The simplest understanding of beatitudes is that they’re a form of congratulations. If words were awards, beatitudes would be blue ribbons. Most people associate this term with THE Beatitudes, the famous blessing lines of Jesus—“blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.—delivered at the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel) or on the Plain (in Luke’s account). But beatitudes are found in the Old Testament also, in psalms and wisdom writings. Apart from the sermons, other New Testament beatitudes appear in John’s gospel, letters of James and Peter, and even the Book of Revelation.
To appreciate how beatitudes operate, we might compare them with commandments. The well-known Commandments in the Decalogue tell us bluntly which actions to take or evils to avoid. Commandments speak in imperatives (“Honor your father and mother”) or issue orders (“You shall not kill”), and their sole justification is in the authority of the God who set them in stone. Only incidentally may commandments offer a rationale for keeping them. For example, we’re told to honor our parents so that we may have a long life in the land up ahead. This stick-and carrot approach is not to be misread: promised land or not, the mandate to respect elders still stands.
By contrast, beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track. They don’t instruct so much as highlight the reward of certain behaviors. As Sirach extols the happiness of a husband with a good wife, he reminds us why it’s great to choose the right mate: “A loyal wife brings joy to her husband, and he will finish his years in peace.” Before we frown at the lack of reciprocity, please note that Ben Sira, author of these instructions, ran a boys’ school and had no reason to describe the joy of wives who choose the right guy—not that many had the option. Beatitudes recall that keeping the Sabbath doesn’t just make God happy; who doesn’t want a day off?
The two most famous lists of beatitudes aren’t identical. Matthew includes nine attitudes that lead to happiness: things like poverty of spirit, a hunger for justice, meekness. In contrast, Luke speaks of real poverty, actual hunger, public humiliation in his list of four blessings, and balances that list with four corresponding woes, or old-world curses. They warn us that choosing vice over virtue leads to misery on the far side of that decision.
Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17; Pss 1:1; 41:1-4; 65:5; 84:5; 106:3; 112:1; Sirach 25:8-9; 26:1; Isaiah 56:2; Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-26; John 13:17; James 1:12; 1 Peter 3:14; Revelation 16:15
Books: Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes, by Dan Ebener (Liturgical Press, 2012)
What’s So Blessed About Being Poor? Seeking the Gospel in the Slums of Kenya, by L. Susan Slavin and Coralis Salvador (Orbis Books, 2012)