The Beatitudes: What We Really Are
In this beautiful homily for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly tells us the Beatitudes are not a new set of rules for us to follow, but a statement of what we really are.
First Reading: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
Second Reading: First Corinthians 1:26-31
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
Today, we’ve just heard the Beatitudes. I wrote a few things down on this paper, because I’m afraid if I don’t trust the discipline of the paper, I’ll be talking all day on the Beatitudes. Whole books have been written on just one of the Beatitudes, never mind putting it all in seven to ten minutes. So you’ll have to bear with me a little bit if I’m looking up and down.
The first misunderstanding, I think, of the Beatitudes, is to think of them as somehow like the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament: and now we have the Beatitudes in the New Testament, these are kind of a set of eight rules that we all should follow and, if we follow them, we go to heaven, and like we do with the Old Testament (the poor Old Testament), and if we don’t follow them, we’ll probably go someplace else.
This is a mistake. When Jesus opens his mouth to preach the Beatitudes, he’s not setting out any rules or regulations. He’s telling us, and this is the surprise, this is what we really are. This is what we already are. This is not the way we should become. This is the way we should be happy to understand our grandeur, the greatness of God’s love, all of these things.
And so it is that Jesus, when he goes up the mountain, which is a very Mosaic walk up the mountain: you remember Moses went up Mount Sinai and came down with the law. Jesus goes up the mountain and he will come down with a law, but it’s not a law, with a way to live, basically, and it will radically change the whole world over time.
What Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes is why he and the Father love us. These are the reasons why they love us. And they love us because of these, much more of course, but these eight simple, put in a nice form to recognise that what he’s giving us is the way of living that we were created for.
And it’s quite lovely if you think of it in that way. You must personalise them. You must make them your own, because it’s about your inner self.
Now Jesus tells us… The first thing is, they go up to the mountain. That’s Mosaic. That means this is very important. Moses receives the direct word from God to bring down to his people. Jesus has come as the Son of God and speaks for the first time in this way to his people. He sits down. That is the sign that it’s of teaching. Whenever they have in the Bible someone about to teach, he will sit down. All the Rabbis sit down and the others will stand around.
He is teaching. The disciples then come up and they surround the Sifu, the Master. And then the crowd…
Now what kind of a crowd was Jesus talking to? Hardly the kind of congregation that I’m talking to right now. Most of these people were just kind of rag tag ordinary people, curious people, not so interested in anything but the new curiosity which was Jesus of Nazareth. Most of them were very poor because it was a very hard time in Canaan and especially in Galilee where the hillbillies came from. “Galilee of the Gentiles” was an insult that the Jewish people who treasured Jerusalem would call it. They were ordinary people, some good, some bad, some there to pick pockets, some there to find out what the holy man had to say. And these are the people that he addresses.
A Beatitude – what is a Beatitude? A Beatitude basically is God’s blessing on something. So he will say, “Blessed are…” and then what he says, he will say, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are these…” It means congratulations, in a way. It means that the response to God’s blessing is saying, “I love you,” and therefore you should be happy and you should be joyful because God’s blessing is God’s love and God’s approval. And God is saying to this whole rag tag group of people, “You’re just what my Father loves and cares for, and wants you to know more about Him,” and he will tell you what God is like.
In Chinese they have, “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed means (something in Chinese). That means to be very fortunate. And that’s as good a translation of the Hebrew and the Greek as we have: “How fortunate you all are to know, to love and to be chosen by God.”
Now the first one: Blessed are the poor, the poor in spirit (Luke says the poor, and leaves it there) but the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? The best translation of that is: blessed are those who know their need for God. The presence and the love of God is with you. What a wonderful beginning. Blessed are all those who know their need for God, and God’s loving presence is given to you. Know your need for God.
I’ll tell you a little story. When I was six years old, I got lost at Jones Beach, which is a beach in New York. And it had very high waves. I didn’t get lost, I lost myself. I was tired of my big sister who was taking care of me, so I went off on my own with my shovel and pail into this huge crowd of people and in about fifteen seconds I was totally lost and frightened.
And, finally, a policeman came and he knew, so he took me by the hand to the police station and gave me this very nice police lady to talk to. And he asked me some questions and I went, “What am I doing here? Why did I ever do this?” And I’m frightened to death, and one hour after another. And then the lady had to go away and there I was alone, sitting at the police station wondering if I was going to die here or if my father would… what would happen.
Suddenly, after two hours, at the door stood my father and he ran over. And I thought he should have really belted me one because I was very naughty. And the whole family was afraid I had drowned in the great waves at Jones Beach. And I threw myself into his arms and it’s the first time I cried. You see, when we were young, we were told little boys don’t cry. Only little girls cry. And I just cried over him and he cried over me. Okay?
And then many, many years later I thought of that. That is the way God is with us. I know my need for my father. I never realised I needed him so badly until I had lost him. But the nice side of this is my father knew his need for me and he was crying too and, probably for the first time, he realised how precious I was in his own eyes.
So when we say God, when we say the first Beatitude, we say, “Blessed are those who know their need for God.” And God knows His need for each and every one of us. For the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God means the presence of God. The Kingdom is the presence of God.
And that’s the first one. Nice one, huh? You’ve got seven more but they’re not going to be that long.
The second one is: “Blessed are the meek and humble of heart for they inherit the world.”
We look upon meek people as not really totally trustworthy, because we’re all so superior when we start moving around outside our own hearts and our own families. But the meek are the gentle people, kindly, accepting adversity with courage. Why is the world given to them? Because they’re no threat to anybody. They don’t covet the world. They appreciate everything, but they don’t have to have anything and, therefore, they walk freely throughout the world, detached, unselfishly but always looking out for other people and helping others, and appreciating the presence and love of God in this world.
My best example for this one is Father Paulhus, an old priest when I was in the seminary who was from Canada and he worked in a leper asylum for about twenty years in some place in China, way up in the boondocks, and it was very tough times in the 30s and 40s and 50s.
And when he came and gave us a little talk, at the end he’d say, “Any questions?” He had a French accent: “Any questions?” And we’d say, “Now, Father, what is the most necessary virtue we must have in this life to go over to a place like China and to be of value to those people and to be not afraid and to live under those difficult circumstances?”
And he’d smile and he’d look up and he’d say, “No, not that one.” And he’s thinking of all these things are going through his mind. And finally he smiles and he says, “The one thing you really need if you’re going to go over there is learn how to laugh at yourself.”
Now that’s blessed are the meek. Learn to laugh at yourself. Learn to take yourself easily and learn with great confidence that God loves you, especially when you turn on that side that doesn’t know everything but you put your hand like a little child in the hand of God.
The next one is: “Blessed are those who mourn.” How can you say be happy when you’re mourning? And the response to it is, “And you will be comforted.”
To mourn in biblical language and in religious language is not to sit there feeling sorry for yourself because something terrible happened to you. To mourn is to lament over the sin and sadness, the suffering and pain that is so common in our lives and in the world in which we live. Not feeling sorry for yourself, but for all peoples that are affected. And, therefore, when we lament, we show our compassion, our compassion for others as well, our understanding, and we join them in their tears.
And there’s a great saying: when we cry together, God cries with us. And we point to Jesus in Gethsemane where he wept and lamented for the whole world. And, of course, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted by each other and they will be comforted by the presence of God Himself.
Recently my grandniece passed away. She was eighteen years old and it was a great tragedy in the house. One of the people that spoke to me about my sister Peggy. She was there when the little girl passed away and so was the girl’s mother. And she was holding her mother and the girl was still in the bed.
And there were three doctors, the best doctors in America really, because the hospital was a first rate hospital. And they were crying as well. For three weeks they tried to save this lovely little child but they couldn’t do it.
And my sister Peggy was holding her daughter-in-law’s hand and then suddenly she saw one of the doctors. He walked away. He was a head doctor and he walked away and was looking out the window. And so Peggy just dropped her daughter-in-law’s hand and walked over to the doctor who was staring out. And she took his hand and said, “It’s okay. She’s gone home to God. You did everything you could and the family is very grateful.”
Now that’s “mourn.” Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
The next one is: “Blessed are those who hunger for justice, and justice shall be given them.”
Justice here means righteousness. And what righteous means is blessed are those who are right with God, who are right with their neighbours and who are right with their own selves and their own heart. And if they hunger and thirst for this kind of relationship then, of course, it shall be given, for God Himself will give it to them.
The next one, the fifth one, is mercy. This is a great word in Hebrew: its ‘chesed.’ And mercy, the ones who, blessed are the merciful, they are promised that they shall obtain mercy.
It’s very hard to translate this word but the best Hebrew translation of mercy, blessed are the merciful, mercy is “the tenderness of a mother’s love.” Isn’t that beautiful? We think of mercy as looking down on people but mercy is the tenderness of a mother’s love.
And in the Bible, God takes the place of the mother, for God is called the mother who dandles Israel, her little child. So it’s God’s mothering tenderness that is the true mercy. And so when we say, “Blessed are those who give this kind of tenderness to others,” this kind of God’s mothering tenderness, then they will have mercy shown them by God Himself.
We’re getting there now. Number six: clean of heart. Clean of heart: we think of purity, and purity has nothing to do with that. Clean of heart shall see God, means single minded. We say one-track mind people or, in the Beatitudes, because Beatitudes has nothing to do with, well it has something to do with the mind but everything with the heart. If you don’t love with your heart, you’ll never understand the Beatitudes.
Anyhow, clean of heart means a one-track heart and, of course, that one-track heart is basically the heart of Jesus who, when he was told to sum up his whole meaning, life, all the Old Testament, everything that was going to follow, said only one thing: Love your neighbour with your whole heart and love God with your whole heart and love your neighbour as yourself. This is the commandment and the only commandment that Jesus ever gave us.
The peacemakers. Peacemakers shall be called the children of God. Well we know how important this is because when we look at the world in which we live, not only families are in great tension and distress, and the peacemaker is the most welcome person in that kind of a family or all families, but also in countries and nations.
One of the great peacemakers of all high officialdom was Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the second president of the United Nations. And Dag Hammarskjöld would race around the world to all these terrible countries that had officials and politics and everything, fighting and arguing and that. He was so busy, he never got married. He just didn’t have time. And he was considered a saint by everyone. He was a protestant, a baptised protestant, and was a very holy man. And he had this my favourite prayer.
When they asked him what his favourite prayer was he said, “Every morning when I get up, I say: ‘God, my Father, for everything that has happened to me from the past, from beginning to end to now, even the bad things, I thank you. And for everything that’s going to happen to me in the future, the good and the bad, I say, “Yes!”’”
The peacemakers are called the children of God and rightly so. For Jesus came to bring us peace and we are his brothers and sisters. And it was the will of his Father that the whole world should live at peace and, therefore, those who work for that peace on the smallest or greatest level, these are truly the children of God.
And then in the end, of course, he says, “And blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. You should rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”
You shall rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven. There’s another way of saying that which is if they persecute you and yell at you and just make your life miserable because of the goodness that you do and the kindly things you do and they say, “Well, you’re stupid,” or this or that or the other, you should be happy because you’re on the right path to God’s healing and salvation.
And I’d like to end with a story. Remember, we began this with the idea, which is true, that Jesus isn’t calling us to these Beatitudes. He says you already have them. They’re part of you. You don’t even recognise them but you are all these things that Jesus, when he looked out on that day at that incredible crowd and mob of peoples, he was addressing disciples who would betray him, he was addressing people who would insult him and even crucify him, but he knew that within their heart, there was a deep feeling that they wanted to move towards good and they wanted to move towards healing. And they, too, all of them, wanted to be saved by the Messiah who came to save them.
The final story is many years ago in the seminary, there was the saying by one of the priests that we are, and it’s a quotation from scripture, he used to stop us in the halls, “You are a worm and no man. Is that right?” And we’d say, “Yes, Father. I’m a worm and no man.”
And finally, one bright kid from New York… He said, “Brother, what are you?” and he said, “Father, I’m a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
And that was the end of “You’re a worm and no man.”
What I’m pointing to finally in this, and I hope it hasn’t been too long, is that the one great mystery that we must penetrate in all the stuff that we have learned from Jesus, the one great mystery is how worthy we are to have Jesus as a brother and God as our Father — a God who weeps, laughs and plays with us, a brother who dies for us.
But also, like Father Paulhus warns us, you must keep your sense of humour and you must learn how to laugh at yourself.