The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes—eight statements beginning with the word blessed. This word affirms a state of blessing that already exists. Each beatitude declares that a group of people usually regarded as afflicted is actually blessed. Those blessed do not have to do anything to attain this blessing. Jesus simply declares that they have already been blessed. Thus the beatitudes are first of all declarations of God’s grace. They are not conditions of salvation or roadmaps to earn entry to God’s kingdom.
Those who belong to each blessed group experience God’s grace because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Consider the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). People do not normally think of mourning as a blessing. It is a sorrow. But with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, mourning becomes a blessing because the mourners “will be comforted.” The implication is that God himself will do the comforting. The affliction of mourning becomes the blessing of profound relationship with God. That is a blessing indeed!
Although the primary purpose of the beatitudes is to declare the blessings given by God’s kingdom, most scholars also regard them as painting a picture of the character of that kingdom. As we step into God’s kingdom, we hope to become more like those named as blessed—more meek, more merciful, more hungry for righteousness, more apt to make peace, and so on. This gives the beatitudes a moral imperative. Later, when Jesus says, “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), the beatitudes describe the character these disciples are meant to take on.
The beatitudes describe the character of God’s kingdom, but they are not conditions of salvation. Jesus does not say, for example, “Only the pure in heart may enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is good news because the beatitudes are impossibly hard to fulfill. Given that Jesus says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28), who could truly be “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8)? If it were not for God’s grace, no one would actually be blessed. The beatitudes are not a judgment against all who fail to measure up. Instead, they are a blessing for any who consent to join themselves to God’s kingdom as it “comes near.”
A further grace of the beatitudes is that they bless God’s community, not just God’s individuals. By following Jesus, we become blessed members of the kingdom community, even though our character is not yet formed in God’s likeness. Individually, we fail to fulfill the characteristics of some or all of the blessings. But we are blessed nonetheless by the character of the entire community around us. Citizenship in God’s kingdom begins now. The character of the kingdom community is perfected when Jesus returns, “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
With this understanding, we are ready to explore the specific character of each of the beatitudes and explore how it applies to work. We cannot attempt to discuss each beatitude exhaustively, but we hope we can lay the groundwork for receiving the blessings and living out the beatitudes in our daily work.
The “poor in spirit” are those who cast themselves on God's grace. We personally acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is the tax collector in the temple, beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). It is an honest confession that we are sinful and utterly without moral virtues needed to please God. It is the opposite of arrogance. In its deepest form, it acknowledges our desperate need for God. Jesus is declaring that it is a blessing to recognize our need to be filled by God’s grace.
Thus, at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we don’t have the spiritual resources in ourselves to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. We can't fulfill God’s call by ourselves. Blessed are those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, for this realization turns them to God, without whom they cannot fulfill what they are created to do and be. Much of the rest of the sermon rips away from us the self-delusion that we are capable of acquiring a state of blessedness on our own. It aims to produce in us a genuine poverty of spirit.
What is the practical result of this blessing? If we are poor in spirit, we are able to bring an honest appraisal of ourselves to our work. We don't inflate our résumé or boast about our position. We know how difficult it is to work with people who cannot learn, grow, or accept correction because they are trying to maintain an inflated picture of themselves. So we commit ourselves to honesty about ourselves. We remember that even Jesus, when he started working with wood, must have needed guidance and instruction. At the same time, we acknowledge that only with God at work within us can we put Jesus’ teachings into practice on the job. We seek God’s presence and strength in our lives each day as we live as Christians where we work.
In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. Who is likely to be more successful in the long run? A leader who says, “Fear not, I can handle anything, just do as I say,” or a leader who says, “Together, we can do it, but everyone will have to perform better than ever before.” If there was ever a time when an arrogant, self-promoting leader was considered greater than a humble, empowering leader, that time is passing, at least within the best organizations. For example, a humble leader is the first characteristic mark of companies that achieve sustained greatness, according to Jim Collins’s well-known research. Of course, many workplaces remain stuck in the old kingdom of self-promotion and inflated self-appraisal. In some situations, the best practical advice may be to find another workplace if at all possible. In other cases, leaving the job may not be possible, or it may not be desirable, because by staying a Christian could be an important force for good. In these situations, the poor in spirit are all the more a blessing to those around them.
The second beatitude builds on our mental recognition of our poverty of spirit by adding an emotional response of sorrow. When we face the evil in our own lives, it saddens us; when we face the evil in the world—which includes possible evil in our workplace—that, too, touches our emotions with grief. The evil may come from ourselves, from others, or from sources unknown. In any case, when we honestly mourn evil words, evil deeds, evil policies on the job, God sees our sorrow and comforts us with the knowledge that it will not always be this way.
Those blessed with mourning about their own failings can receive comfort by admitting their errors. If we make a mistake with a colleague, student, customer, employee, or other person, we admit it and ask their pardon. This takes courage! Without the emotional blessing of sadness over our actions, we would probably never muster the guts to admit our mistakes. But if we do, we may be surprised how often people are ready to forgive us. And if, on occasion, others take advantage of our admission of fault, we can fall back on the blessing of non-arrogance that flows from the first beatitudes.
Some businesses have found expressing sorrow to be an effective way to operate. Toro, the manufacturer of tractors and lawn equipment, adopted a practice of showing concern to people injured while using their products. As soon as the company learns of an injury, it contacts the injured person to express sorrow and offer help. It also asks for suggestions to improve the product. Surprising as it may sound, this approach has reduced the number of customer lawsuits over a period of many years. Virginia Mason Hospital found similar results from acknowledging their role in patient deaths.
Meekness in the Military
“There was an event in Vietnam where I almost made a very serious mistake. We had been on a patrol, and a young Marine named Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro, 19 years old, from Bethpage, New York, was killed by a sniper. The bullet came from a nearby village. I was the platoon leader, and he was my machinegun squad leader. I was enraged, and I called in an artillery strike to get the sniper. Then I looked to my right and saw 21-year-old Sergeant Reid B. Zachary. He did not say a thing, but he simply looked at me, and I knew what I was about to do was wrong.
“I called off the artillery strike and we swept the village, as I should have done in the first place. We found nothing but women and children, as the sniper was long gone. I don’t know that I could have lived with myself had I done what I originally planned to do. I don’t think I would be standing in front of you today. I had almost allowed the rage of the moment to overcome what I thought was some substantial thinking about who I was going to be in combat.
“After the event, I called my platoon together in a little bombed out crater, and I apologized to them. I told them had it not been for Sergeant Zachary, I probably would not have made the right decision. The reaction of the platoon was amazing. It was a very warm, family response, and I learned that a leader admitting mistakes, and thanking those who point them out to him or her, is really important.”
The third beatitude puzzles many people in the workplace, in part because they don’t understand what it means to be meek. Many assume the term means weak, tame, or deficient in courage. But the biblical understanding of meekness is power under control. In the Old Testament, Moses was described as the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3, KJV). Jesus described himself as “meek and lowly” (Matt. 11:28-29, KJV), which was consistent with his vigorous action in cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-13).
Power under God’s control means two things: (1) refusal to inflate our own self-estimation; and (2) reticence to assert ourselves for ourselves. Paul captures the first aspect perfectly in Romans 12:3. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Meek people see themselves as servants of God, not thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think. To be meek is to accept our strengths and limitations for what they truly are, instead of constantly trying to portray ourselves in the best possible light. But it does not mean that we should deny our strengths and abilities. When asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus replied, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:4-6). He had neither an inflated self-image nor an inferiority complex, but a servant’s heart based on what Paul would later call “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
A servant’s heart is the crux of the second aspect of meekness: reticence to assert ourselves for ourselves. We exercise power, but for the benefit of all people, not just ourselves. The second aspect is captured by Psalm 37:1-11a, which begins with, “Do not fret because of the wicked,” and ends with “the meek shall inherit the land.” It means we curb our urge to avenge the wrongs done against us, and instead use whatever power we have to serve others. It flows from the sorrow for our own weaknesses that comprises the second beatitude. If we feel sorrow for our own sins, can we really feel vengeful over the sins of others?
It can be very challenging to put our power at work under God’s control. In the fallen world, it seems to be the aggressive and the self-promoting who get ahead. “You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” In the workplace, the arrogant and powerful seem to win, but in the end they lose. They don’t win in personal relationships. No one wants an arrogant, self-seeking friend. Men and women who are hungry for power are often lonely people. Nor do they win in financial security. They think they possess the world, but the world possesses them. The more money they have, the less financially secure they feel.
In contrast, Jesus said that the meek “will inherit the earth.” As we have seen, the earth has become the location of the kingdom of heaven. We tend to think of the kingdom of heaven as heaven, a place completely different (golden streets, gates of pearl, a mansion over the hilltop) from anything we know here. But God's promise of the kingdom is a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). Those who submit their power to God will inherit the perfect kingdom coming to earth. In this kingdom, we receive by God’s grace the good things the arrogant fruitlessly strive for in the present earth, and more. And this is not a future reality only. Even in a broken world, those who recognize their true strengths and weaknesses can find peace by living realistically. Those who exercise power for the benefit of others are often admired. The meek engage others in decision making and experience better results and deeper relationships.
Understanding the fourth beatitude turns on understanding what Jesus meant by righteousness. In ancient Judaism, righteousness meant “to acquit, vindicate, restore to a right relationship.” The righteous are those who maintain right relationships—with God and with the people around them. On the basis of right relationships, those who commit infractions are acquitted of guilt.
Have you received the blessing of being filled with right relationships? It flows from meekness (the third beatitude) because we can only form right relationships with others when we cease making all our actions revolve around ourselves. Do you hunger and thirst for right relationships—with God, with your co-workers, with your family, and your community? Hunger is a sign of life. We are genuinely hungry for good relationships if we yearn for others for their own sake, not just as snack food for meeting our own needs. If we see that we have God’s grace for this, we will hunger and thirst for right relationships, not only with God, but with the people with whom we work or live.
Jesus says that those who have this hunger will find their appetites filled. It is easy to see the wrongs in our workplaces and to want to do battle to fix them. If we do this, we are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, desiring to see wrongs righted. The Christian faith has been the source of many of the greatest reforms in the work world, perhaps most notably the abolition of slavery in Great Britain and the United States, and the genesis of the Civil Rights movement. But again, the flow of the beatitudes is important. We don’t take on these battles in our own strength, but only in recognition of our own emptiness, mourning our own unrighteousness, submitting our power to God.
If you are blessed with sorrow for your own failings (the second beatitude) and with right relationships (the fourth beatitude), you will not find it difficult to show mercy to others on the job or anywhere else. Mercy consists of treating people better than they deserve from us. Forgiveness is a type of mercy. So is aiding someone whom we have no obligation to help, or forbearing to exploit someone’s vulnerability. Mercy, in all these senses, is the driving force of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Through him, our sins are forgiven and we ourselves receive aid by the gift of God’s spirit (1 Corinthians 12). The Spirit’s reason for showing us this mercy is simply that God loves us (John 3:16).
At work, mercy has a highly practical effect. We are to aid others to attain their best outcomes, regardless of how we feel about them. When you assist a co-worker, whom you may not like and who may even have wronged you in the past, you are showing mercy. When you are the first contestant in an audition and you warn the later contestants that the judge is in a foul mood, you are showing mercy, though it may give them an advantage over you. When a competitor's child is sick, and you agree to reschedule your presentation to the client so your competitor won't have to choose between caring for the child and competing for the business, you are showing mercy.
These kinds of mercy may cost you an advantage you could otherwise have taken. Yet they benefit the work outcome, as well as the other person. Assisting someone you don’t like helps your work unit achieve its goals, even if it doesn’t benefit you personally. Or—as in the case of the competitor with a sick child—if it doesn’t benefit your organization, it benefits the client you aim to serve. The underlying reality of mercy is that mercy benefits someone beyond yourself.
An environment of forgiveness in an organization offers another surprising result. It improves the organization’s performance. If someone makes a mistake in an organization where mercy is not shown, they are likely not to say anything about it, hoping it will not be noticed and they will not be blamed.
This diminishes performance in two ways. The first is that an error covered up may be much more difficult to deal with later. Imagine a construction job where a worker makes a mistake with a foundation fitting. It is easy to fix if it is brought to light and repaired right away. But it will be very expensive to fix after the structure is built and the foundation buried. The second is that the best learning experiences come out of learning from errors. As Soichiro Honda said, “Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the 1 percent of your work that only comes from the 99 percent that is called failure.” Organizations don’t have the opportunity to learn if mistakes are not brought forward.
Integrity in Auto Sales
The value of integrity in business is illustrated by Don Flow, CEO of Flow Automotive. He has a deep personal commitment to fairness. But he discovered that the selling practices in his automobile dealerships were leading to unfair treatment of poorer customers. He could not—and did not want to—separate his business practices from his personal commitments. So he changed his business practices. He explains the new practice this way:
"We have a customer-centric selling process. We don’t have the traditional run back and forth negotiating process; we have a pricing structure that’s set. Our prices are actually a little bit lower because we’ve been able to manage our costs better with our internal processes. You don’t have to be a tough negotiator, or more educated, to get a fair price. If you’ve got a Ph.D. or if you’re a janitor, you’ll pay the same price for the vehicle. We did a study and found that the people who typically paid the least for the cars were the most able to pay. Those least able to pay, paid the most. For me, it was wrong to take advantage of the least able, a clear violation of the biblical mandate in the book of Proverbs. We went back and restructured our business. Our profit structure has to be much tighter around the mean, and we have to communicate enough value that a person will pay us a fair return.”
Here is a 4-minute video of Don describing how he applies the Christian faith to his business practices.
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
“Clean hands and pure hearts” denote integrity, singleness of devotion, undivided loyalty. Integrity goes well beyond avoiding deceit and bad behavior. The root of integrity is wholeness, meaning that our actions are not choices we put on or take off as may seem convenient, but stem from the whole of our being. Notice that Jesus pronounces the blessing of being pure in heart not right after the blessing of hungering for righteousness, but after the blessing of showing mercy. Purity of heart arises not from perfection of our will, but from reception of God’s grace.
We can determine how much of this blessing we have received by asking ourselves: How much commitment do I have to integrity, when I might be able to get away with skillful deception? Do I refuse to let my opinion of someone be shaped by gossip and innuendo, no matter how juicy? To what extent are my actions and words accurate reflections of what is in my heart?
It is hard to argue against personal integrity in the workplace, yet in a fallen world it is often the butt of jokes. Like mercy and meekness, it can be seen as weakness. But it is the person of integrity who will “see God.” While the Bible is clear that God is invisible and “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16), the pure in heart can perceive and sense God's reality in this life. In fact, without integrity, the deceits we propagate against others eventually make us unable to perceive the truth. We inevitably begin to believe our own fabrications. And this leads to ruin in the workplace, because work based on unreality soon becomes ineffective. The impure have no desire to see God, but those who are part of Christ's kingdom are blessed because they see reality as it truly is, including the reality of God.
The seventh beatitude takes every Christian worker into the task of conflict resolution. Conflicts arise whenever people have differences of opinion. In a fallen world, the tendency is to ignore conflict or suppress it by using force, threat, or intimidation. But both of those are violations of the integrity (the sixth beatitude) of the people in conflict. In God's kingdom, it is a blessing to bring people together who are in conflict. Only then is it possible to resolve the conflict and restore the relationships. (Later in this article, we will explore Jesus’ method for conflict resolution in Matt. 18:17-19.)
The result of conflict resolution is peace, and peacemakers will be called “children of God.” They will reflect the divine character in their actions. God is the God of peace (1 Thessalonians 5:16) and we show ourselves to be his children when we seek to make peace in the workplace, in the community, in our homes, and in the whole world.
The eighth and final beatitude may strike us as negative. Up to this point, the beatitudes have focused on humility, meekness, right relationships, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking—all positive qualities. But Jesus includes the possibility of “persecution for righteousness’ sake.” This arises from the previous seven, because the forces that oppose God’s ways still hold great power in the world.
Note that persecution arising from unrighteous behavior is not blessed. If we fail through our own fault, we should expect to suffer negative consequences. Jesus is talking about the blessing of being persecuted for doing right. But why would we be persecuted for righteousness? The reality in a fallen world is that if we demonstrate genuine righteousness, many will reject us. Jesus elaborates by pointing out that the prophets, who like him announced God’s kingdom, were persecuted. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Righteous people in the workplace may be subjected to active, even severe persecution by people who benefit—or believe they benefit—from injustice there. For example, if you speak up for—or merely befriend—people who are victims of gossip or discrimination in your workplace, expect persecution. If you are the president of a trade association, and you speak out against an unfair subsidy your members are receiving, don’t expect them to re-elect you. The blessing is that active persecution for the right reasons indicates that the powers of darkness believe you are succeeding in furthering God's kingdom.
Even the best organizations and most admirable people are still tainted by the Fall. None are perfect. The eighth beatitude serves as a reminder to us that working in a fallen world requires courage.