But today, for our study of our Gospel lesson, an appreciation of language is really important and so I am in the hands of others as I try to discern the true meaning of the words Jesus used. But, you may be thinking, the New Testament is written in Greek, not Hebrew, so what’s the problem? But the fact is, the Greek is already a translation because Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. He would have known Hebrew too, because that is the language of the Scriptures he read. So, often, the words he used need to be understood in their Hebraic sense.
And one word is of primary importance this morning. That word is “Blessed”. A few weeks ago, preparing for the Give Church a Go Sunday service, I was trying to write a short explanation of the benediction, the blessing at the end of the service, and it struck me that what we often mean by the verb “to bless” when we use it in English is actually inadequate to the task of conveying what happens in the Benediction. What is ‘the blessing of God’? Is it God’s approval? Is it a promise of happiness? Is it a request for divine favour? None of these quite hit the mark. And if we read the list of nine Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel with those kinds of definition of blessing in mind, we will not properly understand what Jesus was saying. Happy are those who mourn simply does not make sense.
So we need to go back to the Hebrew because it is there that we find the meaning which Jesus would have had in mind when he used the word which has eventually been translated for us as “blessed”. But don’t expect it to be wholly straightforward. There are two Hebrew words which are rendered in English as “blessing” or “blessed”. Neither of them carry the connotations of a life of ease or pleasure which the notion of being blessed now so often conveys.
For example, in Psalm 103, we read, “Bless the Lord, my soul.” And in the Book of Numbers, we find the blessing we sing at every baptism. On these occasions, the Hebrew word is barak, which means ‘to bow down’ or ‘to stoop down’. The psalmist sings – bow down before the Lord, my soul. Be humble before God. In Numbers, the form of blessing which God gave to Aaron with which to pronounce blessing on the Israelites was this, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” In other words, God will stoop down to you, he will come to your level and be close to you. That is a rather lovely image of blessing.
But in Psalm 1, which in many ways gives Jesus the pattern for his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, a different word is used. Here the word translated for us as ‘blessed’ is ’ashar, which means to find the right to road. Here, the psalmist to saying, “The person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked is on the right road.”
Suddenly, the nine Beatitudes begin to reveal their meaning in a way that dispels confusion. If blessing, in the sense it is used here, is about finding or being on the right road, on the right path, doing the right thing, then what Jesus is saying doesn’t seem nearly so paradoxical.
In the way Matthew orders his account of the life of Jesus, this is Jesus’ first big speech. It lays out his manifesto for his ministry. It unfolds his interpretation of the Law which he invites his followers to learn from and share.
So he starts by saying that you are on the right road if you are poor in spirit. Those who know they lack something will go looking to meet that need, and if you know you are poor in spirit, you are on the right road if you are on the road with Jesus, for he surely leads to God.
Then he says, you are on the right road if you mourn. I often point out to couples at weddings that love doesn't just make you feel good and feel happy. It also, if it is true love, exposes you to the risk, the inevitability, of real pain and sadness. Jesus says that we are on the right road if we love truly enough to mourn when the ones we love are lost to us.
He goes on. We are on the right road when we are meek because then our behaviour will be kind and gentle and pleasing to God. We are on the right road when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for that will be the case if we care. We will be on the right road if we are merciful, if we are pure in heart, not seeking our own selfish ends, if we are peacemakers, because although these are hard, even dangerous things to do, they will reduce conflict and increase justice, and we will be partnering with God in his work. We are on the right road when we are persecuted and reviled, not, of course for being nasty, but for aligning ourselves with Christ, standing for God’s truth against those who seek rather to serve only themselves.
Each Beatitude also contains a promise – that we will be included in the kingdom of heaven, that we will be comforted, that we will inherit the earth, that we will be filled, receive mercy, see God and be called God’s children. These are promises of Christ, that when we are on the right road, these things will be ours. Comfort, mercy, being called God’s children, are confirmation that we are on the right road; seeing God and being included in the kingdom of heaven are confirmation that we have been on the right road.
None of the Beatitudes are instructions; all are simply indications that we are doing the right thing, that we are on the way with Christ. And the fact that they are not instructions is important because they are less about the character of Christians and more about the nature of God. For God is caring and comforting, merciful and just, the confronter of evil and the bringer of peace. These things are God’s work and Christ invites us to join in the work of God.
It is good to read this on All Saints’ Sunday, for it is a useful corrective to the idea of sainthood as being something inaccessibly extraordinary. It is not. It is a matter of placing our feet on the road of discipleship, the path of faithfulness, and walking, with Jesus, and with one another.