. The conceiving and the birth of Christ were announced to Marie and to the world with words of joy, while the resurrection from the dead is “the day which God made so that we may be glad and gay on it”.
Christian joy springs from the strong faith and is nourished by hope, which makes us consider the eternal life as the supreme joy we are called to.
The beatitudes are a bunch of principles of Christian life, entrusted by Christ to guide the children of the new Kingdom to perfection. The words are simple, convincing, mobilizing, without affecting man’s freedom. The hard thing is to accept and to obey them. Through their content, our Savior, Jesus Christ, focuses His attention on the inner side of man, pointing out that it is from here that the change for the better must start, asking for good deeds, not only intentions, for a reality not an appearance. The recommendations of the beatitudes are not given as cold, exterior, rigid commandments but as generous, persuading, promising spiritual goods, related to the good order of the Christian’s life and projecting all hardships into the horizon of eternity.
There is cohesion, causal concatenation, even some gradation among beatitudes, one of them generating another one or being the provision needed to achieve the next one. The involvement into such a struggle of virtues implies permanent spiritual endeavor: when you are spiritually poor, that is humble, fully aware of the mistakes committed and of need of repentance, you know how to weep for your sins; when you weep, you are gentle, sympathizing, you crave for justice, holiness and you do good deeds; when you are merciful, implicitly, you are just, pure in heart and the man with a pure heart has won peace. Finally, hate and persecution rise against those who crave for good and the courage they prove in their trials often bring about martyrdom.
The beatitudes are listed in the large and bright series of the three theological virtues, faith, hope and love and represent the true guide of perfection, “steps” to the eternity of the love with Christ.
Father Nicolae Stoleru
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