Comfort for All
Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries shows us that the Beatitudes are good news for more than just funerals.
Today’s gospel is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. I often seem to be preaching on the beatitudes at funerals, as I can usually find some theme in the life of the deceased (however well or not I knew them), with one of the qualities that Jesus commends here for us Christians. Those attending the funeral who are less regular in their church attendance may then hear the Beatitudes as a counter-cultural call to a Christian way of life. We live in a world which so often seems to reward the rich, the aggressive, the brash, those who seek to take advantage of others and care about no one except themselves. Preaching on the beatitudes should invite us to reflect on our priorities in life.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God. Wealth, success or power are not their ultimate priority. Those who are poor in spirit have a detachment from such considerations. Good examples in scripture of people who are poor in spirit are Jesus’s own family: Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth. They depend quietly and confidently on God. Those who are not ‘poor in spirit’ will be inclined to judge everything in financial terms, or in terms of power and influence as such concerns are their only reference.
Blessed the gentle, they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Blessed are the merciful, they shall have mercy shown them.
The gentle are those who are merciful and who seek what is right and just. These eight beatitudes complement each other with interwoven meanings; they are not mutually exclusive. The gentle are poor in spirit, knowing the weakness both of themselves and of others. They are merciful and so will be shown mercy. Being gentle is not just about being kind to animals, nor is it simply about avoiding violence. Being gentle means valuing other people as God’s children, and also valuing the whole world as God’s creation, with its resources and its abundance of life. Being gentle in creation means living out a green theology, day by day.
Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.
To be pure of heart is not primarily about our sexuality, though the expression of our sexuality is part of us being pure. Purity of heart is well illustrated in the Shema from Deuteronomy, recited daily by devout Jews, which runs
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,?
The opposite is a divided heart, one which yearns for that which is not God, with a disordered sense of priorities. With a heart that is not pure, people cannot clearly seek what is right and just. When someone’s heart is not pure, that person cannot be gentle for they will seek their own financial advantage or influence, at the expense of what is just for another person.
Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.
The children of God are those people made in the image and likeness of God who seek to be true to that image. They hunger and thirst for what is right. Peace and justice go together, we cannot separate them. Being a peacemaker involves understanding what is just in particular (and often complex) situations.
Blessed those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Living the Christian life will necessarily challenge those who do not live out the moral life. If we value all the people we meet as fully human, this will aggravate those who treat other people with contempt. If we seek peace, this will annoy those who seek to profit from violence and conflict. If we are gentle this will challenge the behaviour of those who are aggressive. We will be persecuted, in small ways and large, if we seek to live out these Beatitudes in our daily life. But they are the way that Jesus invited to live and our reward will be great in heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted.
At a funeral these may be words of hope for those who are bereaved. Comfort is promised them by God. But in the context of the Beatitudes, those who mourn are those who experience a gap. The gap is between our potential for a fully human life as our Creator God wishes, and on the other side, the sad reality of much of human life, with so many broken relationships and injured, imprisoned people. Those Christian people who mourn a loved one may glimpse something of this gap, and be comforted in hope of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life.