In the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-10, Jesus proclaims nine Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, “Blessed are those who mourn”, “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “Blessed are the merciful”, “Blessed are the pure in heart”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account.”
The Beatitudes are at the heart of the preaching ministry of Jesus. They stand at the beginning of what is called, in Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-7:29). Jesus proclaimed them at the very beginning of his public ministry in Galilee. This is how Matthew the Evangelist reports it: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. He sat down and his disciples gathered around him. Then he spoke and began to teach them” (Mt 5:1-2). The Beatitudes are often presented as the New Testament supplement or complement to the Ten Commandments. As Moses gave the Law of God to Israel from Mount Sinai, Jesus is presented as giving the new and definitive Law to Israel and to all humankind from the mountain. Thus, when Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes on the mountain, he helps us to see things from God’s perspective. The teaching of the Beatitudes shed light on the mystery of Christ’s life and helps us to know and understand his person.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus raises us to a higher spiritual and ethical ideal. It is in the Beatitudes that he teaches us how things are in this world, what we should do, and how God wants us to live. These nine Beatitudes are proclamations of blessings. Those who live the kind of life expressed in the Beatitudes, that is, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the calumniated, are assigned specific consolations in this world and reward in the next. They will see God and their recompense will be great in heaven. In this light, it is the poor, those who mourn, those who suffer all kinds of deprivations, and those who bear all kinds of hardships, who are truly fortunate and blessed. They are those who are close to God’s heart. They have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of affliction because the reward that awaits them is great.
Seen in this light, the Beatitudes embolden the Christian to rejoice in suffering because of the blessed assurance of good things to come. St. Paul gives a hint regarding this joy in the midst of suffering when he wrote these touching words: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). When we see things in light of God’s divine providence, even adversity can become a source of blessings. It is against this backdrop that the Beatitudes are paradoxes. They turn the values and standards of the world upside down. If we correctly understand the Beatitudes as the signposts of hope, it becomes clear that we are dealing with opposite attitudes. As soon as we begin to see things from God’s perspective and in terms of God’s values, everything changes.
We may ask: In blessing the poor in spirit, is the Beatitude frowning against riches? In blessing those who mourn, is the Beatitude condemning those who are happy? In blessing those who are persecuted, is the Beatitude condemning those who are celebrated? Is it such a bad thing to be rich, to eat to one’s fill, to laugh and to be praised? It is important to note here that Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher who proclaimed “the death of God” directed his angry critique precisely against this aspect of Christianity encapsulated in the Beatitudes. For him, it is not Christian doctrine but Christian morality that needs to be critiqued and exposed as a “capital crime against life.” In Nietzsche’s opinion, the vision of the Sermon on the Mount and of the Beatitudes presents a religion of resentment, of people who are cowardly, incompetent and unable to face up to the demands and challenges of life and who try to avenge themselves by blessing their failures and cursing the strong, the successful and the happy.
Nietzsche sees those who follow the path of the Beatitudes as envious people, who are bitter about the successful people because they are unable to succeed. They are unable to get the most out of this world and what life has to offer now, and so they console themselves with the hope of heavenly rewards. Nietzsche’s view of the Sermon on the Mount fits into Karl Marx’s depiction of religion as “the opium of the people.” He believes that religion sedates people and suspends their senses from feeling the pain of life. He sees it more like being anesthetized, which makes one feel a temporary relief from pain. Although Jesus’ wider perspective counters the narrow worldliness of Nietzsche, there are many people in today’s world who do not believe that the direction indicated by the Beatitudes corresponds to their real human desires.
Instead of being poor in spirit, many Christians today would rather want to make it by all means. Life is seen as a social Darwinist struggle where survival is the prize of the fittest. Meekness and gentility are not cherished values in a world in which many people want to make it by all means, and to get the better of others. To be merciful today is often seen as a sign of weakness. The law of the jungle and the rule of retaliation becomes the overriding instinct of human social relations. Pursuing purity of heart has become very difficult in a society where TV, billboards and the Internet have commercialised pornography and all sorts of sexual and sensual immorality. The pleasures of the world and the lures of life have found their way into the modern mindset and to a large extent shape how Christians of today feel.
Today, miracle hawkers, advertisers of signs and wonders, prosperity preachers and spiritual entrepreneurs have taken over the entire landscape. These grand merchants of the new age religion capitalize on the economic dysfunction of the society to rob the poor and vulnerable people of their faith and money. They preach a religion without the cross, and without suffering, and assure their followers with itching-ears of the blessed reward of earthly life, without hard work, commitment, discipline, honesty and integrity. They are told that God will bless them, provided they have faith and pay their tithes. These religious contractors give spiritual immunity to a bunch of lazy people who do not want to work, yet want to enjoy all the good things of life. Many young people of today have fallen prey to this. They want to just enjoy without toil and without sweat. They just want shortcuts to pleasure and comfort. We need a revolutionary change of mindset to break out of this typical Nigerian culture of settling for too little, hoping for too little, and doing too little to improve our condition of living.
In blessing those on the margins of life, the Beatitudes are not invitations to laziness and complacency. They are a clarion call to each one of us to work to change unjust social structures, which condemn many people to a life of drudgery and servitude. No one should say, “There is nothing I can do, I am just one person out of a multitude.” No. Each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us can change things. The Beatitudes call us to seek justice for the hungry, the oppressed, those who mourn on account of their losses, those who seek purity amidst the moral and ethical decay around them, those who are gentle in the midst of a hustling society that often tries to take advantage of their meekness, those who are seen as weak because they show mercy and forgive, and those who are persecuted on account of their steadfastness in standing for what is right. When we make their cries ours, we can set out to contemplate life through the prism of God’s values.
Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.