Do the Biblical “Beatitudes” Have Meaning in Our Modern Lives?
A Possible Interpretation of the Biblical Beatitudes in the Modern World
Continuity of Western Culture – still offering beneficial guidance?
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Western Culture, after the Greeks and Romans, was strongly impacted by two currents of thought and values – Christian ethics and, after some interruption, increasing intellectual clarity – the latter reaching from the ancient Greek thinkers to the Muslim universities of Southern Spain, through the scholastic period, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, into our modern, “scientific” world, including Darwin – postulating that, in nature, not Christian love, but the “fittest shall prevail” – and finally to awakening socialism as an echo to early Christian teaching.
Overemphasis on one philosophy has often led to a strong reaction by another philosophy. In our time of emphasizing science, we see a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world. This may be explained by a closing-of-the-ranks of those who feel seriously threatened in their security by the loss of the foundation of their faith and culture or gain merit by fighting for their faith – and also explained by the defense of hierarchies hanging on to their power.
The resurgence of old theological dogmatism often does not fit well with the needs and thoughts of the modern world, and it may even be counterproductive. We readily point out that Muslim fundamentalism may have done more harm to the Muslim world than any good it basically wanted to contribute. The same, however, must be said about many forms of Christian fundamentalism throughout history, and about other religions as well.
What do we teach our children? What path in life do we ourselves pursue? We want our children to establish a sound economic base to their lives – we need one ourselves – by being fit to “prevail”. Obviously, though, in our human culture (which is based largely on cooperation), we prefer peace, cherish trustworthiness, and admire charitable generosity.
Does the original Christian teaching of old, the words of Jesus, still fit into the modern world – or do they merely need to be reinterpreted?
A core area of Christian teaching are the so-called Beatitudes, which are part of the “Sermon on the Mount”, a collection of verbally transmitted sayings attributed to Jesus. In their most quoted form, these were written about 50 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were quoted by “Matthew” (see his Chapter 5 in the Christian Bible’s New Testament), but are also recorded in a different selection by Luke (Chapter 6, V 20 and following), even though both apparently quoted from the same earlier source, named “Q”. Luke mentions only four Beatitudes; Matthew recites eight.
Were these sayings, especially those mentioned only by Matthew, really the words of Jesus? Were the thoughts of the Beatitudes already contained in the words and thoughts found in earlier biblical writing or in the thoughts of other cultures the Jews had been in contact with? This may be important to the researcher.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus, presents primarily the relationship between the Beatitudes and other (some earlier) biblical writings, theological thought, and the Catholic church. For most of us, however, these writings express the earliest Christian thought They actually reach the ultimate form of all historic ethical concepts leading up to Jesus – from nature-formed ethical behavior among social animals to Urukagina’s first ethical writings 4,500 years ago, and from there onward through the development of human cultures. Finally formulated by the young and inspired Jesus, these Beatitudes postulate, in their own time, an enhanced attitude toward society and fellow humans. The Beatitudes offer more demanding rules of thought and behavior, thereby promising a better world for all.
Four of the Beatitudes in Matthew (the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th), as all those quoted by Luke, refer to given situations in the lives of some individuals, thus appealing to our empathy or even sympathy. Thereby, they present a basically humble, human quality in contrast to the prevalent heroic role models in the time of Christ – and the often too commercial ones in our time.
· the poor
· the mourners
· the hungry
· the unjustly persecuted ones
In Jesus’ time, heroes too often were mighty emperors or warriors, the powerful ones on the world stage and on the battlefield or in the Coliseum. Jesus completely inverts this value scale by postulating a more “human” culture – or, as we would say today, a world of greater human caring, one that leads to our “social values” and an ethical, idealistic structure of society.
The other four Beatitudes, indicated only by Matthew (the 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th in his writings), differ by referring not to what has possibly happened to some of us and where we then find ourselves, but to what we should proactively do; that is, to our own behavior.
- the meek
- the merciful
- the pure of heart
- the peacemakers
How can these old words and ideals be interpreted in our modern, wealth-and-success-oriented time? What do they mean to us? How can they guide us?
Blessed are the meek:
The contrast to the opposite illuminates this text:
- Beware of hubris.
- Undesirable are the arrogant!
- Beware of your self-assurance – in public, at the workplace, in the family!
- Do not become overbearing – speak humbly!
- Listen to the modest – with respect.
Every parent or teacher of many children and every team manager knows that sometimes the humble one among their group members may have the best ideas. Modern education and management theory promotes motivational “empowerment” and cooperation of all in a team – as if the Beatitudes had become part of our modern culture in a practical way. The projection of convincing self-confidence for recognition of leadership capability became the Aristotelian middle ground between self-deprecating shyness and arrogance.
More team and family harmony – possibly even peace on Earth – results from respecting the humble ones among us.
Blessed are the merciful:
Our Western, developed world attempts to excel in social programs – expensive as they may be. More so, the wealthy among us are expected to do their special share for the reduction of suffering or for the common good – through payment of higher taxes, their own donations or foundations, and other forms of charity.
How much of our wealth should we give?
Historic standards ranged from 10 to 20 percent – of income, not of possessions – irrespective of the size of our income and not at a progressive rate. Even the Talmud is largely silent on this point, only once indicating a range of 10 to 20 percent, of income only; it does not mention the donation of possessions. Higher donations, it indicates, could reduce the security of one’s own family.
The tax laws of various Western countries, however, are largely progressive. Those of some individual countries actually do include taxes on property. Can taxes be counted as charitable donations – at least parts of them? Should the distribution of all charitable giving be left to the rich providing most of it or to the democratically elected governments – both methods showing serious shortcomings?
No established religion or philosophy is ready to suggest to all people in practical life or with families that they the perpetually, mercifully share their property in ongoing division with the poor encountered on life’s road (and, through the internet, the whole world can be met daily on “our road”), until nothing is left to them – at best promising sainthood to those who do – as a few cave-dwelling hermits then did – until monasteries formed around them which became rich.
When, years ago, the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, was found to be of ever increasing personal financial net worth as his company grew, public voices became ever louder challenging him to do some good with his wealth. He fully complied! So did Warren Buffett. Others did not, claiming that they had too many children to take care of. So do I?
In any event, giving in specific cases should be related to the urgency and severity of need or suffering of those we immediately encounter. It should be offered swiftly, gladly and with a warm heart!
Especially helpful and most necessary is assistance in resolving the cause of the suffering! There may be causing accidents or diseases. Too many times, however, the suffering person bears much of the responsibility for the resulting suffering – through lifestyle or lack of discipline. Too often the culture surrounding that suffering person and the prevailing governance must be blamed. Laudable approaches to resolve these problems can be seen in many projects. In other cases such efforts appear useless unless one would conclude to interfere with the suffering person’s liberty (some people prefer living as homeless rather than in a forced environment) or to violently interfere with rogue governance – then facing unexpected consequences – some worse than the initial conditions (Afghanistan, North Korea, more).
In our time. public money is increasingly needed for the caring of the old and for medical services. What and where are the limits of public responsibility? Who would have to pay?
Quite often, the required charitable support is not a matter of donating money, but a matter of donating time! So many of our fellow humans suffer seriously from loneliness or isolation, the old as well as the young!
Think of how many young people need more support – emotionally or, in purely practical terms, in learning and progressing. How many charitable organizations of all kinds could use more volunteer helpers. Among those organizations, it is not only a matter of charitable help for humans, but also a matter of care for animals and also of environmental protection – for the natural Creation entrusted to us humans.
How much time should one donate? Also, those 10% as demanded for money – in other words, four hours per week? Or should there also be a progression – whoever has sufficient time available should donate more – and whoever has no time, being overburdened by family and work, is excused or may even use assistance in time from others?
The donation of money or time is a burden one should happily assume. In many cases, one finds that donating to others can be a gift in reverse – that one actually receives as much in joy and fulfillment as one had in mind to pass on. In that manner, being “merciful” improves this world in its own way.
To be “merciful” should not only apply to individuals, but also between neighboring communities, regions, even nations – from the rich city to a poor neighboring one – as between the rich capital and poor towns hit by industrial decline – or between nations of widely different wealth – as practiced by international charitable organizations or by “foreign aid”. On the other hand, resolving the causes of regional poverty may be more important than temporary help – with the need for acceptance of remedial action by those expecting help.
Jesus’ teaching can and should be perpetually effective in the modern world.
Blessed are the pure of heart:
Our Western culture is criticized mainly for the amount of violence and smut it propagates in its media and public life (the latter is also found in other cultures, albeit more often behind the closed doors of the rich and financed by corruption).
Our own daily lives fill our “hearts” with the desire for more income, for profit, or simply for a gourmet meal with good beer or wine, also for gaining rank and recognition, or just for good entertainment of whatever kind. Too often, not much else is left in our “hearts”.
Should that be all in our lives – should that be all during the few years that we are allowed to live in this wonderful world – to perceive its wonders and the people living with us – to perceive the wonders and beauty of nature?
Must one focus on the evil in our world? There is a difference, though, between properly analyzing and constructively facing the evil aspects of life or, in a more questionable way, to constantly delve in the negative in one’s toughts. A monk was once asked how he could cope with the temptation of the world. “Do not look at it”, he said.
A neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist – the scientist who can say something about the functioning of our brains and minds – will confirm that the mind’s thoughts and images will progress in sequences according to the strongest, freshest, or most valued (positively or negatively) associative linkages in the brain. Values are provided by “emotions”. We (both humans and advanced animals) sense a ranking of “values”. Unselfish sacrifice for offspring or the community, public service, and empathy (or Christian love, the ancient Greek agape, not eros) all rank higher than physical pleasures.
Seeing crime on TV can, and does, subsequently provoke association with crime every time we see similar circumstances in our own lives – which sometimes leads to copycat crimes. A problem we face can become so absorbing in our mind, that we are drawn into it as into a hole without escape. Horrible things can happen then. What would the monk say? Set your mind and heart free again! Select higher goals for your life to aim for! Fill your heart with those!
Wall Street’s excessive greed has become the prevalent value set for people working in that environment – until that kind of greed was and still must be exposed as “bad”. Even a factual analysis of capitalism shows its inherent risk of large oscillations (bubbles) with catastrophic results for many innocent ones – and its inherent evolution to large divergence in wealth with subsequent revolutions. Ethical values are naturally inherent in human (and some animal) emotions – providing for the prevailing of ethical societies in the long run). Consequently laws and regulations had to be imposed on Wall Street and our unbridled greed, though always opposed by hectic lobbying – and more are needed.
Our surrounding “culture” forms us. Our circle of friends or the books we read form a micro-culture we live in – supporting our own world of ideas and values in our minds. We are thus being formed by what we have selected as our micro-culture.
Think about what you want your life to be, where you want to see significance in your life, what you want to look back on when the final hour approaches. What would you like to have done, what would you like to be remembered for? How will you want to have helped to reduce suffering, led to clarity, or provided understanding, compassion, warmth and true joy?
To make any progress on a path of “values” in life, you must, above all, keep your mind focused – to pursue the thoughts along the lines you prefer. This implies that you cannot give mental prevalence to the loudest and most recent impression. “Do not look at it”, as the monk said.
Block the undesirable from your mind.
Fill you mind with the desirable!
Keep a clean heart!
Blessed are the peacemakers:
Most of us do not decide about war and peace in the world. In our personal surroundings, however, we can influence conflict, disharmony, peace, and cooperation.
When talking about the ideas of others, all too often we prefer to find the weaknesses in their arguments rather than expand on their points of merit. At worst, we would rather see no result at all than accept the ideas of others. God management is not to remain with the problems at hand but to put first emphasis on the pursuit of opportunities – which then may allow the enduring of some of the problems. A discussion of the ideas of others should emphasize their strong points and, then, expand on or supplement those – all presented in a pleading tone rather than imposing – to retain harmony or peace and lead to progress.
Office politics is a breeding ground for conflict – so is national politics a breeding ground for conflict in society. International rivalry is a breeding ground for world conflict. Conflict arises especially between people in close relationships in life or as neighbors on the world stage, who view themselves as separated from the others and thus try to prevail. Simply by putting ourselves in the position of others, as if walking in their shoes, can we begin to “understand”. Understanding can result in dialogue, and possibly from dialogue can come compromises or solutions.
Most tragic are the situations were only conflict or war is seen as the resolution of great threats. The beginning of World War I was most unnecessary and tragic. The necessary dismissal of underperforming employees is often caused by inadequate management. But it takes both sides to reach peace and progress. Persuasion has limits.
Let forgiving and reconciliation be part of peace-making!
In the end, the peacemakers are the benevolent forces in society – the finders of common solutions to problems, of constructive approaches toward a better future. It is they who move toward a better world for all, with less suffering and more opportunities fairly for all.
Blessed are those that can find a common path in peace!