As I have pondered the Beatitudes[Matthew 5:3-12] and read diverse opinions about them, I remember most what I read about Jim Forest’s concept in The Ladder of the Beatitudes,” a step-by-step process which describes the journey with Christ. Each rung is dependent on us achieving the current step before we can continue. We can think of them as attitudes or qualities to acquire or to exhibit before we can move on to the next step.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” begins the ladder. But who are the poor in spirit? Can we take that literally, that these are the ones who have no connection to the Holy Spirit, that they lack a relationship with God? Or are these the ones who recognize their own poverty, their neediness, their emptiness? Are these the ones who need to be filled with God, with spirit and life? It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting a recognition of our own neediness is the first step in the ladder. He is saying that by ourselves we are needy, poor, searching for something to fill our needs.
Checking for the original meaning in the Exhaustive Concordance we find that “the poor in spirit” are not lacking in spirit, but have the positive moral quality of humility, realizing they have nothing to offer God, but are in need of his free gifts.”[Zondervan’s NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Strong’s #4777, p. 1588] So we add humility to the meaning of “poor in spirit.”
So the first step on the ladder of the Beatitudes is recognition of our own emptiness and the humility that seeks God as our solution, in other words, a surrender of our lives to God.
The second step on the ladder of the Beatitudes is “Blessed are they who mourn.” We have much to grieve in this life and, to me, Jesus is telling us to grieve fully, so that we can let go of our losses big and little, let go of our stories, so that we can turn the corner and leave what is past in the past.
We are asked to grieve thoroughly, so that we can enter into the present moment where we will find God. Unsuprisingly, the concordance offers these definitions for the Greek word, pentheo, a verb, which means “to mourn, to grieve(over)…filled with grief.” [Zondervan, Strong’s #4291, p.1582]
If we grieve thoroughly, we will have no attachment to the past, no desire to return there. So now we have the first steps on the ladder as admitting our emptiness/humility and then grieving.
The third rung is “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The Greek word used here is praus, a adjective which means “gentle, meek, the positive moral quality of dealing with people in a kind manner.” [Zondervan, Strong’s #4558, p.1585] Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, writes of the difference between a horse being broken and one being gentled. Both horses are trained, but there is a world of difference between the behavior and assumptions of the two horses.
The same with us. As we even entertain approaching God, I think that we expect God’s punishment as we fail to meet the rigorous, high standards of righteousness, but what we get from God is welcome, embrace, forgiveness and celebration[Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32]. We expect the harsh and we get love and mercy. And so we are “gentled” by God’s reception of us into being transformed, into becoming who we were created to be. It occurs to me that someone who is punished into obedience would never give his/her whole self to the one who trains.
The next rung is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The Greek work, dikaiosyne, means meeting God’s standards and having the “proper relationship with God.” [Zondervan’s, Strong’s # 1466, p. 1463] So being righteous is not just about following the law, but also having the proper relationship with God. Jesus expands on this idea in Matthew 5:20, saying that our righteousness must exceed that the Pharisees and teachers of the law—those who follow the letter of the law. If we don’t get the Spirit of the law, we are not in the proper relationship to God.
Let’s pause in our climb for the moment to acknowledge what has been acquired so are as we climbed up the ladder. First, there was our recognition of our emptiness and need for God along with humility. Then a chance to grieve thoroughly, to empty out any attachment to the past. The 3rd rung is meekness, being gentled and trained. The 4th step of hunger and thirst for righteousness which suggests to me a life centered on the relationship with God with the aim of satisfying our hunger and thirst for him.
And then there are the last four. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” is the 5th step on the ladder. It has to do with our neighbor and ourselves. Eleemosyne, the Greek noun, is about gifts, alms, generosity for the poor and needy. Jesus seems to be stating a law here—that we will receive what we give out. This step echoes the Golden Rule—to do to others as you would have them do to you, and, by extension, is a rule in heaven also, that we will receive what we have given to others. Will it be mercy, or defensiveness, openness or hatred, embrace or slurs?
I believe that any punishment that awaits us from God is just the natural consequences of our behavior in the world. When my kids were young, I taught them the Golden Rule in terms of what I called the boomerang law: that what you send out into the world is what you get back. The 5th Beatitude is affirming that: if you give out mercy, you get mercy.
The sixth step in the ladder of the Beatitudes is “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Without the previous rungs of humility, grief, meek, hunger for righteousness and mercy, we would never experience the sixth step of pure in heart. The Greek word for pure is katharos which means “clean, pure, clear of responsibility, innocent”[Zondervan’s, Strong’s #2754, p.1560] suggests catharsis, or a total cleansing of the self. Then, pure in heart, we can see God. That is some reward!
And what would be cleansed of in order to see God? All the tainting of the world that has covered, buried even, our true, created self—so all the expectations and assumptions about life gone, all the trauma healed, all of our “sins” forgiven by us and God. To see God is to live in the present where he is always present. To be cleansed of all that gets between us and God is to see with God’s eyes, a much wider perspective on life than our own personal lens can see.
And what happens then? We become peacemakers, the children of God, the 7th step of the ladder. So, wherever we go, whoever we are with, we bring God’s peace that passes all understanding[John 14:27]. And we bring all the fruit of the Spirit, for you can’t have peace without love and joy, or gentleness, goodness, patience and kindness, faithfulness and self-control.
We exude the peace of God, our own comfort with whatever is happening, love for all the participants here at this time. There is no anxiety, no fear, because we are deeply held by God so that, no matter what happens, whether we live or die, God is there holding us and we rest in his arms.
The eight rung of the Beatitudes is “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe you can see by now how at this rung there is nothing on Earth that can touch someone. There is a wonderful story about Cypriot, a bishop in North Africa in the mid 4th century. [Henri Daniel-Rops, The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs Vol. II, pp. 108-115] Valerian, the Roman emperor at the time, ordered all to be beheaded who did not bow down to him.
The story goes that Cypriot refused to bow down. The local governor was reluctant to slay one of his own class, but Cypriot insisted that he needed to be martyred. So he led his followers out to the execution site, insisted that his followers tip the executioner because he was only doing his job, stretched out his hands so they could be bound, knelt and stretched his neck. Many people were converted to Christianity that day because of his willing sacrifice of himself.
The point of this 8th rung is not that we have to die, but that we will be so far beyond the reach of any human agency or fear that it doesn’t matter. Our very selves will rest in God’s arms and find everything we need there. No matter what.
The steps along the journey with Christ are outlined in the Beatitudes. Each one is the prerequisite for the next step: humility/surrender comes first, then emptying of grief, then meekness or being gentled, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecuted. Seeking a deeper and deeper relationship with God will lead us up the ladder. The experiences that we have will transform us into people who live the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.
Questions to ponder over the week: On what rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes would I put myself? What do I need to do to deepen my relationship with God? Am I willing to do that?
Blessing for the week: May we put our relationship with God above everything else. May we be surprised to find ourselves on yet another rung. May we love God with all of ourselves.
My book, Thy Kingdom Come! is up on Amazon in both a paperback and a digital version. Look for it under my full name, Patricia Said Adams, or Patricia Adams. There are three parts to the book: I)Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom of God, II)his teachings about how we get into the kingdom and III)implications for us in all that he taught. Check it out if you’re interested! At the top of my FB page is a video titled, “What Jesus said about the kingdom.” It’s an introduction to the book.
Read the whole blog at bythewaters.net or await Monday’s thru Friday’s offerings on FB. I’m on YouTube at By the Waters with Pat Adams and on Twitter at BTWwithPatAdams.