Christianity leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many modern people. What is it that causes this? For the majority, it is the moral life. When outsiders think of Christianity, they think only marginally of Jesus Christ and mostly about the commandments and rules. It seems as if this religion wants to regulate everything. Can there be any fun? Can there be any joy? Indeed, if you look at those considered fundamentalist or extreme, it seems that there is no joy or happiness to our religion. Why become one?
Others will try to have the joy of the Gospel without the bad aftertaste of morality. They will lay claim that Jesus didn’t want to maintain a rigid structure of rules and regulations but desired a unity founded upon love. These are the “spiritual not religious” types who prefer working in vagueness. They will point to today’s Gospel and say that these Beatitudes demonstrate that Jesus wants something different than what organized religion offers. How do we respond?
The fundamental problem that modern man has with morality is that he sees it as an imposition against his freedom. Morality does not allow him to be whatever he wants to be. While there are some people who are fine with the loss of freedom if it means they are saved, for many that are formed in this framework, the Christian moral law seems a step backwards in man’s awakening of himself. However, Christianity is founded upon a different view of freedom. For the Christian, freedom means the ability to choose without coercion the good. The Catechism describes it as is “a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness” that can only attain its perfection in God (CCC 1731).
This means that we human beings are not free to do whatever comes into our minds. It means that we were meant to be oriented towards something that would give us true joy. It means that we were meant to be with God, who is all-good and all-holy. But it also means that we need to learn what it means to grow and mature in truth and goodness. This is where the commandments begin that growth, and where the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel show the full fruit of maturity in morality.
Think about children playing in the playground. They don’t merely define the boundaries of the game - where they are playing or which direction the game goes. They also establish rules. Some of these rules are prohibitions against certain actions, but the most important rules are how the game is won. Children are naturally competitive and also naturally just; they want to see fair competition as much as possible. God does the same for the great game of our lives.
The commandments help define the boundaries of our lives - where we can go or where we should avoid going - along with being the rules for fair conduct. But Jesus offers in this Gospel account those rules that show what it means to win the game of life. We Christians can oftentimes focus too much on observing the commandments, or at least the minimal observance. We’re like children who stand at the line at the edge of the playing field, wondering what would happen if we want beyond that line. Yet the game is happening behind us, and we’re missing out.
These Beatitudes are not meant to replace the commandments but are their fulfillment. The commandments alone do not allow us to draw nearer to Christ; they are the minimal law to be a decent human being. Most of them we know and obey instinctively. But the Beatitudes are revealed by Jesus so that we may know the true purpose of this life: union with God through Jesus Christ. These promises come to fruition in those who are open to hearing them and living them freely and completely.
But who are those that can do this? Who can live out these Beatitudes and reach the kingdom of heaven? Saint Paul tells us who in our second reading when he points out who has heard and answered the call to enter into the Church. It is the poor, the weak, the humble, the nothing who can do this, because they know that God will be there to help them. Many of the first converts to Christianity were not the philosophers or politicians or nobles, but they were slaves, women, the poor - those who were nothing in ancient Roman society. Yet God demonstrates His power and His sanctification through them, revealing the marvels that are possible through His grace.
Brethren, God does not wish us to be slaves. Nor does He wish us to be adrift in the turbulent seas of doubt and arrogance in which we find ourselves today. He sends His Son to show us the way of grace and truth, the way of the commandments and the Beatitudes which lead to the kingdom of heaven. Let us humble ourselves and enter into the joyful game of Christianity, not seeking the false goods past the field line, but the truth that is meant to set us free. Let us be poor and mournful and meek, let us hunger and thirst, let us be merciful and clean and peaceable, and let us endure the persecution of the ignorant and the arrogant, just as Jesus did all of that in His earthly life. Let us learn from the divine Master the joy of the Christian moral life, so that we may receive the reward of that virtuous life: the kingdom of heaven.