The Beatitudes are not prescriptions on how to be blessed.
“I need to be poor in spirit (or just plain poor) so I can be blessed” misses the point and leads to some interesting interpretations of how to live the spiritual life. It can sometimes lead us away from properly understanding what Jesus is getting at.
It can even help us to explain away the more radical aspects of the Beatitudes, which aren’t about actions or attitudes that lead to blessings. Rather, they are about people that have been excluded from among the blessed ones.
In almost all religions, Christianity included, there are those who are recipients of God’s favor, and those who aren’t. That’s not really a problem; the problem is that we think we know who the blessed ones are and who they are not.
The Beatitudes show us that it’s not that easy.
In the kingdom of God – Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven but it’s the same reality, the rule of God in heaven and earth – things are often backward. The first are last, the least are the greatest, those in authority are servants to their subjects and so on.
This means that the world most of us inhabit and the values it embraces aren’t as blessed as it appears.
To almost anyone, to be poor, to be aggrieved, to be weak, bullied and despised is the opposite of being blessed. We’d much rather be rich, to have no regrets, to be strong, intimidating and universally respected if not loved.
“I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
“I’ve been happy, and I’ve been sad. Happy is better.”
“I’ve been strong, and I’ve been weak. Strong is better.”
“I’ve won battles, and I’ve lost battles. Winning is better.”
“I’ve been admired, and I’ve been despised. Admired is better.”
It’s hard to disagree with any of those statements. Unless you are Jesus.
It’s not that having abundance or being happy or strong are bad things, any more than being poor or in mourning or defeated are good things. But things aren’t blessed, people are.
And whether you are included in the list of people who are blessed has nothing to do with whether you are happy or in mourning, or whether you have a lot of money or don’t know where you are going to sleep tonight.
Being blessed is about being loved and accepted by God regardless of your circumstances. It’s not a factor of what you have, how you feel or what anybody thinks of you.
It comes down to creation and redemption, both of which are God’s choices. He chose to create each and every person in his own image and likeness, and then he chose to sacrifice himself so that each of his children can be forgiven and redeemed.
Each person is chosen by God. Without exception.
Jesus gave the Beatitudes because there were some people who were kept on the outside looking in.
Those on the inside felt they were inside because God had chosen them and hadn’t chosen others.
They considered those on the outside to be the unchosen – their poverty, their weakness, the losses they grieved over and the beatings they suffered made it clear that they weren’t blessed, they weren’t chosen, they weren’t on the inside.
Those on the outside even believed it themselves. And then Jesus told them that they, too, were blessed.
There’s an implicit warning in the Beatitudes as well, a warning to those who not only consider themselves blessed but also feel they have the obligation to keep the outsiders out: None of us is the gatekeeper of the kingdom of God.
To know who is among the blessed, don’t look to their person or their circumstances. Look only to the character of God.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.