Blessed Are …or Thou Shalt Not?

Not just blessed; but supremely so; that’s what beatitudes represent. These are a vision of what it means to follow Christ and to be the ideal disciple.

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, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:1‭-‬12

But, if we’ve been reading our Bibles, haven’t we already got a list of rules to live by? These were delivered in no short drama by Moses himself – in the form of the ten commandments. Indeed, so important that they appear twice in the old Testament: within both Deuteronomy and earlier still in Exodus:

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Exodus 20:1‭-‬17

So, as a good Jew at the time, why would you need this carpenter’s son to give you more?

There’s a clear difference in language between the ten commandments and the beatitudes though, with the distinction being that of the carrot instead of the whip. Indeed, as I read both side by side, it for me reflects the tone of the old and new testaments perfectly: with both explaining God’s law and purpose – but for the old testament in a tone of consequence and punishment: but under the new testament inspirationally and with hope.

There is no leeway with the ten commandments; no allowance for a busy week, where you might need to work on that Sabbath, despite the law; no exceptions and no grey areas. Of course, understanding right from wrong is important – but sometimes it isn’t black and white and chaotic humanity needs a bit of wiggle room.

The beatitudes give instruction with hope and promise. They tell us how through specific action, we can receive reward. More importantly, the offer of reward seems more open to any human being who follows them. Could that be perhaps because the ten commandments were written for the Jewish nation directly – but the beatitudes making no such distinction of Jew or gentile?

In our current world, that’s important. We need to reach those who aren’t aware of their need for God and a list of rules with consequence isn’t going to encourage. Flip consequence on its head however, and with encouragement and reward, you’re on to a winner. No matter what your religious affiliation they still work – as they teach empathy, allowing us to consider what it might be like to be in a position of weakness.

Something else that occurs as I compare the traditional commandments and the beatitudes is the propensity for the first to divide people; the latter to bring together.

One of Jesus complaints with the established leaders of the Jewish faith was their strict adherence to the law, for the sake of the word alone. “And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”” Jesus famously stated in Mark 2:27, in response to the pharisees who criticized Jesus’s methods – little understanding that it is the spirit behind the law that matters, not the words themselves. Those who follow the law so strictly, for the sake of the law and not the meaning behind it may put themselves on a higher, more righteous standing; “I am better than you because I do this and you do not” effectively dividing themselves from the unworthy.

The beatitudes on the other hand, by encouraging us to put ourselves in the poorer position, encourage and foster a unity with those who most need to be engaged and supported. They embrace a humility that none of us is perfect, we all fall short of the mark. They force us to recognise it is not strength and power that will see us through: it’s rather understanding our weaknesses that will. They point to a realisation that to see the world embrace Jesus, we can’t do it from the top down; rather we must work from the essence of Christianity at the lowest levels, understanding and demonstrating basic tenants of peace, humbleness, truth and trust.

They teach us to “be”: to be humble, not act humbly; to live truth instead of staying quiet and not standing up to lies; to be agents of peace, not simple content to currently be at peace.

By “being”, we can be better encouraged in our actions and through our actions, better encourage those we meet.

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