When the other Daily Theology writers asked me to take part in my second Theological Shark Week, I jumped at the opportunity to kick off this week’s Holy Spirit-themed series with…the Beatitudes. [Long sigh] The Beatitudes, really? They’re just so bland. After the high-drama, Holy Spirit pyrotechnics of Pentecost, it’s difficult to get excited about today’s Gospel reading: Jesus praising the poor in spirit, the mourning, and the meek. The blessed ones of the Beatitudes are like the spiritual back-up singers for the real stars of Christian discipleship: the martyrs and the missionaries.
It’s like Jesus is speaking to the losers here: they’re poor and downtrodden, they hunger and thirst for righteousness, they’re persecuted and insulted, and yet they make peace, maintain clean hearts, and show mercy to others. And for all of this perseverance in the face of abuse, Christ explains that they are actually blessed by God, despite the seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, and he promises them great rewards…once God’s Kingdom comes. (Pretty weak reward, Lord. Pretty weak.) How am I supposed to interpret the Beatitudes today in light of the awe-inspirit, heart-enflaming work of the Holy Spirit on display in yesterday’s readings?
The legacy of scriptural interpretation of the Beatitudes is twofold: it is interpreted as prescriptive for Christian living and descriptive of the hard road of Christian discipleship. On the one hand, Christians were instructed to emulate these virtuous sufferers—to be meek, mild, and accepting of one’s crummy lot in this life—since their reward awaits them in the next. In fact, the Beatitudes were often interpreted as “entrance requirements” into God’s Kingdom: if you weren’t merciful, clean hearted, or persecuted, Saint Peter wasn’t going to let you in. On the other hand, Christians have understood their own suffering and persecution through the lens of the Beatitudes, seeing themselves in the examples of the mourning, the persecuted, and the insulted and believing that their suffering would earn them a share in God’s Kingdom, just as it earned the suffering ones of the Beatitudes. But where does the Holy Spirit come in to all of this? Traditionally, the Beatitudes were frequently linked with the Lord’s Prayer and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in an easy-to-remember triad of Christian prayer and ethic: if you embody the virtuous gifts of the Spirit and pray for God’s Kingdom to come, you will receive the corresponding reward promised by Christ. While these more simple interpretations are not necessarily incorrect, they do not consider the Beatitudes within their historical and cultural context, nor do they offer much by way of spiritual inspiration. But the Beatitudes must have been one of Jesus’ most compelling teachings, as they make up the first part, and are perhaps the highlight of, the major teaching scene in Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Modern biblical scholarship, however, helps us to shed new light on the Beatitudes, both according to their historical-cultural context and in a manner that makes them meaningful for us today.
The New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, of blessed memory, tells us that the Beatitudes are a spin on a genre of sayings found elsewhere in scripture. “Blessed is the man who…” the Psalms teach us (and taught Jesus’ followers), but the benefits of that man’s blessings are to be found in this life. In contrast, the blessings of those “blessed ones” of the Beatitudes are promised for the future, when God’s Kingdom comes: they are eschatological promises. Nor are the Beatitudes “entrance requirements” for entrance into heaven; they are a list of “the characteristics and actions that will receive their full and appropriate eschatological reward.” Given the context of what was happening to Matthew’s Christian community—ongoing disputes with Jewish authorities, the fallout of the Jewish-Roman War, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—it is no wonder that an eschatological mindset pervaded and that eschatological promises of justice and comfort would appeal to his audience. But what meaning can we find today in these eschatological promises for past persecution and suffering when so many of us are blessed with lives of comfort and privilege?
Another renowned biblical scholar, the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, gave a sermon in 2011 at the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of St Andrews in which he discussed the importance of the Beatitudes for today (and for an audience no doubt familiar with comfort and privilege). For Wright, the Beatitudes are not about being rewarded for good behavior or even about receiving one’s due, but they are primarily about God’s plan to raise up the lowly, bring low the haughty, comfort the suffering, punish the evildoer, and bring justice to the land—the promises of the coming Kingdom described by Mary in the Magnificat and repeated again and again in the Gospels. But for Wright, these promises aren’t only eschatological: God will accomplish all of this not only on the Day of Judgment, not only when God’s Kingdom comes, but also in the here and the now, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and by the means of God’s faithful who struggle for God’s justice and mercy here on earth. Wright explains:
Blessing is not primarily about what God promises to do to someone. It is primarily about what God is going to do through someone. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—in other words, when God sets up his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, it’s the poor in spirit through whom he will do it. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth: in other words, when God wants to sort out the work, to put it to rights once and for all, he doesn’t send in the tanks, as people often think he should. He sends in the meek; and by the time the high and mighty realise what’s happening, the meek, because they are thinking about people other than themselves, have built hospitals, founded leper colonies, looked after orphans and widows, and, not least, founded schools, colleges and universities, to supply the world with wise leaders. Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice; because they, unlike the time-serving lawyers who bully witnesses for their own professional kudos, will be a sign of hope in a crooked world. Blessed are the merciful—notice how Jesus balances out justice and mercy—because the vision of a rule of law without exception, needing no divine or royal interventions to establish equity, is a dangerous oversimplification, producing a society without mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, and if we haven’t learned that after the twentieth century, what hope can there be.
We might not all of us be called to be the meek, we might not all of us suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness, we might not be poor (in spirit or otherwise), but we are all called by Christ to work with the Spirit for the coming of God’s Kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy in the here and the now. For each of us who has been cleansed with the Holy Spirit at Baptism, sealed with the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, and who is united with Christ’s Body in the Eucharist, this is the primary obligation of our Christian vocation. And because of this, Christ can be glimpsed in each of us when we, in our own way and according to our own gifts, make God’s love manifest and allow the Spirit to work through us in our striving for the Kingdom. Blessed are we–who make peace, cultivate clean hearts, show mercy, hunger and thirst and work for righteousness, mourn injustice and death, put others before ourselves, and humble ourselves before God–for the Kingdom of God is in our midst.
 Daniel Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina series (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 83-84.
 N.T. Wright, “The Great Story,” 26 June 2011, http://ntwrightpage.com/sermons/Great_Story_StAndrews_600.htm