Thoughts on Luke’s Beatitudes

In Luke 6:20 we read the following:

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Like other parts of Jesus’s teaching, the exact meaning of what Jesus is teaching here is not immediately clear. Sure, there is the obvious element that Jesus is elevating the status of those who don’t have what the world values, who have no popularity and no wealth and no happiness, especially those who are loyal to Him in adverse circumstances. But what about the “woes” to the rich, the popular, the full? What should we make of that?

This is a rich passage and there are many important lessons we can draw from it. I think one of those lessons is the following. Jesus is reminding us of the contingency of worldly existence. Everything is temporary and change is ever-present. Nothing ever lasts and every good thing must come to an end. Therefore, this is an exhortation not to take our existence in the world, as opposed to our inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, so seriously, whether suffering or success.

In a few sentences, Jesus comforts and encourages those who are suffering by reminding them that it will get better, so they shouldn’t take their suffering to heart. He warns the happy and prosperous that the time of suffering will come again, so they shouldn’t take their happiness and prosperity to heart either. 

We should allow neither our worldly suffering nor our worldly happiness to define us. In times of suffering, remember that this world and your status in the world is not important in the light of eternity. We do not mourn as the world mourns. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 we read the following:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

We have hope when we mourn not only because we live in the light of eternity but also because we know that we will leap for joy and will be comforted as Jesus promises here. Paul wonderfully describes the attitude of the suffering Christian in 2 Corinthians 4:8:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

This is why it is important to keep your eyes on God in times of happiness, because if you make that happiness your salvation then you will be more devastated when the time of suffering comes again.  In times of prosperity, don’t make that happiness and prosperity your hope, your confidence, your strength, because it is a breath and it will go, one way or another. Don’t become spiritually and morally complacent as a result of that prosperity and the ease which life, at the moment, affords you. If you put your trust and faith in your happiness, it will betray you. 

I believe this may be the secret to contentment in all circumstances that Paul talks about in Philippians 4:11:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

If we know that our citizenship in the world is a breath, even though it seems often very important to us now, then we don’t have to be devastated by suffering, and we don’t have to cling to our prosperity. 

James 1:9 contains a similar principle as the Beatitudes:

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

The rich “take pride in their humiliation” by remembering that riches are not the standard of goodness and value, by realizing that the world that vindicates them will pass away and they will be on the same level as others over whom they are now elevated as a result of the world. Only vindication from God matters, not a vindication from the world.

This doesn’t mean that there is something bad about being happy, because otherwise Jesus would not comfort those who are mourning by saying they will be comforted and will leap for joy. The tone of warning, I think, comes from the fact that Jesus is trying to point out that moral and spiritual decline is much more likely in wealth, prosperity and happiness than it is in suffering. When we are suffering we realize our contingency and our need for God. When we are happy, we often become prideful and forget God. Also, God  has placed a blessing on those who suffer and are poor, which is often expressed in the Old Testament ( e.g. Psalm 34:18, Proverbs 14:31, Psalm 140:12, Psalm 68:5).

Ecclesiastes 7:3 teaches the following:

Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

So Jesus comforts the unhappy and warns the happy. He points out the utter contingency and dependency of human life in the world which is evil and changes constantly and therefore the need to depend on God beyond this world who is good and does not change. We don’t allow our suffering to devastate us and control our actions. And when happiness comes, enjoy it fully as a blessing from God, but don’t set your heart on it, don’t greedily cling to it and make it your salvation. “When riches increase don’t set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). The priority must be on Jesus and his commands.

We must keep our eyes on Jesus, not on the ever-changing circumstances or our lives in the world. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says the following:

 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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