Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Blessed are the merciful

 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται

Today we enter the holy of holies of the Beatitudes. Everything so far has been preparation. Poor in spirit, meek, mourners, hungry and thirsty for justice – qualities that describe the disciple who follows Christ.

“But I will show you a still more excellent way,” Paul tells us today (1 Corinthians 12:31). That more excellent way is LOVE. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

christ teaching“God is love,” (1 John 4:8). God is merciful throughout the Old and the New Testaments. So, Jesus tells us, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). He also said, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So clearly, perfection is to be merciful like God. This is the love that Paul describes. There is no love more patient than the love of God. There is no love that rejoices more in the good than God’s love. And so on. And finally, Love never ends. That is God’s love; it never ends. And that is the love that should be in us.

Blessed are the merciful….  To be merciful is to be like God.

In Orthodox theology we talk about deification. Monks spend a lifetime practicing austerity, prayer and self-denial in order to attain this thing we call deification (theosis). Some men and women monks have indeed  attained extraordinary heights of holiness; have indeed been deified.

But Jesus was not speaking to monks! Be merciful / Be perfect – as your Father in heaven is merciful / perfect. We can all be merciful – so we can all be like God. You don’t have to lock yourself in a monastery or be a hermit. Be merciful. Be loving. Mercy springs from love.

SOM05_Blessed_Are_the_Merciful_fsThose who are poor in spirit and meek; those who mourn for their own sins and for the sins of the world; those who are hungry and thirsty for justice – these are the people most prepared to be merciful. To be like God!

Don’t you see now what these Beatitudes are all about? Only God exists in beatitude, in total blessedness. The Beatitudes bestow on us the blessedness that belongs to God.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Receive mercy from whom? From God? From each other? This is the only beatitude that expresses mutuality. A relationship. It comes from the Hebrew.

Many words in Greek and in Hebrew to express the quality of mercy. For example, in Hebrew: raḥamîm – semitic root going back to ancient Akkadian to signify compassion, womb.

But the most important Hebrew word for “mercy” is ḥesed. It conveys the sense of a mutual relationship; faithfulness and loyalty. No one understood this mutual understanding of “mercy” better than Jesus, so here in the middle of the Beatitudes, he pronounced the only beatitude which expressed perfect mutuality. It is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I wonder if God gets tired of all our Kyrie Eleisons. Are we missing the first half of this Beatitude? The “merciful” part? Are we merciful, or do we only ask for mercy from God? Are we merciful so we can also receive mercy from one another? The Beatitudes are not only about God blessing us. They are about the life of God’s kingdom here, where we most need to be merciful to one another. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sermon+on+the+Mount


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Blessed are the hungry and thirsty

 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness, for they shall be filled/satisfied.”

μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, ὅτι αὐτοὶ χορτασθήσονται.

(No attempt to expand my notes into something more readable. The audio file is much better.)

Επι Του Όρους Ομιλία

What do you desire? What do you long for? Wealth? Recognition? A happy marriage? Successful children? These are all good, and rightly do you desire these things. But today’s Beatitude calls blessed those who desire something that is not solely for their own benefit. The beatitude asks us to look beyond our own desires and hunger and thirst for something that goes beyond us. This something is δικαιοσύνη, justice/righteousness. Both translations are good. But righteousness does strike a more personal note; whereas justice seems to be a more universal concern.

What is justice? St. Gregory of Nyssa asks when he comes to this part of the Beatitudes. He decides to explain it, “for only when its beauty has been shown can the desire for this lovely thing be roused in us.” Gregory starts with the everyday meaning of fairness in human dealings, law and government, but then spends several pages dancing around the question that he himself posed and actually spends most of his effort talking about hunger and thirst. And this is right, because Jesus uses language we can relate to. When you’re hungry and thirsty….

Finally Gregory comes to what he really wants to say:

If we would venture on a bolder interpretation, it seems to me that through the ideas of virtue and justice the Lord proposes himself to the desire of his hearers. For he became for us wisdom from God, justification, sanctification and redemption (quoting 1 Cor 1:30, ὃς ἐγενήθη σοφία ἡμῖν ἀπὸ θεοῦ, δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις), but also bread descending from heaven and living water.

He quotes psalms of David in their Greek versions: “My soul has thirsted for the living God. When shall I come and appear before the face of God?” and “I will appear before your sight in justice. I shall be satisfied when your glory shall appear.” This glory, Gregory says, is God the Word himself!

I like the way he finishes. It’s always a blessed thing to contemplate the centrality of Christ in our thoughts and desires. Indeed, we do hunger and thirst for him who is our justice, our righteousness. But with Jesus we look beyond our own interests and needs. With Jesus as our justice and righteousness we see others as we see ourselves.

I begin to notice something interesting in the beatitudes:

Couplets, and this is how Gregory of Nyssa paired the first four!

poor in spirit … meek

mourn … hunger/thirst

Though Gregory does not see a rhetorical device, I do. Poor in spirit. Then those who mourn. Then meek to reassert the poor in spirit. Then the hunger and thirst to reassert the mourning.

Then, two more couplets that express the working out of the first four beatitudes:

merciful … pure in heart

peacemakers … persecuted!

Those who are poor in spirit and meek will be merciful and pure in heart.

Those who mourn will be peacemakers.

Those who hunger and thirst for justice will be persecuted because of justice!

And to drive message home, Jesus puts himself as the reason for persecution. If you’re going to be attacked or hated, be for the sake of Christ. No better reason!


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“Blessed are those who mourn”

 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

A wonderful, reassuring promise: those who mourn will be comforted. But what kind of mourning is Jesus talking about? Certainly the mourning that we all experience when we lose someone. But that’s not a uniquely Christian thing. All people mourn! Remember what Jesus said about love: If you love those who love you, what’s the difference? Even bad people love those who love them! (cf. Matthew 5:46) So also with grief. All people mourn their dead, regardless of whether they’re Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhists, or atheists!

Yes, blessed are they who mourn for their dead. They shall be comforted. But I believe Jesus means more here. Blessed are those who mourn. But the Greek μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται can be translated as”Happy are those who mourn” and even “Lucky are those who mourn.” Blessed sounds religious enough. But happy? Lucky?

Paul wrote some important thoughts in 2 Corinthians 7:

But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and… by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret… For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal…Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind has been set at rest by you all.

Paul is talking about grieving for sins. But note that he’s talking about this in a communal context. The grief that Paul caused them through a sharp letter he had written to them, motivated the Corinthian Christians to clear away the sins that existed in their midst. And this brought joy instead – joy to Titus, Paul’s messenger, and thus to Paul and to the Corinthians themselves as they were relieved of the burden that sin had created in their midst.

Sorrow over sin is classic teaching throughout the Orthodox tradition. I wrote a 35-page essay on this subject at Seminary. But not only sorrow over one’s own sins. That’s part of it, perhaps the first step. But you don’t stop there. You move on to weep over the sins of others – just as Paul caused the Corinthians to do. You weep for the sins of the world, for the suffering, the victims of war and terrorism and economic and social injustice. You weep today for the destruction of the environment and the horrendous loss of respect for life – all life, not just human.

sorrow

There is little you can do for the sins of the world; they are too big. But you can weep for them. Not just pray – prayers are too easy; rolling off names of people in your prayer list can be mechanical. No, there is deeper prayer needed. Weep! Penthos is the word that the ancient writers and saints of the church used to describe this holy grief. And Saint Antony the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, January 17th, is one of those spiritual fathers of our faith. This penthos is holy. And it is blessed. And happy indeed those who mourn with this holy penthos; and they shall be comforted.

A Coptic icon of Saint Antony the Great. Antony lived in Egypt in the years 251-356 AD.

A Coptic icon of Saint Antony the Great. Antony lived in Egypt in the years 251-356 AD.

But there’s even more to penthos. In the face of so much evil and sin in the world, it is easy to hate. Penthos teaches us not to hate, not to demonize. It might even teach us to understand why some people do evil things.

This broader understanding of grief fits into the message of all the Beatitudes. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemakers, hunger and thirst for justice and persecuted for justice! Even the pure in heart is about more than personal holiness. Throughout the Beatitudes, Jesus asks us to focus beyond ourselves and to see our place in God’s plan for the world.

A young man looking thoughtful as looks into the distance

And look at one more thing. What are the promises: Inherit the earth, receive the kingdom of heaven, the earth, become sons and daughters of God, you shall see God! Powerful images. And all these promises of comfort and the kingdom and mercy and vision…. all are meant to elevate us to desire God and desire the kingdom of God. And it is here that Gregory of Nyssa puts the emphasis in his own commentary on this Beatitude. He calls it blessed when we mourn our absence from God’s presence; when we mourn that we’re not in paradise, not in the kingdom of heaven. This mourning creates holy desire within us – and this is very blessed and very happy indeed.

I remember the words that we read in the Liturgy on the Sunday before Lent begins: Banished from the joys of Paradise, Adam and Eve sat outside and wept, crying out, “I am fallen; in your compassion have mercy on me.”

We weep for the losses in our lives; the loss of our loved ones. We weep over our sins. We weep over the sins of the world. We weep with longing for God’s kingdom. This is a blessed sorrow, a happy penthos! Rejoice, for you will be comforted by the God of all comfort.


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“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”

 

sgp05In his commentary, Gregory of Nysa – whose feast is today, January 10th –  skipped the second beatitude in order to ask a question about the third beatitude: Is it a step down from the first beatitude? From kingdom of heaven down to earth?

But didn’t the Word come down to this earth, to meet our lowliness? Didn’t he call himself “meek”? And what is this earth that the meek inherit? Is it the polluted earth that we are destroying in our lack of meekness? No, Gregory says, it is “the land which is not cut open with the plough of evil, which does not produce thistles and thorns, but is the land of the water of refreshment and the green places, where springs up the fourfold fountain and the vine that is tended by the God of all creation… the land that is fruitful in good things, where the tree of life waves its leaves, which is watered by the fountains of spiritual graces. It is the land where sprouts the true vine”…in other words, Christ himself, who is the true vine. It sounds rather like the kingdom of heaven, doesn’t it?

So the earth that Gregory envisions is the redeemed earth, the transfigured earth, the earth of the new creation where Christ himself will rule and we with him in perfect stewardship of the land. Does it sound like mythology? Perhaps, but Gregory goes one step further, and this is not mythology! He says, quite correctly, that every human being is able to move his/her free will in two directions. Our human nature is quick to turn toward evil and destructive behavior. The opposite is to act slowly and calmly, and steadied by reason. Unlike other Fathers of the Church, he does not say we should strive to kill our desires and inclinations (what they called the “passions”) – but rather that we exercise moderation, and that we take things slowly and think through our choices. This is meekness, in Gregory’s thought.

The elimination of desires and passions is against nature, Gregory asserted! But moderation and meekness are not against nature – they are very definitely within the powers of human nature. Gregory was remarkably optimistic about what is within our reach.

We also need to be optimistic. If we are to be poor in spirit and meek, we need to be positive/optimistic about our lives and the life of the world. Only the meed will inherit the earth. I prefer to say: MEEKNESS WILL INHERIT THE EARTH!! Only meekness will make the earth something that we can inherit with Christ. Only gentleness will save us from destruction. When we meet anger with anger, violence and hatred with violence and hatred, we are not meek and there will be no earth to inherit. When we don’t walk softly and meekly on the planet, we are on the fast track to environmental collapse – and there will be no earth to inherit.

While Gregory sees the earth that the meek will inherit as essentially the same as the kingdom of heaven, I prefer to see this beatitude as a challenge to us to live and act in a manner that will make the earth something worth inheriting. The Liturgy is our Eucharist – our thanksgiving for the gift of life, the gift of the earth, the gift of fellowship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The Liturgy teaches us to be thankful. Only an attitude of thankfulness can lead to meekness. Only when the earth itself becomes our Eucharist, that we receive from God and offer back to God, can the third beatitude become reality.

The meek WILL inherit the earth, if there is an earth to inherit. That’s why I prefer to say, MEEKNESS WILL INHERIT THE EARTH!! Indeed, meekness and gentleness will SAVE the earth. Let’s walk gently on this our precious planet. And it will be ours to inherit in glory and transfiguration.


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“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

 

There is no other way to be raised up to God but by constantly looking upwards and having an unceasing desire for sublime things, so as not to be content to stay with what has already been achieved, but to regard it as loss if one fails to attain what lies above.

ουκ έστιν άλλως προς τον θεόν υψωθήναι μή αεί προς τα άνω βλέποντα και την των υψηλών επιθυμίαν άληκτον έχοντα, ως μή αγαπάν επί των ήδη κατορθωθέντων μένειν αλλά ζημίαν ποιείσθαι ει του υπερκειμένου μή άψαιτο. St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes.

Ascent to God is the teaching of this great Father of the Church. So he takes his cue from the fact that Jesus spoke the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), and he invites us also to ascend and receive from the Word messages of goodness and hope.

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Beatitudes – μακαρισμοί: μακάριοι… οι πτωχοί τω πνεύματι… (Matthew 5:3, etc.) Beatitude is possession of all things that are good. The person who is called μακάριος is one who totally enjoys what he has and what is set before him/her. This is a happy person.

God exists in beatitude/bliss. Human beings are in image and likeness of God, so beatitude, blessedness, happiness, are also what God intends for us when we join ourselves to God’s will. Some of the Beatitudes sound difficult: poor in spirit; pure in heart. Some don’t sound too happy: those who mourn. And yet, every single Beatitude says something about the human condition that goes counter to common perceptions and society’s values.

The Beatitudes are the core of Jesus’ teaching, and that is why the Orthodox Liturgy uses the Beatitudes as the third antiphon in the Liturgy, before the priest enters with the Gospel book. The Beatitudes announce the Gospel, they prepare us for the entry of the Gospel into our hearts and minds. If we can immerse ourselves into the mind of Christ that we see in the Beatitudes, everything else falls into place. The Word of God speaks to us – the incarnate Word of God.

Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke has: Blessed/Happy are you poor. Matthew’s version is more meaningful. A poor person has a hard time feeling happy or blessed, because material poverty is not something people choose for themselves. But poverty of spirit is something that is voluntary, something that is chosen. And when you choose something, you are happy about it.

So Jesus can say, Happy are the poor in spirit – those who have chosen to be poor in spirit. Humility is one way to understand poverty of spirit. But humility is so limited. And Christians talk about humility too much and never practice it. Poverty of spirit goes deeper.

Poor in spirit means you shake off pretenses of self-sufficiency. To the church in Laodicea, Jesus wrote: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). But to the church in Smyrna he wrote: “I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich” (Revelation 2:9). God’s measure of wealth and poverty is different from human measure.

The goal of Christian life is to become like God. The apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming in terms of poverty: For us he became poor that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

The Son of God laid aside the weight of divine glory in order to teach us to lay aside all those things that drag us down and keep us from ascending. The Lord became poor so we will not be afraid of spiritual poverty. He became poor though he reigns over all creation. So if we become poor with him, we will also reign with him: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!