The Beatitudes

It may be a little tiresome to read again that ‘this is a wonderful book’, however the statement is perhaps doubly so here. In his excellent study, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests how poverty stricken a group must be that fails to understand its most seminal texts, saying, correctly, that this is true of the Beatitudes. It follows that Daniel’s book should be prescribed reading in every church! The following is an attempt to combine a number of quotations from the book with comments so as take us through some of the essential points.

Happy are the poor – Jesus welcomes and salutes the afflicted, the hungry, the persecuted . . . The whole world is welcomed with open arms by the man on the mountain, his gaze fixed on those to whom no one had ever spoken in like manner. Nobody could believe their ears to feel themselves thus welcomed, recognized, taken into account. Jesus speaks to all of blessing; he gives entrance, admittance, into the Kingdom of God, and that’s it!

These words of welcome are not burdening anyone with a new law, with commandments we cannot fulfil; on the contrary they usher us into the Kingdom. Daniel emphasizes strongly that the beatitudes do not constitute some kind of new law to obey; that while there are parallels with Moses going up into a mountain to receive the law, the contrasts are greater. Jesus sits down – to teach. “Teacher” – this is wisdom literature – the search for the good life. The beatitudes are sign posts along the way to the good life (poor now – blessed later). I would make a point here that is pertinent with regard to the opening chapter that  to call them ‘beautiful attitudes’ is not initially appropriate – there is nothing attitudinal here at all – these are facts – being poor – and behaviours, being meek; however, this is not the direction Daniel pursues later. He goes on to say that the Beatitudes correspond so closely to Christ’s experience, they recount so closely Jesus’ inner life and its extreme outcome, that in the end they are a description of Christ. Certainly — the Beatitudes describe Christ! The beatitudes are the sage, the teacher, following his own prescription – as proven by events, and this is a reason they can be trusted as more than merely ideals. Again, though, Jesus is welcoming all – while describing Christ too, the description is plural – ‘the poor’ is multiple. We will never be alone on the journey of the poor and meek  – and if there is only one fellow traveller, it will be Jesus.

The Beatitudes become in this way a program for life, which has nothing to do with law. Law is imposed on us from outside, whereas a life project is an interior desire, a thirst which has been created within us. (!) As Daniel later goes on to examine how each beatitude works, he shows the way Jesus was able to see the sort of people he is talking about in the crowd. The beatitudes are addressed to the world, not to a limited group. It is how to see the world from the high and lofty place, how to see people. It is truly a transformation of our outlook when we see the crowds as bearers of the hope of the Kingdom … A gaze that is fixed on the crowds to draw to the surface all that is hidden, but without violating anyone’s heart, this is the gaze of Christ — and how blind am I! Living in the light of the Beatitudes is indeed to behave towards the people in the crowd as we would behave towards those who will be termed sons of God.

The first chapter concludes by saying that the disciples’ initial experience was of seeing Jesus as a healer – so they would have seen the beatitudes as a description of the science of healing! But then they find that wisdom and healing go together. And in the end they learn to see Jesus as more than a sage and healer – God!

The second chapter discusses the literary structure of the beatitudes – that there are always 2 propositions, one present tense, the second future – with the blessing in the present rooted in the future. This is an important basis for the ensuing discussion of each beatitude, each of which is seen as 1. As describing Jesus 2. As describing the disciples 3. As describing the crowds 4. As a prescription for wisdom and healing. As noted above a different direction is now taken, towards attitude. In the discussion of the poor in spirit, for example, the malady of avarice is in view, in contrast to Jesus not being attached to things.

The main discussion of this first beatitude concerns renunciation of both physical and spiritual wealth in favour of God – He is our one goal.  ‘…the task is also to reach the wealthy affected by the same avarice, not in order to deprive them of their assets but to teach them to deprive themselves through renunciation. How are we to teach both groups to be thankful for the good things they have received? How are we to teach them to share the things that come to them from another? And how are we to lead them to discover that this other is God . . . ?’

We seek to be meek NOT in order to inherit the earth! No, the goal is to be with the one who is meek and lowly of heart. The meek resist anger because they are exempt from it, or healed of it. Anger is the malady this Beatitude reveals, anger, the fever of which produces violence.

A common theme in Daniel is the efficacy of tears, and here he says that tears quench anger. This theme continues with the discussion of mourning. Jesus mourns with true grief at Lazarus’ tomb. The sickness here is false grief, shallow grief. Do we truly grieve over Christ’s death? Did the disciples? We are on the path of healing when we weep over his death. Tears and meditation purify our grief. We will be healed when we weep as Christ wept over Lazarus’ death; our tears will then be steeped in divine love, in the Father’s love at the foot of the cross.What is our attitude towards the crowds in the light of this Beatitude? Jesus saw in the crowd those who were true mourners. His insight is such that he sees in the crowd those who are truly wounded by death; and they are perhaps more numerous than we think. We too must learn how to discern them and give them time and space for their grief, time to vent their pain, without making a show of our resurrection preaching too quickly. We can begin by pointing, not necessarily to the risen Christ, but to him as, along with them, truly grieved, in silence alongside them, also weeping at the tomb of a friend. We can begin by pointing to the one who, in silence at the foot of the cross, is at the heart of grief, at the heart of every act of mourning. If we preach to the mourning that Christ mourns with them and the Father mourns with them, then we will come, in due course, to the preaching of the Resurrection. The true mourner (Jesus) is also the true comforter.

In French the term we translate as righteousness is typically justice. … if, unhappily, we have the slightest suspicion that injustice might come from God, or, at least, if we have trouble seeing his justice, then our thirst becomes unbearable. Daniel points out that Jesus hungered and thirsted for justice – and didn’t receive it, but behaved always in accordance with it. With us however our sickness is that we are so easily satisfied with a substitute for justice, and cheat the hunger of others with our distorted righteousness. They (so many people) cry out to the whole world without knowing who will satisfy them truly; at times they receive some scrap of justice and are satisfied for a day or two, briefly cheating their hunger, but there are always those who are seeking afresh true justice, that of men woven in with God’s. It is upon those who are hungry and thirsty in this way that Jesus fixes his eyes, and towards whom he points his disciples. If only we could make them at least understand how close Christ is to them, so close as to call them his brothers, the ‘least of these my brethren . . .

Among the crowd there are [also] the pure in heart. What an amazing insight this is of Christ, Christ who fixes his eyes not on the exterior but on the heart! The inside look links up with the inner lives of others; the pure heart sees the pure in heart. Only a pure heart can see a pure heart, and this is why we fail to see what Christ sees.This is the remedy (to impurity)-  ‘Give alms of what you have, and behold, all things will be pure to you‘ (Luke 11:41)

A difficulty here is if, rather than purity of heart,  your only desire is to see God, you will fall into the first pitfall laid by the tempter, who is a past master of the art of illusion. You will mistake as a vision of God, as an ecstasy or a spiritual experience, something which in fact is no more than illusion. Therefore do not thirst for visions or wonders (Jer 45:5) . . . We must begin humbly with the management of our own cell! When it comes to seeing God, the Fathers remind us that God is already present in our heart, that this is his temple, his dwelling-place, the seat of his Kingdom.

With the quality of mercy the malaise is being merciful in expectation of receiving something back in returen. This is the only beatitude with no imbalance in the promise – those who are merciful will receive – mercy. If our mercy is disinterested, only then is there likely to be a disinterested, abundant return as in the case of the sheep, those who give a glass of water and receive a kingdom.

The French for peacemakers is rather nice – literally it would translate as artisans of peace. Daniel stresses that peace is a gift of God. ‘My peace I give to you.’ In our spiritual warfare against the passions, our whole being is mobilized for a battle in which no quarter is given, but when we emerge victorious we discover to our wonderment that the victory is altogether God’s. 

Persecution is aimed at bringing about a betrayal, and may be heavy or slight – just not standing up for Jesus as we should. In persecution we can be stripped of everything and yet have everything – as was Jesus. Being persecuted for righteousness sake is about giving peace, but we cannot give what we don’t have, so attention must be paid to our own hearts. It is the fruit of a struggle – of Jesus’ agonie against anything that rises up against the will of God; but the objective is not merely personal: David fought his personal battle with Goliath, but it was on behalf of the nation…

In the end we see that it is Christ who does it all and who fulfills all the beatitudes, and so, in a closing brief chapter, Daniel has the disciples going back up the mountain and there praising Jesus as they ascribe the beatitudes to him as the only one worthy to be thus described.

One thought on “The Beatitudes”

  1. Thanks so much for this – of all Daniel’s writings that I look forward to being translated – this is the one I most look forward to. I’m preaching this week on the Beatitudes and even just this summary has been so helpful!

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