Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
This is the beginning of the teaching commonly known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” This section, often called “The Beatitudes,” confused me for a long time. But I think now I understand. For one thing, everyone always told me he gave this speech on a mountain speaking down to the masses so they could all hear him, yet the text says that he turned to the disciples and began speaking. But if you back up, out of his disciples he chose twelve apostles. So clearly disciple is just a word for a follower of Jesus, and the group we typically call the disciples really aught to be referred to exclusively as the apostles to prevent confusion for people like me.
But that’s not what’s important about this passage. It was the blessings themselves that I never understood. But I think I do now. Jesus isn’t saying you’re blessed because you are poor. What he’s saying is that if you are poor, you are blessed anyway. God’s blessings aren’t of the world, but of the Spirit. Don’t worry about being poor, or hungry, or sad, He says, because you have been blessed with an eternal life in which you will want for nothing. God loves you, yes, even you who are suffering. He has not abandoned you, He is simply preparing you for an eternal life of joy.
So if they’re not blessed because they are poor, my mind asks, then why woe to the rich? Again, I think I finally understand. When things are good we tend to forget about God. Contentment and complacency breed pride in ourselves, and a feeling that we don’t need help. It’s easy to forget about how much we need God when things aren’t going well. Think about it. When are you most likely to feel a strong desire to pray? For most people it’s when they’re suffering or in need. Jesus is not saying that being rich or happy is inherently wrong. He is simply warning us against the trap of contentment. If you are happy, be sure that you give God credit, and remember to talk to Him!
Although, there does seem to be an element of “you’re doing it wrong” in this statement. Prophets aren’t spoken well of, Jesus says. And as true as that was for Elijah, Moses, and every other Old Testament prophet, it remains equally true today. God calls us to do HARD things, so the people calling for it are rarely popular. Such people are rarely revered in their time. So if people are speaking well of you, doesn’t that mean you’re probably doing something wrong? And what do we have to be happy about anyway? People are hungry and dying and they don’t know God. Isn’t that something to be upset about? Why do we hoard money when some people don’t have food? Wealth, happiness, popularity, they are all dangerous and something we need to be wary of. They can easily lead us away from walking a Godly path, especially when we start seeking them.
And maybe that’s what Jesus is warning us about here. Maybe He’s not saying “woe to you who are wealthy,” but “woe to you who seeks wealth of this world instead of God.” Not “woe to you who are happy,” but “woe to you who seeks happiness of the earth.” Can’t we trust God to give us those things? Like Jesus said in the first half of the Beatitudes, in Heaven we get it all. There is no reason for us to waste our lives trying to get it now when we won’t really find it anyway. News flash, the world sucks. You won’t find true happiness here. Only in God and Salvation will you find it.