J. R. Miller, 1909
Emerson's advice to Lincoln about hitching his wagon to a star—is the lesson Jesus sets for us in the Beatitudes. These blesseds shine like stars far above us, in their brightness and heavenliness. We may say that we never can reach them and that therefore there is no use in our trying to reach them. But the Master would have us strive after the highest attainments.
It has been noted, that if the world would make a set of beatitudes, they would be just the reverse of those that Jesus spoke. None of the classes pronounced blessed by Him would be called happy by the world. The poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and holiness—are not the world's favorites. These are not the qualities natural men consider most worthy of quest.
The first beatitude is for the humble ones. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." This beatitude is not for the poor in an earthly sense, for one may be very poor—and yet proud; and one may be rich in worldly goods—and yet be lowly in spirit, in disposition. The Bible everywhere praises humility. God dwells with the humble. Christ refers only once in the Gospels to His own heart, and through the window He opens, it is this picture that we see, "I am gentle and humble in heart" (11:29). To be poor in spirit is to be rich toward God; while pride of heart is spiritual poverty. Humility is the key that opens the gate of prayer; while to the loud knocking of pride, there comes no answer. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the humble. They may wear no earthly crown—but a crown of glory, unseen by men, rests upon their heads even here in this world.
The second beatitude is for those who mourn. We do not usually regard mourners as blessed. We pity them and think their condition unenviable. Christ, however, has a special beatitude for those who are sorrowful. Probably He means particularly penitent mourners, those who are sorrowful on account of their sins. In all this world there is nothing so precious in the sight of God—as the tear of contrition. No diamonds or pearls shine with such brilliance, in His sight. It was Jesus Himself who said there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents (Luke 15:10). Truly blessed, therefore, are those who mourn over their sins. They are comforted with the comfort of God's pardon and peace.
But the beatitude refers also to those who are in sorrow. Blessing never is nearer to us, than when we are in affliction, if we submit ourselves to God in love and trust. Someday we shall understand that we have received our best things from heaven, not in the days of our joy and gladness—but in the time of trial and affliction. Tears are lenses through which our eyes see more deeply into heaven and look more clearly upon God's face—than in any other way. Sorrow cleanses our hearts of earthliness, and fertilizes our lives. We grow the best when clouds hang over us, because clouds bear rain and rain refreshes. Then God's comfort is such a rich blessed experience, that it is well worthwhile to endure any sorrow in order to receive it.
The third beatitude is for the meek. Meekness is not a popular quality. The world calls it a cowardly spirit, which leads a man to remain quiet under insult, to endure wrong without resentment, to be treated unkindly and then to give kindness in return. Men of the world say that the disposition of meekness is unmanly, that it shows weakness, cowardice, a lack of strength. So it might be—if we looked to the world for our ideal of manhood. But we have a truer, a diviner example for our model of manliness, than any that this world has set up. Jesus Christ is the only perfect man who ever lived in this world, and when we turn to His life—we see that meekness was one of the most marked qualities of His character. He was gentle of disposition, never provoked, patient under wrong, silent under reproach. When He was reviled, He reviled not again. When He suffered, He threatened not. Possessing all power, He never lifted a finger to avenge a personal injury. He answered with tender love, all men's wrath, and on His cross, when the blood was flowing from His wounds—He prayed for His murderers. Meekness is then no cowardly spirit, since in Christ it shone so luminously. Then it is not an impoverishing virtue—but an enriching grace. The meek shall inherit the earth.
The fourth beatitude is for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. This, strangely, is a beatitude for dissatisfaction. We know that peace is promised to the Christian, and peace is calm repose and satisfied restfulness. The words hunger and thirst appear to suggest experiences incompatible with rest and peace. But when we think more deeply—we see that spiritual hunger must form a part of all true Christian experience. Hunger is mark of health. It is so in physical life; the loss of appetite indicates disease. So a healthy mind is a hungry one; when one becomes satisfied with one's attainments, one ceases to learn. In spiritual life, too, hunger is health. If we become satisfied with our condition of faith, love, obedience and consecration, we are in an unhappy condition. There is not growth after that. Often invalids die amid plenty, die of starvation; not because they can get no food—but because they have no appetite. There are many professing Christians who are starving their souls in the midst of spiritual provision, because they have no hunger. There is nothing for which we should pray more earnestly, than for spiritual longing and desire.
The fifth beatitude is for the merciful. Cruelty is opposed to everything Divine and heavenly. All that is unloving is condemned in the Scriptures. Blessing cannot come to the resentful, the unforgiving, the vindictive, to those who have no sympathy with distress, no hand to help human need. In our Lord's picture of the last judgment, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, those on the right hand are those who have been kind, gentle, patient, thoughtful, ministering to suffering and need. Jesus Himself set an example of mercifulness. His miracles were for the relief of those who were suffering.
We must note in this beatitude also, that we receive in life what we give—the merciful shall obtain mercy. The unmerciful shall find the gates closed upon them, when they cry for help. A boy stood before a perpendicular crag, and when he began to shout he heard the echo of his own voice. When he spoke gently, a gentle voice responded. When he spoke angrily; he was answered back in angry tones. It is so in life. Those who show kindness to others, receive kindness in return. Those who are bitter, selfish and cruel—find this a loveless world to live in.
The sixth beatitude is for the pure in heart. There is no beatitude for anything unholy. There is no room with God for anything that defiles. If we would enter heaven, we must prepare for heaven here. To a child who expressed a wonder how he could get up to heaven, because it was so far away—a wise mother's reply was, "Heaven must first come down to you; heaven must first come into your heart." Heaven must really be in us—before we can enter heaven. Just was we become pure in heart, are we made ready for the heavenly life.
But what is heart purity? It is not sinlessness, for none are sinless. A pure heart must be a penitent heart, one that has been forgiven by Christ, cleansed by His grace. It is one also that is kept pure by obedient living, and close communion with Christ. An essential part of true religion before God is, to keep one's self unspotted from the world. It is an evil world in which we live—but if we carefully follow our Master, doing His will, keeping our hearts ever open to the influences of the Holy Spirit, we shall be kept, Divinely kept, from the corruption about us. As the lily grows up pure and unstained amid the soiled waters of the bog—so does the lowly, loving, and patient heart of a Christian, remain pure in the midst of all this world's evil.
The seventh beatitude is for the peacemakers. Too many people are not peacemakers. Some people seem to delight in finding differences between neighbors or friends which they try not to heal—but to widen. Christ's beatitude is for those who seek always to make peace. When we find two people in danger of being estranged by some misunderstanding, we should seek to get them together and prevent their falling apart. If we would be true peacemakers, we must never be quarrelsome or easily offended. Paul says that love is not easily provoked, that is, it does not take account of little or great hurts—but is patient and forbearing (see 1 Corinthians 13). It is a great thing to be a peacemaker. Of the peacemakers it is said, "They shall be called sons of God."
The eighth beatitude is for those who are "persecuted for righteousness' sake." Some people avoid persecution by conforming to the world, by being very careful never to offend the world. But Christ wants us to be loyal and true to Him, whatever the cost may be. Blessing comes upon those who suffer persecution for Christ's sake. Paul spoke of the wounds and scars he had received in persecution, as marks of Jesus, honorable decorations. We must notice, however, that is it when we are persecuted for righteousness sake—that we get this beatitude. Sometimes people suffer for being ill-natured, but the blessing cannot be claimed in this case. It is when we do the will of God and suffer for it—that we can claim the Divine blessing.
We are commanded to rejoice and be exceeding glad when called to suffer reproach and injury for Christ's sake. It is not easy to do this, although many Christians have actually rejoiced in pain and trial, so strong was their faith. Ignatius, on his way to Rome to be thrown to wild beasts, wrote exultantly, "Now I am beginning to be a disciple!"
In two striking figures Jesus showed His disciples what they were to be in the world, how they were to bless it by the influence of their lives. "You are the salt of the earth." You are, by living your new life in the world—to preserve it from rotting. This seemed a strange thing to say that day to a little handful of fishermen—but these men and their successors have done just that for the world through the centuries. We know what salt is and what its influence is. We are to be the salt of the earth, not merely in the words we speak—but especially in the influence of our lives. We must take heed therefore that the salt we are—does not lose its savor, its power to bless. We must make sure that the world is purified, sweetened and made better in every way—by our living in it.
"You are the light of the world." We are lamps which Christ lights and which are to shine upon the world's darkness for its enlightening. We must remember that the light of heaven can reach other lives and brighten the world—only through us. We must see to it, therefore, that the light in us never fails. We must never allow it to be covered up by anything. The object of the shining is not to glorify the lamp—but to honor God. We are not to parade our virtues—but to brighten the world and lead men to love our heavenly Father.