THE BEATITUDE EXPERIENCE
BY: HARRY R. FOX, JR.
AUGUST 20, 1994
From a speech delivered at the Sunstone Symposium,
Salt Lake City, Utah
Someone once said that we are living in a world of people who are in “quiet desperation.” So many are so lonely, so isolated, so separated; wanting so much to reach and be reached, but generally so disappointed and so hurt by the inaccessibility of others, and wondering WHY? I believe that Jesus in his life and teachings answered that painful question, not only by what He said but by what He did. For He was and is and always will be the miracle through whom God reaches people, people who are in NEED, who are lonely and hurt, and LOST. And I believe that one of the clearest examples of this is in what has been called His “beatitudes” recorded in Luke 6:20-22, and Matthew 5:1-11.
But before going into a discussion of the beatitudes themselves, I would like to make several observations. Most of what might be called conventional expositions of the beatitudes have generally treated them as if they were spoken in the imperative mood (something like commandments) and were, therefore, statements of how we OUGHT to behave. But even in those instances where they have been seen to be spoken in the indicative mood (what actually is) they are treated in the Old Testament sense of pronouncements upon the individual “who is righteous, who keeps his hand from doing evil and does not profane the Sabbath” (Is. 56:2). In other words, they were thought of as commendations of men and women who were righteous or virtuous, what we might call solid, responsible citizens, wise rather than foolish, and therefore successful rather than failures.
Modern Biblical scholarship has done us a service in uncovering a new element in the way Jesus used the term “blessed” (makarios) in his “Sermon on the Mount.” They have shown that the beatitudes as spoken by Jesus were “not part of practical wisdom” but “came in the context of eschatological proclamation” Or, as another has expressed it, “The NT beatitudes stress the eschatological joy of participation in the kingdom of God, rather than rewards for this earthly life.” “Consequently,” it is further stated, “in NT beatitudes the element of paradox becomes prominent. Men, who in no way appear to be fortunate in the present, . . (such as) the poor, the distressed and the barren are those declared blessed.” What all of these observations boil down to is that the blessedness pronounced by Jesus was mainly to be realized in the future, at the time of the final consummation of the kingdom.
While finding myself in agreement with all of this I must remind us that not all blessedness is reserved for the future. The Apostle Paul, in this connection, wrote to the church in Rome that even though he considered “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” we already have the FIRST FRUITS of the Spirit while we “wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18, 23) Certainly, among those first fruits must be included “the fruit of the Spirit” described by Paul in Galatians 5:22,23 as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, (and) self control.” But even here objections can be raised that these fruits relate too much to the individual and not enough to the social injustices which so concerned Jesus and the old Testament prophets. To which I would say, of course that is true. But at the same time I am strongly convinced that if we are to ever have the energy needed for social reforms we are going to have to have individuals who are spiritually and emotionally well nourished. Which brings me now to what I am calling “The Beatitude Experience.”
But before proceeding further I must take notice of one more matter, namely, a view of the beatitudes which says that “since collections of beatitudes are a literary rather than an oral device for communicating laudatory comments about individuals, it hardly seems likely that Jesus spoke at one time as many as reported by (Matthew).” From the standpoint of one who has been counseled by some good counselors, I would be inclined to believe that Jesus actually did speak all nine of the beatitudes attributed to Him on the occasion reported by Matthew. It seems to me to be quite conceivable that even though Jesus did not see Himself as a professional counselor He did, as a matter of fact, speak and act in ways that modern psychotherapy has found to be effective in healing and nurturing souls. Thus, even if his purpose in delivering His “Sermon on the Mount” was concerned with more than individual nurturing, what He said and did on that occasion certainly included such nurturing. And most of it occurred during the time in which He spoke his nine beatitudes in interaction with His hearers.
Jesus announced the intentions of His contemplated ministry when He stood up in the synagogue of His home town of Nazareth and read to those assembled the following words from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1,2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18, 19) Notice the unprecedented character of this marvelous announcement! Jesus said He had come under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to proclaim GOOD NEWS to POOR PEOPLE! To release people from whatever held them captive (or in modern terminology, deliver them from their addictions), recovering of sight to the blind (in addition to doing so physically, opening peoples’ eyes to the truth about themselves and how they can change into lives that are fulfilling), to liberate the oppressed (and I would add, depressed) by proclaiming to them “the acceptable year of the Lord” (that is, by letting the people know that they are ACCEPTED by God and can now be accepting of that acceptance and become accepting of others). So far then, we have Jesus’ announcement of His mission. When we turn to the beatitudes in Luke 6, and Matthew 5, we see how He began to accomplish that mission.
The first thing we notice is that the beatitudes are addressed directly to the people in front of Jesus, not to third persons who are not present, but to people who are actually there. This is clearer in Luke’s account where the grammar is in the second person: “Blessed are YOU poor,” rather than in the third person, “Blessed are THE poor.”
Most of the people addressed by Jesus were evidently poor, that is, they were deprived in one or more ways. He must have astonished them by pronouncing them to be blessed! Never before had they been addressed in such a gracious manner. Most, if not all of us, feel poverty to be a curse rather than a blessing. To whatever extent we may be poor, we sense from others disapproval and rejection rather than acceptance. We expect to be chastised for being failures, for being a “burden on society”; are suspected of being “ne’er-do-wells,” if not actually “lazy.” We get the feeling that others regard us as somehow being responsible for our condition. But Jesus came across as FRIENDLY. Instead of lecturing them and shaming them, he LOVED them, and they felt it.
Jesus neither shamed nor commended anyone for being poor or needy. He said they were blessed, not because they were poor, but because they were in the presence of one who then and there bestowed on them the Kingdom of God (as in Luke) or Kingdom of Heaven (as in Matthew). He didn’t tell them that theirs might be the Kingdom of Heaven if they met certain conditions, but “yours IS the Kingdom of Heaven.” And since the people in front of Him were already poor, He didn’t tell them they must become poor in order to be blessed. Thus, the first beatitude (and all subsequent ones in Matthew five) were spoken in the indicative mood (what actually is) instead of the imperative mood (a command to keep).
But what is the Kingdom of Heaven? It is such a comprehensive term that Jesus, in seeking to make clear its meaning, used numerous parables. Over and over again He was heard to say, “Whereunto shall I liken the Kingdom of Heaven?” Then he would tell a parable to convey at least one aspect or facet of its meaning. In the context of the beatitudes and the light of my experience in being counseled, I would say that its predominant meaning was and is and forever will be the experience of being loved, of loving interpersonal relationships. It is the community of people among whom mutual love occurs. I know of nothing we want or prize more highly than MUTUAL love: to love and be loved, especially in relation to someone like Jesus. It is life at its best and most satisfying and expansive. It is nothing less than ETERNAL LIFE!
So what we have in the first beatitude is a demonstration of LOVE or GRACE. God in the person of His son takes the initiative in reaching out lovingly and warmly to poor people, poor financially, socially, emotionally, spiritually and in every other imaginable way. He transmitted to them an environment in which they felt loved and accepted just as they were. So they could relax and be unafraid. They experienced what the writer of 1 John 4:18, later wrote when he said that “there is no fear in love” because “perfect love casts out fear.” How good it felt and How good it still feels today!
And so they began to cry. The first two beatitudes thus connect as follows: “When serious deprivation is met by adequate compensation it is possible to weep healingly.” In any case, when Jesus saw the people weeping, he responded by telling them, “Blessed are they that mourn.” We generally cry or weep or mourn for two reasons: for joy or for pain. I believe that those people cried for both reasons They cried for the joy of being loved as well as for the pain of having been deprived of such love for so long. Furthermore, I have found that most of us, due largely to the conditioning we received in childhood, find it difficult, if not impossible, to cry when we are simply in pain. For pain is almost always related to some kind of deprivation. Not until our deprivations are compensated can we break down and cry.
In Jesus the multitude met glorious compensation. So they were able to let go and release their pent up tears. And Jesus said to them “You shall be comforted.” I have found that there is nothing more comforting and comfortable than to release pent up tears in the presence of someone by whom we have been loved unconditionally. Such opportunities are, of course, few and far between. For many of us our first introduction to such an experience was in relation to one or more professional counselors.
For others it has been through participation in various groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. As a result of my experiences in being counseled I have defined counseling as “when one or more caring, loving persons give their undivided attention to hurting, needing persons.” That is certainly what the people received from Jesus.
As an aside, I would like to call your attention in this connection to Isaiah’s prophecy that the anticipated Messiah would be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). Jesus later told his disciples that He would send them the “paraclete” who would serve as Counselor (RSV) or Comforter (KJV). The English word “comfort” sounds like it could mean to “come forth.” And that is exactly what good counseling does; it calls forth the real, inner person, it enables us to “blossom.”
The third beatitude follows quite naturally the second: Jesus saw that the people he had blessed in their deprivations and had allowed to cry out their tears of joy and pain had now melted into meek persons. So he said to them: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” But, we ask, who are the meek? They are the opposite of prideful. They are non-defensive; they are open and relaxed. Being non-defensive, they feel no need to cover up what they are thinking and feeling; they are honest. Being men and women of integrity they can be trusted. So Jesus says, they are the ones to whom the earth belongs. It is they who shall “inherit” the earth.
The opposite of meekness is pride. Proud people are in a perpetual state of denial. They are out of touch with God, with other people and with themselves. They lack awareness of who they are. So they pretend to be what they are not. Jesus called them Pharisees (hypocrites) and heaped on them his most scathing denunciations.
Proud people cannot admit that they are needy. But meek people can do so. Jesus recognized this quality in them and said to them: “Blessed are they who HUNGER and THIRST for righteousness.” But you may ask, “Who is hungry for righteousness?” The term is popularly misrepresented and misunderstood. The popular, or conventional, perception of “righteousness” carries so many unattractive connotations that most people cannot imagine themselves wanting it. But I believe that if people properly understood the meaning of righteousness it would be seen to be extremely attractive and universally desirable. It has to do with “right-relatedness” to God, to other people and to oneself, and to some extent can be considered to be a synonym for love. Jesus said the great commandment is that we love God with all that we are and have and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Seen in this light, righteousness can indeed be seen to be desirable. Then why are we so reluctant to admit that we want it? I believe that the number one reason is that we are afraid that there isn’t “enough to go around.” So, we reason, why get started going for something that is in short supply? But Jesus intervenes at this point and says, “Don’t be afraid, FOR YOU SHALL BE FILLED.” In other words there is no shortage of love.
In this connection I remember reading a book on love (the title and author of which I have forgotten) in which the author likened many of us to donkeys with long sticks tied to the top of our heads at the far end of which is tied a single carrot. We are told that this is the only available carrot and are encouraged to run after it as fast as we can. The only reason we foolishly obey such instructions is because blinkers have been fastened to each side of our heads so that we cannot see that there are carrot patches on each side of the road containing millions of carrots!
But even after some have been told all of this, they may still object and say that even if love isn’t in short supply, we have experienced too much rejection from those from whom we wanted love, and that the pain of it was too much for us to bear. So, we say, we are going to “play it safe” the rest of our lives and never again reach out to others for love.
I doubt that those who heard Jesus were plagued by such reservations. They had been so flooded by love from him that they were ready to believe that they could be filled, and in fact, were already well on their way to being filled. Which led Jesus to say to them, “Blessed are the merciful.” Only people who have been adequately loved can be merciful. For people who most need mercy are hard to be merciful to. Thus it takes the kind of people who have been through the first four steps of the “Beatitude process” to be merciful. Otherwise, we can only be merciful to the kind of people who don’t need much mercy. It’s like trying to get a loan from a bank. If you are rich and not seriously needing to borrow money you can easily get a loan anywhere. But woe unto you if you are desperately needy: no one will lend you a dime.
By now Jesus could see that the people He was talking to, or better still, relating to or interacting with, were ready to hear Him say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” For the first fifty years of my life I found this to be the hardest beatitude for me to understand. I suppose that my main hang-up was in being under the impression that the pure in heart primarily meant the sexually pure (although, of course, it does include such purity). But as I grew more experienced in life and saw this beatitude in its context, it dawned on me that the pure in heart are those who have been delivered from their idolatrous attachments. That is why Jesus said they were the ones who would see who God really is. As long as we look to anyone (or anything) other than God to meet our deepest needs, we will never see Him as the Source “from whom all blessings flow” (James 1:17) Rather, we will be constantly looking to fellow human beings (or other entities) to give us what we need. This is what the Bible consistently calls IDOLATRY: looking to finite creatures, rather than to the Creator, for satisfying our infinite hungers. Who, or what, are the idols to whom or to which we have so mistakenly looked and become attached?
Chronologically, the first of these idols has been “Mom.” In our infancy she seemed to be “the fount of every blessing.” But it didn’t take long for us to learn that she could let us down, that she wasn’t as dependable as we had first imagined. Then we looked to “Dad.” But he turned out to be less to us than Mom (since he was more often than not “the absent father”). After that we turned to siblings or neighborhood children; then in adolescence to boy friends or girl friends. Perhaps it was at this stage that our idolatrous illusions were most evident and our attachments most desperate. Eventually we married one of those idols. Then our idolatry took on its most blatant and most dangerous form. Each married partner depended too heavily on the other for fulfillment; each made too many demands on the other. I don’t know of anything else that has proved to be more destructive of marriages than this. Next, our children became our idols. We expected too much of them and tried to make them over into our own image of what we wanted them to be instead of assisting them to be who they were to be. Both in our marriages and in our parent-child relationships we tend to make spouse and children extensions of ourselves instead of recognizing them as truly OTHERS.
When all of our personal idols have failed us we turn to impersonal ones such as money, power, prestige and pleasure. But in the end they turn out to be less satisfying than people. It is then that we are ripe for the “Beatitude Experience” which opens our eyes to Him who is truly God. We are enabled to break our idolatrous attachments to people and things and look to God from whom we are told in James 1:17 “comes every good and perfect gift.” We are then better able to appreciate Matthew 6:33, where Jesus tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and thereby discover that so much of what we sought from our idols will be “added to us.”
By looking to God as the source of all we need most deeply we will cease looking to our fellow human beings as resources but rather as channels or vessels through whom God chooses to deliver his love, mercy and comfort. When that happens we will discover that the people we had driven away from us because we had looked to them for more than they could give, will now become available to us. Until we learn that all-important lesson we will either “come on too strong” or withdraw into lonely isolation.
By now we will be ready to hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Only people who have been deeply loved can possibly be at peace within themselves and thus be able to make peace with and between others. The ultimate outcome of the Beatitude Experience will be men and women peacemakers who are able to be such because they are deeply satisfied and fulfilled people, men and women of “inner substance.” Such people are not easily “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), or emotional onslaught of disturbed people. They are solidly rooted and grounded, and they inspire confidence in all who know them. Jesus says they shall be called “sons of God” (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 8: 14, 19; Gal 3:26). I would guess that they are the same people the Apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 8:19, 20, where he says that the whole creation is in travail awaiting “adoption as sons,” to which I would add “daughters.”
Finally, Jesus declares that these “righteous” people will be persecuted for their “right-relatedness” but who are, nevertheless, “blessed.” Two questions come to mind in the face of this phenomenon: 1) Why are such righteous people persecuted? and 2) why should they consider themselves blessed? From personal observation I would say that they are persecuted for possibly two reasons: (a) jealousy or envy and (b) to be tested to “see if they are for real.” Truly righteous people are few. Thus, when people encounter them they tend to feel jealously or envy toward them while at the same time doubting their reality, and almost hoping that they aren’t “for real.” But when it is seen that the righteous are not destroyed by persecution their persecutors may eventually become favorably impressed and seek to become like them. As to why they are “blessed,” Jesus provides us with the answer that their reward is great in heaven. When Jesus speaks of “rewards in heaven,” He is saying that the rewards are intrinsic to the particular conduct in question. To live life that is ours through the Beatitude Experience is intrinsically rewarding, even if we are persecuted for living that way. Thus, we are seen to be like our Father in heaven who “lends without expecting anything in return” and is “kind to the selfish [!] and ungrateful [!]” Luke 6:35 ff.
In conclusion let me acknowledge that this reading of the beatitudes is not the only possible reading, or even that it is a correct one. All I can say is that whatever Jesus meant by what He said and did when he spoke the beatitudes nearly 2000 years ago, this is what they have done for me. I pray that they may now be a little more meaningful for you.
Sources used in this paper:
1. Mowry, M. Lucetta, “Beatitudes,” an article in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962 pg. 370.
2. Beare, Francis Wright, The Earliest Record of Jesus: A Companion to the Synopsis of the First Three Gospels by Albert Hauck. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962, pp. 54-56.
BEATITUDE EXPERIENCE, THE [Harry R. Fox, Jr.] 1