It might be disrespectful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to write that Jesus proclaimed his celebrated eight beatitudes with tongue-in-cheek.
But there is more than a note of irony when Jesus describes as “blessed” those who are poor in spirit, mournful, meek, persecuted and other luckless lots. And to add insult to injury, the Greek word usually translated as “blessed” could just as easily be translated “happy.”
Happy are the poor in spirit; happy are the meek; happy are the mournful; happy are those who hunger and thirst. The litany grows more far-fetched as the eight qualities of the blessed or happy are listed. To make the point, consider again the range of souls that Jesus considers blessed. To wit: the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
From a strictly human or earthly point of view, these are not particularly enviable groups. No one wants to be impoverished in either body or soul. No one is eager to mourn the death of a loved one. The meek are invariably bullied. Those who seek justice in this world are rarely satisfied. The merciful, the clean of heart and the peacemakers are often met with mockery and ingratitude. The persecuted are plagued in body and soul. None of these situations is especially desirable. No one would consider these people fortunate – except possibly Jesus.
Jesus knows well that these eight unhappy situations are far from being considered blessed or happy by the average person. No one sets out to be mournful or persecuted or even meek. And the other beatitude qualities are not high on the list of everyday ambitions. But this is precisely Jesus’ point. The unsatisfying aspects of these qualities, the very deficiencies that they evoke, the lack of satisfaction that they suggest, should drive the believer to seek comfort elsewhere and that alternative should be God.
No one is going to find happiness in mere poverty of spirit. But spiritual emptiness might ironically drive the believer to God. No one is going to discover much fulfillment while mourning a loved one. But that sorry state might drive the believer to turn to God.
The meek, those seeking justice, the merciful, the clean of heart and the peacemakers will rarely find much satisfaction this side of the grave. Their noble pursuits will often become thankless tasks. Again, God is only one who will bring these souls much fulfillment, much happiness, much blessedness in this life. And it goes without saying that God is the only consolation that those being persecuted will ever experience.
Jesus knows that his unsuspecting audiences, then and now, will turn quizzically toward one another and question the common sense of Jesus’ announcements. And this is exactly the response that Jesus wants to elicit. Jesus wants his listeners to remark, “What is this man taking about?” Unfortunately modern audiences have heard the beatitudes so often that these startling declarations no longer astonish the listener. Jesus’ words have become pious aphorisms instead of provocative utterances.
Jesus is actually calling for a complete reversal of the normal ambitions of humankind. To be rich, to be satisfied, to be fulfilled, to be in charge, to be esteemed – these are the customary human goals. Jesus is advising that while these traditional human values might be worthy and understandable, they tend to dull the human soul to the basic need for God. The satisfied soul rarely seeks out God with any vigor. The fulfilled soul is less sensitive to the human need for the divine. For most men, success leads to complacency. Jesus’ unashamed advice is that mankind is better off with a few loose ends in his daily life. Satisfaction can lead to smugness and a dull faith. Dissatisfaction can actually be a path to the divine. Jesus’ shrewd beatitudes should draw a wry smile to the face of the alert believer and a new determination to find satisfaction in God alone even in this world.