The reading from Matthew's gospel, the beatitudes, seems to promise a heavenly reward for those who are persecuted in the cause of right. From the first century of the church until today many Christians have looked for this heavenly reward in a great day of judgment, ending time as we know it. John the Baptist and many of the authors of the New Testament thought the end was very near. Others, particularly in the modern period, have envisioned their heavenly reward as a state of life after death in heaven with God.
The poor in spirit, the sorrowful, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, those who show mercy, those whose hearts are pure, and the peacemakers cannot expect to find heaven on earth. In this life they can only look forward, as the gospel of Matthew says, to "insults and persecution".
But this is not what Jesus said, as we see from a closer study of the text. Luke's account of the beatitudes is shorter than Matthew's and closer to the original. It begins: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you will laugh." Matthew added the concluding blessings. Luke's account refers to Jesus as the Son of Man and adds "woes" to the blessings, to warn the early foes of the church. This material is not corroborated by Matthew and was added by Luke to the original teaching.
We cannot know for certain the words that Jesus might haveused (in Aramaic, likely). But by analyzing the changes made in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we can see what Jesus did not say. Moreover, we can see that this teaching of Jesus was about the kingdom of God. Scholars agree that the sayings and parables about the kingdom of God are authentically the teachings of Jesus, so by looking at this "core material" we may understand what Jesus meant by being blessed.
Jesus said, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force." (Mt. 11:12) This saying is unlikely to be an editorial comment within the early church, because it gives John's ministry such significance. Jesus clearly affirms that the kingdom of God has already come since the time of John the Baptist and is present even as Jesus teaches about it.
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." (Lu. 17:20-21) Unlike John the Baptist and the John who wrote the Book of Revelation, Jesus does not identify the kingdom with the end of the world. Jesus asserts that the kingdom of God is a present reality, not an event at the end of time.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray: "Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come." The Lord's prayer we generally recite comes from Matthew's gospel account (6:9-13), but Luke's shorter version (11:2-4) may be closer to what Jesus taught (probably in Aramaic). Matthew's phrase "on earth as it is in heaven," which reinforces the notion of heaven as a place apart from the earth, does not appear in Luke's gospel account. Without this phrase, praying for the kingdom of God to "come" might well be understood to be praying for it to be present in the same way that God is clearly present in Jesus — in the power of the Spirit.
In the beatitudes Jesus says that those who are in need, who hunger, and who weep now will be blessed. More precisely, he says that the kingdom of God is theirs. Who are those who are suffering? His listeners, the poor of Galilee who come to hear him. But if they are in need, hungry, and weeping, how is the kingdom of God to be theirs? By experiencing, as Jesus has, the presence and power of the Spirit of God! Jesus, like the people who listen to him, is in need. He, too, is hungry. He also weeps. Nevertheless, Jesus is blessed, because he knows the power of the Spirit!
Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is not some reward outside of time or in another world, but is available in his time to all those who "seek first” this "kingdom." Jesus tells the poor who flock to him that the blessings of life are offered to them by God, that eternal life is a present reality, that the kingdom of God is in the midst of them!
How are we to understand the promise of this kingdom? From the teachings of Jesus and from his life we can see, first, that the kingdom comes with prayer. Jesus prayed, and he taught his disciples to pray. What we call "the Lord's Prayer" was a blessing for the meals he ate with those who were excluded from the tables of religious people. Thus, praying for the kingdom to come was a way of enabling others to discover a sense of acceptance missing from their everyday experience.
Second, the kingdom comes with compassion. By compassion I do not mean sympathy or charity, but instead the realization that others who by worldly standards are beneath us are nonetheless children of God. In modern terms we might say that compassion is a matter of recognizing the human dignity of each person. By eating with sinners, welcoming women, and teaching the poor, Jesus demonstrated what it means to have compassion. His freedom to recognize the humanity of others points the way to the kingdom of God.
Third, in calling disciples and in the way he lived, Jesus made it clear that those who simply keep the moral and religious conventions of their time will not discover the realm of the Spirit. Jesus calls his disciples to participate in an alternative community of faith. They are to trust in the eternal and personal dimension of life we name as God and not in the rewards of the world or in the promise of a reward in another life.
Jesus did not urge his followers to adopt a new religion but a new way of life. Moreover, he did not define this way of life by a new set of moral principles with promises of rewards for those who keep the principles and punishments for those who do not. Nor does Jesus identify the kingdom of God with a new spiritual practice or an inner state of being. Instead, Jesus challenges his followers to trust in the Spirit of God in order to purify their religion, their morality, and their spiritual life.
This is our challenge as well. We need to renew our faith and our religious communities. We need to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit of God. We need to seek first the kingdom because everything else will follow. Then we will be blessed, and our lives and our work will be a blessing to others.