by Mark Scandrette
The teachings on the hill found in the Gospel of Matthew are the fullest record we have of what Jesus regularly taught as he traveled throughout Galilee. It begins with nine strange blessings traditionally called the Beatitudes.
Imagine Jesus making these statements as he walked through a crowd, putting his hand on the shoulder of a beggar as he says, “Blessed are the poor,” locking eyes with a grieving widow as he says, “blessed are those who mourn” or lifting the chin of a peasant laborer as he says, “blessed are the meek.”
What’s surprising is who Jesus called fortunate. At the time people assumed that only the most wealthy, attractive, or powerful were blessed. Poor, sad, and suffering people were thought to be cursed. Still today it can feel like our circumstances, identity, or previous choices exclude us from the blessed life. With these strange blessings Jesus announces that a thriving life, under God’s care, is available to anyone. Whatever your story, whatever your struggle, wherever you find yourself, this path is available to you.
If we look only at the first three Beatitudes it might seem like the whole point is that a blessed life is available to unlikely people. But the next four Beatitudes celebrate noble qualities: a hunger for justice, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking. This shift suggests that Jesus was introducing a more comprehensive picture of what the blessed life looks like and how to experience it.
First instincts explain a lot about the conditions we see in the world. Anxiety about having enough is the cause of so much striving and greed and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Our tendency to avoid pain produces a distracted and entertainment addicted culture and the inability of those with the power to take responsibility for the harm they cause. Our competitive instincts are responsible for our obsession with achievement and success. Our learned helplessness has led us to believe that we can do little to address systemic injustices. Our tendency toward judgment and contempt produces conflict and division. Our impulse toward shame makes us image-conscious, distrustful, and alienated from others. Our instinct toward dualistic us-versus-them thinking creates tension and divides in public and private life. Our tendency to retaliate leads to preemptive wars and a punitive correctional system. Our fear of death leads us to choose self-preservation over courage and self-giving love.
First instincts are necessary for our early survival, but they eventually become toxic. To thrive we must transcend our automatic responses and learn to see and act from a more complete and accurate understanding of reality. Jesus claimed that he understood the true nature of reality, which he called “the kingdom of God.” His invitation was to rethink or reimagine our whole lives—to see in a new way. His teachings challenge many of our instinctual ways of seeing, with the signature phrase, “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you . . .”