AS JUDITH LIEU observes, Beatitudes were a common form of spiritual writing in Jewish and Hellenistic tradition (Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke). The lectionary pairs the Beatitudes of Jesus with those in Jeremiah and Psalm 1. These Old Testament passages draw a contrast between the ways of wisdom and of folly. True blessedness flows from faithfulness to the wisdom that orders the world and holds it in being — and rejection of those ways that ultimately lead to death and destruction.
Jeremiah describes the blessedness of those who trust in the Lord as “like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream”. With roots in the waters of God’s grace, the faithful can withstand the most testing of times and still remain fruitful. This same image is used to open the book of Psalms, which gives voice to the cry of humanity in times of desolation, as well as to songs of thankfulness and jubilation.
At the start of this compendium of prayer and praise, we are reminded that blessedness lies “not in the signs of outward success that others, including the wicked, may enjoy, but in the joy of a conscious faithfulness to the way God has called his people to go, regardless of the price”.
As the wider message of the Psalms will explain, “Even if God is silent and does not restore the godly to positions of honor and status in the short term, the faithful triumph spiritually because they are the strong trees that bear fruit and vibrant leaves; they know themselves to be so, and that is rewarding” (Ellen Charry, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Psalms 1-50).
Like those of Jeremiah and the Psalmist, the Beatitudes of Jesus offer no easy promise of earthly prosperity. Jesus is speaking to followers who know material poverty, hunger, and sorrow, and is preparing them to be hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed on his account. In the midst of these humiliations and hardships, he declares that — through faith in him and participation in the coming Kingdom — they are the truly blessed ones.
Like the Magnificat and Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (in Luke 4), the Beatitudes speak of God’s action in history: of a salvation that has a material and economic dimension. As Lieu explains, they “declare what through God’s action is (v.20) and will be (v.21); the kingdom of God is not just a promise for the future but is already breaking into the present.” While this reversal of earthly hierarchies will not be fully realised until the end of history, Luke shows how it is anticipated in Jesus’s earthly ministry, and in the life of the Church after Pentecost.
While the Beatitudes have clear implications for the way in which their hearers should behave, they remind us that our first priority should be faith, with acceptance of the grace of God. St Augustine explains the fundamental distinction between the biblical vision of blessedness and the wisdom of the world by inviting his hearers to imagine three philosophers set before them: “Here we have three people set before our eyes: an Epicurean, a Stoic, a Christian. Let us question them one by one. ‘Tell us, Epicurean, what thing makes one blessed?’ ‘Bodily pleasure,’ he replies. ‘Tell us, Stoic.’ ‘A virtuous mind.’ ‘Tell us, Christian.’ ‘The gift of God.’”
The Epicurean and the Stoic have each glimpsed something of the truth; for our salvation does involve both a life of virtue, and delight in God’s creation. Their shared mistake is to begin with human initiative, whether the pursuit of pleasure or the contemplation of virtue; the Christian begins, instead, with God’s self-offering in Christ, and the blessings that we receive in him.
In our own age, these theories have different names, but Christianity remains a source of scandal to the philosophies of hedonism and moral self-justification, which continue to hold sway. Paul seeks to counteract these same errors among the Corinthians, who veer between believing that they will be saved by their own virtues, and believing that, if they are not saved by their good works, they can therefore simply pursue bodily pleasure
The reading from 1 Corinthians points to a radically different way of thinking and living, calling its readers to live in response to the raising of the Crucified One. In the paschal mystery, God’s future bursts into the present, turning the tears of those who seem humiliated and abandoned into laughter and delight.