The Sermon on the Mount (in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5-7) is Jesus’ longest discourse. He tells his disciples (and the crowd gathered around them) his vision for the world, how his followers will be empowered to live and pray and worship and treat others. Jesus begins his greatest teaching with a familiar word, “Blessed.” What does it mean to be “blessed?” The Greek word in Matthew 5 (markarios) is translated in a variety of ways: “blessed,” “happy,” “fortunate,” and even “spiritually prosperous.” Clearly, markarios is a good thing, but it is not an easy thing to understand because many of the people whom Jesus calls “blessed” are not people that most of us would consider “happy” or “fortunate.” “Poor in spirit,” “mourning,” “meek,” “persecuted” — persecuted! How can anyone be happy when they are being persecuted?
Our normal definitions of happiness and good fortune obviously do not apply. And it should be emphasized that Jesus is not saying that it is good to be mourning or persecuted. Many of the states mentioned in the beatitudes are not good in themselves. Some are. It is good to hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is good to be meek (have humility). It is good to be a peacemaker. However, the blessedness does not come simply because of the status of the person. The blessedness comes because Jesus is the one giving the blessing. Blessedness comes to us because Jesus is with us.
The Beatitudes describe the normal Christian life. All of us will, at some point, feel “poor in spirit.” No one on this planet can escape from some days of feeling unworthy and helpless. Everyone mourns at some point; we all lose people that we love. All of us also have the opportunity to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to work for a better society and to speak out against injustice. All of us also have the opportunity to be peacemakers, to help people who are in conflict come to a resolution that is fair. The important thing for us to realize is that no matter what situation we face, Jesus is with us, and he is willing and able to transform us, even if the situation is bad. Perhaps that is what being blessed is about – the change that happens in us rather than in our circumstances – and then the change we can make in the world because of the change in ourselves. Jesus himself did not have an easy life. He faced a lot of opposition and persecution. He did not live comfortably and was no stranger to mourning. (His cousin, John the Baptist, was murdered by Herod, and Jesus’ close friend Lazarus died. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave.) However, it is not an exaggeration to say that Jesus was the most joyful person who ever lived. He loved his friends deeply and delighted in his Father’s creation. His love for others and his joy transformed the people around and countless people who have followed him for hundreds of years.
St. Paul did not follow Jesus when Jesus walked the earth, but he knew Jesus very well. Knowing Christ and Christ’s love for him enabled Paul to be joyful even in difficult circumstances. Paul was blessed. He wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13). The same is true for us. Jesus is with us. Christ lives in us. We are blessed. When we realize this truth, we learn the “secret of living in every situation.” There are still hard times. There is still grief and anger and pain. But the fundamental reality of our lives is that we are blessed. Because of that blessing, we can have a deep feeling of joy and contentment that might be shaken, that might be gone for a season (even a long season), but it can never be completely taken away.