Beatitudes, Not Platitudes
According to one interpretation of the scene, Judas went away from this encounter disgruntled with Jesus' failure to lead a social revolution. It is certainly true that Jesus' answer remains a powerful rebuke to those who would confound the gospel with one or another form of state-imposed socialism. The poor, whom we always have with us, will be taken care of properly only when we freely behave as Christians and not when Caesar, at the point of a bayonet, requires us to render doubly unto him so that he can purchase political power with our tribute.
Jesus' moral message is far more alarming than Marx or Marx's Catholic followers today have realized. Christian socialists tell us to go about our business as mankind has always done, lying, cheating, stealing, so long as we pay the state to redistributes some small portion of our wealth to the poor—a small price to pay for a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Christ, by contrast, turns our most highly cherished values—pride, ambition, greed—upside down.
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto 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 they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5: 1-10]
In this first recorded sermon of Jesus Christ, the conventional wisdom (not just of Jews but of Greeks and Romans and modern Americans who have examined their consciences) is turned on its head. Failure and poverty, which were regarded as unmitigated miseries in the ancient world, are celebrated. Good fortune, wealth, and power, which had been regarded as signs of divine favor, now counted for nothing.
Like most peoples everywhere, ancient Jews respected power and success. In looking back at their own history, they admired the exploits of Joshua, Gideon, and Samson, violent men who would not have been out of place in the American West. King David and his son Solomon were among their greatest heroes. David was a man of war who smote his enemies and built a powerful (albeit miniscule) kingdom; Solomon was proverbial for his wealth and women as well as for his wisdom and power.
For more recent heroes, Jews could turn for inspiration to the Maccabees, who had led a bloody insurrection that liberated their people from the Macedonian kingdom of Syria ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes. The successors to the Macedonians were the Romans, who had been ruling over the Jews, largely through proxies like the Herods, for more than 100 years. In expecting a messiah or savior, Jews commonly believed he would come as a fighting prince, another David or Judas Maccabeus, with sword in hand, to drive the Romans into the sea. Yet here is this prophet or (as some would say) messiah, early in his career, calmly beginning an address to the multitude proclaiming the blessedness of “the poor in spirit” or simply, as in the parallel passage in Luke, “the poor.”
What do these words mean, really, “blessed” and “poor in spirit”? Blessed, for example, can mean several things in English. When we bless someone, we speak well of him. In the Vulgate translation of the Bible, this is expressed by the verb benedicere (to speak well of), which gives us the English word “benediction.” Benedicere is the word used to translate the Greek eulogein, as in “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” [Luke 1.64] However the completely unrelated Greek word, makarios, used here in Matthew, means blessed or happy, in the sense of having good fortune. (It is translated into Latin here and elsewhere as beatus). The more basic word makar, from which it is derived, is typically used in early Greek to refer to the gods as opposed to mere mortals, and makarios thus retains a strong whiff of divine favor. In the plural (as Jesus uses it here), makarios is often applied to the rich and well-educated.
The English word “poor” is also ambiguous; it can mean either lacking in wealth or in a poor condition or quality, as in “the actor turned in a poor performance.” In Greek the Ptochoi (poor), by contrast, are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale; they are the beggars that crouch and cringe, fearfully, in the presence of their superiors. There is really no good modern analogy for the ancient poor, since our homeless people are, for the most part, either mentally disturbed or "substance abusers" or both. The ancient beggar, by contrast, might just be unfortunate, an otherwise decent person who had fallen on hard times.
One of Jesus' listeners who had been to school might have thought of Odysseus, the noble Greek warrior who disguised himself as a beggar and had to endure insults and abuse in his own house—a story that eerily anticipates Jesus’ own arrival in earthly form: the son of God who is born to a poor family, a man “despised and rejected and acquainted with grief.” However, Matthew’s version “poor in spirit” takes us well beyond Homeric myth. Odysseus may have been without resources and beggarly in appearance, but, as a proud and violent Greek aristocrat, he was anything but poor in spirit, as he would show when he put off his disguise and killed his wife's suitors. Our Lord was telling his people that the greatest happiness one can have, the happiness usually associated with the prosperous and educated, is to possess the spirit of the cowering beggar.
What a strange statement, then, to make, that the abject and miserable, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, are the ones who have experienced divine good favor. Most of us have read or heard this sermon so many times we take it for granted as either hyperbole—He could not have meant these things literally, could he?—or as a set of Sunday school clichés that we recite without any intention of living up to. But then they would not be the Beatitudes, but only the platitudes.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.