What the Beatitudes Teach
What the Beatitudes Teach
By Tod Lindberg
Jesus’s community of goodwill
The sermon on the mount has long been rightly understood as both a starting-point and a summation of Jesus ’s teaching. It begins with the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12), in which Jesus delineates the categories of people he says enjoy special favor. The Beatitudes are all familiar to us as sayings, the best known being blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But what, really, are they? Is Jesus merely pronouncing a blessing, offering good wishes to those whom he chooses to single out? In fact, there ’s more to the story than that.
The Beatitudes provide a dizzying commentary designed to turn upside down the political and social world of the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus and of the Jewish religious elite of Judea and Jerusalem. This is the opening move of a more drastic and fundamental reassessment of political and social affairs, applying not only to its own time but to all future times, down to our day. More still: It points to the increasing fulfillment in this world of the promise of the human condition as such — and of the struggle against vast and daunting but not insurmountable obstacles that such fulfillment will require.
Jesus describes those who are truly fortunate, the lucky ones of their day. But it is not emperors, conquerors, priests, and the wealthy who enjoy this favor. Rather, it is the common people, those whom earthly success has largely passed by: the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemakers. How can this be? Because though they may have been denied worldly success, what cannot be taken away from them is their potential to live rightly by one another. It is all too easy for those who enjoy the pleasures of this world to try to float above such obligations. Jesus goes on to say that so long as ordinary people stand for the right things and do not retreat in their rightness before those who seem to have more power, what ’s right will prevail. It’s their kingdom — a kingdom organized not from the top down, but from the bottom up. In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers a description of the community of goodwill his teaching will build in this world.
Each of the Beatitudes includes not only a statement about who is blessed, but also a short description of what is in store for each category of those who are blessed: The meek shall inherit the earth. Are those predictions Jesus is making? Or promises about what the future holds? If so, where? Only in the next world, or in this world as well?
In order to see the answers to these questions, we have to look at the Beatitudes not just individually, but in relation to each other. With these nine categories, Jesus offers a portrait of the ways in which it is possible to be a good person with respect to others — a description of the various forms human goodness, in this social sense, can take. This description is as true today as it was in his day, and if we are looking for the ways in which it is possible to be a good person today, we really need look no farther.
As for the predictions or promises, what Jesus has done with them is to imagine the consequences of a world comprised of more and more people attuned to the social good as he has described it. He offers in these few lines a description of what the world looks like when good people prevail over bad people — and he makes the bold claim that such a world will come to pass.
Jesus calls those who belong to the nine categories he specifies in Matthew “Blessed.” The sense of the term here is “fortunate” or “prosperous.” Who are the lucky ones? The “poor in spirit” are prosperous; “those who mourn” are fortunate; so are “the gentle”; and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; and “the merciful”; and “the pure in heart”; and “the peacemakers”; and “those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness”; finally, says Jesus, fortunate are “you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. ”
By now, we are used to the idea of wishing well for those who are downtrodden, who are oppressed, who can’t get a break, who have fallen on hard times. This is in no small measure a product of the teaching of Jesus itself, in this passage and elsewhere. Those in his time who heard him speak words such as these, however, had a different general outlook and set of expectations. Theirs was a world in which robbers could leave a man for dead on the side of a road, and it was unclear whether anyone would stop to help. 1 The exalted were truly exalted — the rich, the royal, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the imperial Roman officers, the tax collectors — and they often treated have-nots with undisguised contempt.
From the beginning of his career, Jesus understood clearly the high stakes involved in his political teaching.
Here Jesus proposes a different hierarchy. To see whom he elevates in the Beatitudes, it may be helpful to conjure a list of qualities opposite to the ones he lists. Cumulatively, what emerges from this collection of “anti-Beatitudes” is a portrait of a privileged class, one that sees those below as essentially inferior. For “the poor in spirit,” the opposite number might be someone arrogant in his righteousness and sense of superiority. For “those who mourn,” we can substitute those whom the world has given cause for rejoicing. For “the gentle,” the overbearing. For “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we may find a contrast in those who are complacent on account of their privileges and defend them vigorously. For “the merciful,” the unforgiving, perhaps the cruel: those who, when they have an advantage over another, even a temporary one, don ’t hesitate to exploit it.
Opposite “the pure in heart” are those who are cunning in pursuit of their private gain. Opposite “the peacemakers” are those who act to create or aggravate conflict. Opposite “those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” are those doing the persecuting, as opposite “you when people insult you . . . because of me” are those seeking to put down Jesus’s teaching and those who follow it.
Far from feeling any sense of obligation toward those below, this elite dismisses them as irrelevant — or worse, sees them as objects to be used to its own advantage. In addition, the elite seeks to perpetuate its advantages, if necessary by silencing those (such as Jesus) who speak up for the downtrodden. There was much for the elite to lose if the teachings of Jesus caught on. Indeed, from the beginning of his career, Jesus understood quite clearly the high stakes involved in his political teaching.
Perhaps privileged classes, in the plural, captures the essence a little more precisely. It is an oversimplification to see the problem as simply one of haves versus have-nots. The have-nots have in common that they are oppressed, but their oppressors come in different guises, from the elite of the Temple to the occupying Romans. And we must bear in mind how little it takes to oppress. Some who are oppressed by the powerful above them may in turn oppress those below them with yet less power. Oppression can manifest itself in as little as a declined opportunity to show mercy out of the enjoyment of one ’s position of relative power — one’s sense of superiority.
It is not only the next world to which Jesus refers. “The gentle,” he says, “shall inherit the earth.”
As it turns out, though, the have-nots have more going in their favor than they realize, and this is Jesus ’s message. For the poor in spirit, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who mourn “shall be comforted.” The gentle “shall inherit the earth.” Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “shall be satisfied.” The merciful “shall receive mercy.” The pure in heart “shall see God.” The peacemakers “shall be called sons of God.” As for those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, again, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And for those who are insulted, persecuted, and falsely accused because they adhere to and seek to exemplify Jesus ’s teaching, he tells them “rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.”
At first, it seems that Jesus sees the rectification of the worldly troubles of those whom he has described as “blessed” coming only in the next world, referring to heaven in three of the Beatitudes and in a fourth promising the sight of God. However, it is not only the next world to which Jesus refers. Most conspicuously, “the gentle,” he says, “shall inherit the earth.” This statement could not be more emphatically rooted in this world. It promises no less than thisworld itself to the gentle (or meek or humble). Note that Jesus does not say the gentle will take over the world or conquer the world: The way in which the gentle come to possess the world is not by becoming something other than what they are. Rather, the world comes to them — as an inheritance, a bequest. The language is striking. One obtains an inheritance upon the death of one ’s benefactor. This raises the question: a bequest from whom? We will soon see the answer.
Three of the other promises or predictions of the Beatitudes are at least as grounded in this world as they are in the next: Where will those who mourn “be comforted”? Where will those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “be satisfied”? Where will the merciful “receive mercy”? Come the time that the gentle do indeed “inherit the earth” — should such a world come to pass — it seems plausible that those who mourn will find the comfort Jesus has promised in such a world, that those who desire righteousness will find it, that the merciful will be shown mercy there.
Furthermore, we must also ask why the “pure in heart . . . will see God” only in heaven, since perhaps the uncorrupted heart could have access to a vision of the divine on earth as well. Jesus does not speak of a “reward [explicitly] in heaven” here, as he does elsewhere. As for the peacemakers, who will be called “sons of God,” will they be called this in heaven only? Or perhaps on earth, where they may be said to be doing the Lord ’s work — earthly emulators of Jesus with regard to the pursuit of peace.
Jesus speaks of this world prospectively: The gentle have not yet inherited it; those who desire righteousness are not yet satisfied. But whatever consolation they may draw in the present moment, listening to Jesus speak on the mountainside, that their hunger for righteousness will be satisfied in the next world, the future that Jesus describes points to a form of satisfaction in this world also.
The beatitudes are organized according to a scale running from passivity and paralysis in this world, through increasing levels of engagement with it in accordance with what Jesus is teaching, up to a pinnacle of earthly conduct Jesus describes. The categories he delineates describe people we can recognize in our own day, from homeless shelters and nursing homes to the halls of power, at least on those occasions when people rise above their private ambitions and work for the public good.
We begin with the “poor in spirit.” It is an ambiguous phrase, but one that evokes a sense of those incapable of taking care of themselves at all: the dejected, the demoralized, those in whom the spark has gone out. They have given up, resigning themselves to their lonely place at the bottom, beyond reach of all others.
Next come the mourners, whom we may think of as the temporarily incapacitated. For now, they are overwhelmed by a sense of grief and loss. They are perhaps unable to take care of themselves or to fulfill their responsibilities toward others. They once felt a connection to another or others — strongly enough to be reduced to incapacity by the loss. The loss of that connection in turn imperils all their other connections. Because they were once more robust, however, now there is at least the possibility that one day they will again be so, having recovered from their mourning.
Then there are the gentle, or meek or humble. They walk softly upon the earth, seeking to impose themselves on others as little as possible. They see to their obligations as best they can, but they take nothing from others and ask for nothing from them for themselves. They are satisfied with what they have, however meager it may be. They do not strive, but accept their circumstances.
The gentle are followed by those who desire righteousness. They, unlike the gentle and still less the poor in spirit, have surveyed the world around them and are dissatisfied with it, wishing instead for a world in which their desire for righteousness is fulfilled. Here, Jesus uses metaphorical language: He speaks of those who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness. All people get hungry, all people get thirsty. Hunger and thirst are primordial and universal bodily desires.
Jesus specifies an object of desire that is distinctly human but not of the body: the desire for righteousness.
Here, however, the desire Jesus speaks of — the desire for righteousness — is something whose satisfaction, unlike hunger and thirst, is not of the body. Having passed from the permanently dispirited (the poor in spirit) to the incapacitated (those who mourn) to the unstirred spirit of acquiescence (the gentle or meek), we arrive now at the moment when the human spirit becomes an active entity for the first time. People are no longer merely operated on — passive objects played with by natural forces or the will of other, stronger human beings. Instead, they stir of their own will, seeking for themselves something outside themselves.
In the desire for food and drink, people are no different from other members of the animal kingdom. Jesus goes on to specify an object of desire that is distinctly human: the desire for righteousness. He invites us to take the desire for righteousness as the first stirring in all those who are not content simply to be, in the passive or debilitated senses he has already evoked.
So far, Jesus has not specifically said what this “righteousness” people desire is, but his language offers some clues. First of all, the Beatitudes categorize groups of people. He does not say “blessed is the one who is poor in spirit,” but rather “blessed are the poor in spirit”; not “the mourner” but “those who mourn.” From the start, Jesus’s teaching is directed not merely to each solitary person who will one day stand before God for eternal judgment; instead, it includes an element that is social or political. It invites listeners — including the most downtrodden and oppressed — to recognize that they are not alone and to think beyond themselves. Wherever one of his listeners may fall, whether in one of his categories of the “blessed” or somewhere outside, the listener is not alone: Jesus calls people to think of themselves in relation to others like them, even if the others are people with whom they previously have felt nothing in common.
The second point concerns the specific group of “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This Jesusian category describes a common desire. Although this desire is felt by individuals — I can feel or intuit or experience my desire in a way that I cannot feel yours, even if I know you are feeling it too — it is not unique to each person who feels it. Rather, it is a desire common to all. Jesus reinforces this sense of universality by saying that those who feel the desire for righteousness will be “satisfied”— that is, this universal desire will be fulfilled universally.
One person’s desire for righteousness, in Jesus’s teaching, doesn’t necessarily bring that person into conflict with another’s desire for righteousness. In fact, if two or more — indeed, many more — people are “blessed” in their desire for righteousness and “shall be satisfied,” then the satisfaction of their respective desires for righteousness would result in their mutual satisfaction. They would be satisfied as individuals — but all individuals desiring righteousness would likewise be satisfied. No individual ’s satisfaction could come at the price of another individual’s failure to obtain satisfaction or the denial of satisfaction to the other. If someone ’s desire for righteousness necessarily conflicted with another person’s desire for righteousness, then the generalization Jesus proffers, namely, that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . shall be satisfied,” would not work out. Jesus holds out the prospect of reconciliation of each individual ’s desire for righteousness and universal fulfillment.
But what if I, as an individual hungering and thirsting for righteousness, conclude that I can obtain satisfaction for myself only at the expense of others? Well, it is clearly no solution if others who hunger and thirst for righteousness find out that I have obtained my fulfillment at the expense of their ability to find satisfaction. Another way to put this is that I have confused an advantage I have obtained over them with the satisfaction of my desire for righteousness. The conclusion, therefore, is that what I think of as the desire for righteousness within myself is actually something else — or, more simply, that I am wrong to think that what I have desired and obtained can properly be called “righteousness.” Nevertheless, there is the desire, which seems like the desire for righteousness. What it needs is proper channeling.
Similarly, what if I satisfy myself at the expense of others and the others either don ’t see it or don’t object? What if they are, for example, so poor in spirit, so ground down by oppression, that they cannot imagine anything different? Does this acquiescence somehow vindicate my claim to righteousness in satisfying myself at their expense? Can I say that I am in the right because of my natural or otherwise-given superiority over them, as demonstrated by their acceptance of my position of privilege? Jesus ’s answer is clearly “no.” And the reason is simply this: They may not be able to speak up for themselves, but others can speak up for them — starting, of course, with Jesus. No overlord’s sense of his own vindicated righteousness stands unchallenged. Such supposed righteousness is wrong-headed. A true desire for righteousness is of the kind that can be satisfied along with everyone else ’s true desire for righteousness.
An important distinction that Jesus makes is that to desire righteousness is not necessarily to act on that desire. How, then should one obtain satisfaction for one ’s desire? The beginning of the answer becomes clear in Jesus’s next category of the blessed, the first category that specifies righteous action: In one ’s relations with other people — when one reaches beyond oneself toward another — one should be merciful.
Mercy doesn’t necessarily require activity: The refusal to press an advantage can be an act of mercy.
Mercy is a quality within reach of everyone at one time or another. All mercy requires is a position of the barest advantage over another, even for the most fleeting of moments. When someone is down — whether physically, psychologically, or emotionally — do you kick him or not? To show mercy is an action that doesn’t necessarily require activity: In certain cases, no more than the refusal to press an advantage one has is an act of mercy.
The next deemed blessed are the “pure in heart.” Such people will act out of no bad motive, but always in accordance with the purity of rightness within them. Uncorrupted inwardly, the pure in heart will act toward others without corruption, since it would not occur to such a person to cheat a friend or steal from a stranger or tell a lie.
After the “pure in heart” come “the peacemakers.” Jesus’s intention here is clearly broad, encompassing not only relations between nations and peoples but also all subsets of conflict, down to those between two people. Here we take another step outward. If purity of heart relates to how I govern my own conduct toward others, peacemaking has the potential to take me outside myself.
It may be that the peace I am trying to make is between me and someone else. In that case, I am seeking to remove from my own conduct the sources of conflict between me and you. But I have to go farther, to recruit another to the cause of peace — to persuade another that the benefits of peace are sufficiently great to justify the other ’s removal of internal impediments to it and then to provide the other with the benefits of peace once it has been made.
Clearly, the Jesusian instruction here will not be fulfilled through the imposition of the peace of the victor upon the vanquished. Nor will it be fulfilled by the purchase of peace at the cost of surrendering what is right. Neither “I win” nor “I surrender” will do. Peace must be made: At a minimum, there is a condition of mutuality involved between the parties. Along those same lines, peace making also becomes a matter of peacekeeping: ensuring that the conditions for peace remain. Here, peace is more than the (temporary) absence of conflict, and by saying that “the peacemakers” are blessed, Jesus points to the importance of aspiring toward permanent peace and universal peace.
In some instances, peacemaking of the sort Jesus endorses here will be an exercise in reaching even further beyond oneself, interposing between others in conflict to help them remove the sources of discord between them. With such peacemaking attempts, the presupposition is that such a peacemaker is already at peace with each of the two parties in conflict (otherwise the type of peacemaking described in the preceding paragraph would have to come first). But this suggests that my peace with each of them must not come at the expense of the continuation of their conflict with each other. If I perceive the conflict between them as a benefit to me, then I am failing to uphold peacemaking in its broadest, Jesusian sense. Making one ’s personal peace, whatever it entails, does not fulfill the Jesusian prescription. Such a peace is insufficient if others remain in conflict, and it is incumbent upon one who is at peace with others to make peace among the others as well. As we will see later, Jesus regards the obligations of those who enjoy the benefits of living in a world shaped by his political teaching to be especially high with respect to those who are not so fortunate.
Jesus does not say specifically whether he refers to peace between and among individuals, families, tribes, societies, nations, or some other grouping. His lack of specificity invites the conclusion that he is referring to all of these levels of peacemaking. What if there is a conflict between the requirements of peace among individuals or families, for example, and the requirements of peace between nations? As an illustration, think of the American Civil War, in which, famously, brother sometimes fought against brother. Or think of Sophocles ’s story of Antigone, who was caught between her obligation to obey the command of her king and her obligation to provide a proper burial for her brother. If a broad peace is truly possible, there will have to be a way of eliminating or reconciling such conflicts.
The demand for righteousness comes as a threat to the advantage some enjoy over others.
Jesus next mentions “those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” In this group, we find those whose desire for right has been translated into action — the pursuit in the world of what is right in some fashion that is perceptible to others in the way mere “hunger and thirst,” or desire, is not. Perhaps it is by demanding right treatment for themselves or for others. In any case, persecution may follow — from those whose wishes stand to be thwarted by the ones demanding what is right. The demand for righteousness comes as a threat to the advantage some enjoy over others. Those who have the advantage may take action to protect what they have — what they think of, erroneously, according to the Jesusian teaching, as rightly theirs. Of course, it is quite possible that those trying to be peacemakers will find themselves in this position, their efforts having failed not for want of trying but because they have given offense to those with the power to persecute.
Last mentioned are “you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. ” Jesus reserves pride of place for the followers of his teaching. That’s because he believes his teaching is true. Considered as such, his teaching is the highest possible expression of righteousness. Jesus is perfectly aware that those who take his message to heart, act on it, and espouse it to others may run great risks in doing so. After all, his teaching is based on the proposition that people ’s hunger and thirst for righteousness can be universally satisfied, which in turn threatens those for whom vindication of their own, erroneous sense of right comes only at the expense of others. Such overlords are apt to resist.
Jesus promises possession of “the kingdom of heaven” to those in two of his categories: the poor in spirit and those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness. As for those who run afoul of the overlords because they are following his teaching, he says “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ”
In the Beatitudes we have a complete typology of the “good person,” from the lowest of the low to the most exalted.
Jesus seems to be suggesting that the prophets’ reward is great because they anticipated the message he brings. As for “rejoice and be glad,” we must ask what the alternative is: to be ground down by the persecution one must suffer; to give up; to let go of the message of Jesus and to wallow, paralyzed, in one ’s despair; to become poor in spirit. In the Beatitudes, we have before us a full circle of good conduct, a complete typology of the “good person” or “good soul” (taking soul in the this-worldly sense of the part of a person that is not merely body) — from the lowest of the low (who harm no one but themselves) to the most exalted (those persecuted for their actions on behalf of what ’s right).
It is no accident that the first category of the blessed, the poor in spirit, and the eighth and ninth, the persecuted, have in common the promised reward of heaven. Jesus is under no illusion about the difficulty of the advance of his message in this world. For some — those who have given up and those who are persecuted — he can promise no earthly reward at all (though he does promise a heavenly one). This is a harsh pronouncement, and we must not shrink from it.
Jesus’s categories in the Beatitudes have in common his description of those who belong to them as “blessed.” Clearly, it is good to be “blessed,” and one can find favor in any of the groups. However, the amount of activity required to qualify for membership in each of them — the activity of taking care of oneself and others — progressively increases from one category to the next. The “poor in spirit” are indeed “blessed,” but that does not mean one should emulate the poor in spirit or seek spiritual impoverishment for oneself if one is capable of doing more, first for oneself, then with others. While “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” in the case of both “the poor in spirit” and “those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” that doesn’t mean we have no basis for preferring to join one category over the other if we are fortunate enough to have a choice. The latter category clearly entails a higher level of activity in working for the good of others than does the former, whose members simply can ’t do more.
What makes working for righteousness higher, however, is not the superiority on the part of someone who has the possibility of making such a choice over someone who is debilitated by circumstance. It is that if one can reach out and help others by the pursuit of righteousness, one should do so and not avoid it for selfish reasons. Likewise, it is good to be gentle — and certainly better than to mourn inconsolably, but to be gentle alone is not quite as good as to desire righteousness or to act on behalf of righteousness if one can. One should not aspire to be “pure in heart” instead of acting as a peacemaker if one has the capability of working to end conflict.
The character of the Beatitudes becomes clearer if we view the categories Jesus calls “blessed” in light of their opposites.
The categories Jesus describes sometimes come into conflict with each other. It is a strain to suppose that one can always be gentle or meek while also being an activist on behalf of righteousness. Similarly, it is easy to envision someone who is less than pure in heart acting as a peacemaker. The progressively higher level of activity described as one moves from one of the categories to the next doesn ’t necessarily entail incorporation of all previously specified attributes in their original form.
Moreover, there is no suggestion that motion can be in one direction only. One could revert to a lower level of activity. One could become less active in the pursuit of the Jesusian vision of righteousness. Indeed, at the highest level — “you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me ” — there is an implied warning of the danger of falling back not just a little, but to the very bottom. “Rejoice and be glad” even through persecution, Jesus instructs, because as long as you are doing so, you are reaching out to and for others in the name of righteousness. But realize this: From even the highest point in the Jesusian hierarchy of the “good person,” it is but a single step to the lowest, the poor in spirit. It’s the difference between bearing one’s persecution gladly and breaking under its weight. And it’s not necessarily within your control.
We have seen above that the character of the Beatitudes becomes clearer if we view the categories Jesus calls “blessed” in light of their opposites: the spiritually self-confident in contrast to the poor in spirit, the persecutors of those who follow the Jesus teaching in contrast to those persecuted. These opposites, too, form a hierarchy — of potential activity in opposition to the Jesusian categories of good. Here, then, is the typology of the “bad person,” each stage reflecting a greater degree of activity on behalf of the old political order, which Jesus seeks to overturn: those who offer the lowest of the low only their own sense of superiority; those unmoved by or contemptuous of people suffering from great loss or adversity; those whose response when they encounter the meek and gentle is to lord it over them; those who embrace a doctrine defending their position of privilege at the expense of others; those in a position of power who show no mercy to the powerless; those corruptly seeking advantage over others; those obstructing a just peace or fomenting conflict; those who persecute people who seek what ’s right; those who persecute the followers of Jesus’s teaching. Jesus’s first message to those in any of these categories is, quite simply, stop. Stop expressing contempt for others, stop promulgating strife, stop your persecution.
Jesus offers strict guidance for good behavior for those who find themselves in a position of privilege.
Accordingly, there are also worldly repercussions for individuals who exemplify these qualities of bad conduct. Those who define themselves by their sense of superiority will live in a world governed not by justice but by persecution, one in which the tables may turn on them without a moment ’s notice. Those who have contempt for the fellow-feeling that underlies mourning will be unmourned. Those who abuse the meek will lose their claim on a world they think is theirs. Those who defend their position of privilege at the expense of others will remain unsatisfied. Those who show no mercy will live their lives in fear of a world in which no mercy will be shown them. Those whose inner corruption drives them to seek ill-gotten advantage will find themselves mired in it, deprived of the ability to appreciate or apprehend anything that is good or pure. Those who obstruct peace will find their names reviled. Those who persecute the just will live in a world in which justice means nothing next to the arbitrary power of persecution, a power from which they will have no protection should it turn on them.
Except, of course, that the world of the “bad person” is the one to which Jesus is opposed and which he seeks to overturn. According to his prescription, the world will indeed come to be governed by justice — what’s right — and not by persecution. And he offers those currently prone to the temptations of the “bad person” a chance to overcome them by embracing his teaching and stopping their own unjust conduct.
These are real-world admonitions. Anyone in a position of privilege who heard Jesus speak and thought seriously about what he had to say would find his guidance on the reform of personal conduct difficult to mistake. But whether such a person would act on these words is another question altogether.
At first glance, the main purpose of the Beatitudes seems to be to offer various consolations to the downtrodden. But while Jesus does this, he also propounds a stern standard of judgment and offers strict guidance for good behavior for those who find themselves in a position of privilege. This injunction takes the form of a warning: The days of abusive privilege are numbered. Jesus ’s is not merely an ethereal threat, bound up in the afterlife and a world to come, which the nonbeliever can spurn with contempt in favor of worldly enjoyment. It is a threat based on changes coming to this world. It is a threat dangerous to ignore in the here-and-now.
Nevertheless the question remains: Is this all to be taken literally? Come the revolution, of course, heads may roll, but surely Jesus cannot be saying that all those who enjoy privilege without righteousness are going to suffer for it in this world. Surely he is aware that some will hear all of what he has to say, spurn it — and get away with it scot-free for the rest of their earthly lives. Moreover, there is a potential for large-scale contradiction based on misreading here: If the point is to show mercy, even those who have themselves been unmerciful should be shown mercy, should they not?
True. Jesus says that what is right, according to the Beatitudes, “shall” come to pass; he does not say when. However, the cumulative effect of the positive, stated promises of the Beatitudes and the negative, unstated repercussions for those who oppose righteousness point to a question that will be asked in this world about those who have come before: What side were you on? Did you defend your privileges at the expense of others or work to uplift those who found themselves downtrodden? Did you act only for yourself, or did you think of others as best you could, whenever you could? Did you run risks for what ’s right, or was the risk you ran that the righteous would prevail? The merciless, the persecutors, the purveyors of conflict, the defenders of privilege — Jesus’s point is that they live in a world governed by fear, and he invites them to reflect on what might happen if the world turned on them and they suddenly became the ones with cause to fear.
In a world ordered according to Jesusian principles, those who have been unmerciful will be shown mercy.
But that world is not the world Jesus is promoting. In a world ordered according to Jesusian principles, there will be no persecution, even for those who have made a transition from a world in which they were persecutors. Even those who have been unmerciful will be shown mercy. Their fear of a world in which the tables are turned on them is in fact displaced fear of a more primordial — one might say existential — kind: a world that has no place for them. A world in which the attributes of privilege that they believe are essential to their being have been obliterated. A world in which they, in their conception of themselves, cannot continue to be. A world in which they must change if they are to remain. Jesus confronts the “bad person” not with something so simple — and easy to reject — as a competing model of how to live a better life. Rather, he forces a radical confrontation within the “bad person” over the very possibility of his or her continued existence.
More than that. What would the world look like if those in a position of privilege decided to comport themselves in accordance with the implicit guidance of the Beatitudes? And how, in turn, would that affect membership in the categories Jesus has described as “blessed”? The result here is most interesting.
If no one persecutes people for following the teaching of Jesus, then the category of the “persecuted” disappears. If no one persecutes those who seek righteousness, then this category, too, disappears. And if the response to the poor in spirit is not to show contempt for them but to uplift them, to encourage them to find the value in their lives that they have somehow lost sight of, then that category, too, disappears. Thus, these three categories of the blessed for which Jesus makes promises only with regard to heaven disappear entirely wherever the Jesusian teaching takes root on earth. This explains why Jesus assigns no earthly reward for people in these three categories. His silence anticipates that once people follow his guidance there will be no one left in these conditions. His ambitious political agenda is to rid the world of both persecuted and persecutors — opposite sides of the coin of persecution.
In the world, we will always have among us those in mourning and the gentle; we will always have need of those who desire righteousness, of those who are merciful, of those who act out of pure intentions, and of those who seek peace. But if or when the world is organized in accordance with the principles embedded in the lives of those Jesus here deems “blessed,” we will no longer have the persecuted and the unvalued, nor their persecutors and tormentors. The Jesusian political agenda is thus organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able — at potential risk to their own lives — for the sake of a world in which the unvalued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.
How, then, does Jesus envision that the gentle will come to inherit the earth? Because the once-mighty, under pressure of precisely this kind, will die out as a type. They will change their minds about defending their privileges at the expense of others. And the world will be their dying bequest to the gentle.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review. This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Political Teachings of Jesus (HarperCollins).
Please visit his website: Tod Lindberg
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