The Beatitudes and What it Means to be “Blessed”

Sadao Watanabe, The Sermon on the Mount, 1963.

As the Sermon on the Mount begins, Jesus offers a series of sayings that begin with a simple phrased “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…” This pattern continues over the course of nine sayings as Jesus offers insights into what it truly means to be blessed.

Jesus did not invent this sort of pattern of teaching. It was common to have sayings like this, both in the Bible and in other wisdom or philosophical traditions. In fact, Jesus draws upon a rich tradition of such sayings about what the blessed life looks like. We hear this in other parts of Scripture, especially in Psalms and Proverbs. One example is Psalm 1, which begins:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked… (Psalm 1:1)

Such sayings aim to describe what a blessed, or good, life looks like. They hold up an ideal toward which we should aspire but also a reality that is accessible now in our lives through God’s grace.

Each of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:3-12 begin with the Greek word μακάριος. The Latin translation of that word is beatus, which is where the name “Beatitudes” for this section comes from. Because this word, μακάριος, is so central to this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, it is incredibly important to understand its meaning. It literally means: “blessed, happy, it will go well with, fortunate, or flourishing.”

The μακάριος life is what we would describe as “the good life.” But it is not just a generally good life in the abstract. The μακάριος life is a good life that is rooted in God. From the inclusio – the bookends – in verses 3 and 10, which say, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we see that Jesus is using these μακάριος statements as a summary description of what life in God’s kingdom is all about.

Jesus’ μακάριος statements place before us a description of what the kingdom life with God looks like; a life that is fortunate, flourishing, happy…blessed. Simultaneously, the μακάριος statements are a gracious invitation to enter into that sort of life – to move toward that sort of life – with God now.

Think with me about the people who have begun to throng around Jesus that we heard about at the end of Matthew 4. They were everyday people, like the fishermen, but there were others – the sick, the poor, the demon-possessed, those suffering severe pain, those with seizures, the paralyzed. These are just everyday people with everyday problems.

Now, the prevailing mindset in Jesus’ day was that when you had problems like this, then there was something wrong with you. People like this, it was thought, were most definitely not blessed and were perhaps either being judged or cursed by God. Definitely, it was thought, God didn’t want anything to do with people like that. But Jesus says, “Well, that’s not the way it is. Turn around, pay attention. God’s kingdom is right here. Come on in and find your place. God is bringing a future blessing in the fullness of time. But even now you are blessed. So live into that blessed life day after day.”

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