If you were alive in the Roman Empire during the century around the time of Jesus, you would be living in a society that had precious little concern and legal protections for great swaths of the population. Women and children had very few rights; widows and orphans were particularly at risk of abuse. Slaves were mainstream and lacked virtually any legal status or protection. There was no system of welfare or safety net for the economically poor, and no social or health care for the disabled, the ill, the diseased and the despised. Before the influence of Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, there was no concept of a common set of human goods that all might share in. Life for a Roman citizen before the apostolic times was written almost entirely in favour of the master.
Now imagine how Jesus’ words of beatitude – as recorded by Luke in his Gospel – would have sounded to you if you lived around the time when they were first heard in the fledgling Christian communities of Asia-minor and the Mediterranean. Imagine how it would have sounded for a woman to hear ‘blessed are you who are the poor’; or a young slave to hear ‘blessed are you who are hungry now’. Imagine hearing ‘blessed are those who mourn’ if you were recently widowed. Imagine what it would have been like to hear that, simply by recognising yourself as a child of God, you were now included among the blessed, a word and a state never offered to you before.
The beatitudes of Jesus – in their raw and direct articulation by Luke, compared to Matthew’s version – were a declaration about God’s kingdom so daring that they upended the ways of Roman society more dramatically than the up-ending of the marketeers in the Temple. The good of the individual always mattered for Jesus – every individual. Each person – made in God’s image – could know His favour. This favour, this blessedness, was a promise that Jesus made to those who lived in hope of a life honoured in the Day of the Lord. The Good News, then, that Jesus proclaimed, had a particular target: the poor, the neglected, the oppressed, and the despised. To these did the kingdom of God belong. Meanwhile, the rich, the contented, the frivolous, and the famous might bask in an immediate effect, but it would not last.
To hear the beatitudes of Jesus as Good News is to hear what our promised future will be when we throw in our lot with Him in trust and in hope. It is also to hear how we might receive in welcome those around us who are deprived of what is needed for them to live humanly well. Let us hear anew these words of Jesus, that He may make of our hearts a blessed place where the Kingdom may dwell.
Feature image: Christ's Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco
Melbourne Catholic18 August 2022
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)16 August 2022