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The Surprise of the Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. / Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. / Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. / Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. / Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. / Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. / Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are you when people 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. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

The Beatitudes are helpful to us because they highlight the contrast between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of our world. This contrast is crucial for our understanding because following Jesus side by side places us in sharp contrast with the world around us. As Peter was recognized to be a disciple of Jesus by the light of the fire, following in the Jesus way shines the light of blessedness on us, distinguishing us from our culture and making us recognizable as Christ followers.

The first thing to notice about the Beatitudes is that Jesus didn’t actually say them in the way we are used to hearing them. In the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and the Greek in which Jesus’ words were written, the verb “are” is not present in the Beatitudes; that word was used to render his words into English.

Rather than statements— “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—Jesus gave us exclamations: “O the blessedness of the meek!”  

This is important, because the Beatitudes aren’t statements about what might be, or about what could be. They are exclamations about what is. Jesus is announcing the privilege that is ours, to share with God in joy, to share the very blessedness that fills God’s heart. The New Living Translation uses the action word “blesses” rather than the adjective “blessed,” which helps us understand the “is-ness”—the present tense action—of what Jesus is saying. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!  

The blessedness that God offers is ours now, not in some future time. Jesus is announcing the present reality of God’s blessing right now, in the present tense. (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, by William Barclay; The Westminster Press, 1975; pages 88–89). These blessings, available right now, are quite a surprise when we consider what the world tells us affords blessing.

The world would have us believe that righteous, merciful ways of living are weak. The world would have us believe that mourning leads to unhappiness. In contrast, Jesus proclaims that meekness, humility, and persecution, rather than being sources of unhappiness or misery, are actually sources of spiritual giftedness. That is the surprise of the Beatitudes—what appears to be a source of unhappiness, turns out to be a source of joy and blessedness.