Jesus made it clear throughout his ministry that the qualities that lead to success in the world often make it hard for people to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Beatitudes (found in Matthew 5:3-10), Jesus basically turns the Pharisees’ ideas of worldly success on their head in order to teach about the qualities of a Kingdom citizen. While our world seems driven by a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and happiness is derived from pride in the successes that set us apart from others, Philip Yancey tells us that “God views this world through a different set of lenses.”
The Beatitudes describe those lenses for us:
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 be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Poor in spirit? Mournful? Meek? We wonder how these are states of blessing, states that could be called “happy” or “blissful” or “lucky.”
Often, in order to understand what something is, it helps to look first at what it is not. To identify examples of a concept, it can help to look first at counter-examples. In the 1950s, Anglican priest and Bible translator J.B. Phillips presented his worldly version of Jesus’ teachings, called the “Beatitudes of Man,” which imagine the qualities the people of the world today might consider necessary for success, and thus, in their minds, happiness. My Thursday morning Women’s Bible study group recently had the opportunity to look into this “opposite world” to help us understand what Jesus is teaching in his hilltop sermon recorded in the Gospel account of Matthew.
“Beatitudes of Man”
Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world.
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blase: for they never worry over their sins.
Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results.
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
Happy are the troublemakers: for they make people take notice of them.
The First Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Phillips writes, Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world.
The word “blessed” means happy, but not a passing, momentary happiness. It is the kind of spiritual joy we feel when we know that we have God’s favor, and it doesn’t depend on our circumstances.
While the world values the strong, the independent, the “movers and the shakers,” those who are in control and play to win, God values the poor in spirit. These are the people who recognize their need for God, who recognize that all we are and all we have is a gift from our Heavenly Father. Being “poor” according to Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes is not a financial state; He is not glorifying worldly poverty. Rather he calls “blessed” the person who is conscious of her sin, and who is grateful beyond words for God’s mercy in forgiving those sins and welcoming her into His family.
The Second Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Phillips writes, Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
While the world values the tough, those who are un-phased by the vicissitudes of life, those who can get over things and “get on with it,” those who are matter-of-fact and practical, God values those who mourn. In my Thursday morning Women’s Bible study group, we talk about the need to mourn, the need to share our grief and our concerns with others, and the value of being vulnerable around our Christian friends. Some commentators don’t think this Beatitude deals with that kind of mourning at all, but rather our mourning over our sin. It is the idea that we are so grieved by our sin that we are led to God and to His forgiveness and salvation. Feeling so deeply sorry about our sin leads us to hate sin, to turn away from it (which is the meaning of the word repent), and to turn to God.
The Third Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Phillips writes, Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
While the world values the self-promoters and the people complaining loudly and long enough to finally get their own way, God values the meek. These are the people who do not push to the front of the line, who are willing to consider others’ needs alongside or even in place of their own, who allow themselves to be controlled by God in thought, word, and action. No one who loves and reveres the scriptures would ever translate this Beatitude as “blessed are the doormats.” This is not a call to be weak and let others walk all over you. Rather, the meek person has God’s strength behind them as they face the world and its challenges. This is the person who lives by the motto: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
The Fourth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Phillips writes, Happy are the blase: for they never worry over their sins.
While the world values those who don’t concern themselves too much with their own bad behavior, and don’t let their guilt over their sins stand in the way of their climb to worldly success, God values those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The world values the one who amasses the most material possessions; you are what you own, and you better keep up with the newest, the latest, the “best.” The world values the one who advances at any cost, whether the means are moral and ethical, or not. What if we put aside the drive for material abundance, and sought after spiritual abundance instead? What if we put “being right with God” ahead of dreams for power, fame, and fortune? Wouldn’t that be the most counter-cultural act of all? Do we look at the way the world lives as our model, or do we look at how Jesus lived as our model?
The Fifth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Phillips writes, Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results.
While the world values people who get results, even at the expense of compassion or meeting others’ needs, God values the merciful. The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to the one who functions with an “every-man-for himself” mentality. As God has been merciful to us, we are to be merciful to others, and to reach out to those in need in order to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
The Sixth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Phillips writes, Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
While the world values people who are knowledgeable and “know their way around,” in Phillips words, God values those who are pure in heart. The one who seeks knowledge should seek wisdom, and those who act only with their rational minds should see what it’s like to be directed by their compassionate hearts and Spirit-driven faith.
Being pure sounds like a pretty tall order to us. As Robert Wells writes in his discussion of the Beatitudes, “The truth is we can't do any of these things on our own. We can't reform ourselves. We can't self clean ourselves. Many people have tried to clean themselves. Some have tried to do this through asceticism or leading a life of complete self denial, or by other methods such as by going away from the world and living in solitude, or permanent silence, or by beating their bodies with whips and clubs, even by inflicting upon themselves all forms of degrading and unpleasant acts, even going so far as castrating themselves. They have tried to cleanse themselves through celibacy, fasting, and prayers. But such asceticism is not biblical and it will not result in purity of heart.” (http://robertwells.tripod.com/Beatitudes.html)
It is God who will “conform us to the image and likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:29) as we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ and are made a new creation in Him. “And this all happens,” Wells explains “the very moment when you are saved, because when you are born again you indeed become a brand new person. A brand new person who is walking arm and arm with Jesus Christ on a road to spiritual purity, spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, and spiritual strength.”
The Seventh Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Phillips writes, Happy are the troublemakers: for they make people take notice of them.
While the world values the people who are able to draw attention to themselves, often because they are out there making trouble and calling attention to themselves (just check out the Yahoo “News” page for any number of names that fit the bill!), God values the peacemakers.
Not all troublemakers are bad. After all, as we mentioned in our Women’s Bible study, Jesus himself was seen as a troublemaker. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were seen as troublemakers. Troublemakers shake things up and challenge the status quo, and sometimes things need to be shaken!
But when they are agitating simply to bring attention to themselves with no greater good in mind (we were thinking of little kids misbehaving in class, gossipers in our social circles, politicians and the media riling up our population to get votes or viewers), to get fame and maybe some of the fortune that comes along with it, they are moving into dangerous territory.
The Eighth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
J.B Phillips does not appear to address the eighth beatitude. Can we imagine what he might say for his eighth beatitude of man? Perhaps, “Blessed are those who don’t stand out for being different from the world”? The children of God sometimes face persecution for holding different priorities from the rest of the world, for living according to a different purpose, and for speaking out about God in a largely secular society.
Each Beatitude could be discussed in a book chapter, a blog post, or a conversation of its own; they are a rich source of understanding about God’s Kingdom and its citizens. Right now, I am trying to look more closely at Jesus’ life and teachings than I have ever looked before, in order to be more open to the Holy Spirit’s transforming influence. By taking some time to think about these provocative statements from the Sermon on the Mount, may we all be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--
his good, pleasing and perfect will.