Summary: The Beatitudes are not a new set of commandments, but a description of God's kingdom. To know the full measure of God's blessings, there is nothing we have to do, we only have to be in Christ's presence.
Modern Christians love the Beatitudes. The poetic beauty of Jesus' opening to his Sermon on the Mount has captured our attention and inspired awe for so many. We learn about the Beatitudes as we grow up in church, we sing songs about them, there are probably many of us that could recite at least a few of them from memory. But the truth of the matter is that when Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee thousands of years ago and began preaching, his words would have come as a great shock to the crowds listening around him.
The Beatitudes seem to have lost their shock value in the modern world, though really they should seem as shocking to us today as they did do those first crowds so long ago. For those who had been struggling through life, Jesus is bringing shocking news that now they will be blessed. While those who have been relatively comfortable in life are now hearing that perhaps their life is not as blessed as they thought. But no matter from what perspective or time period you hear the Beatitudes, the most important thing is to understand what Jesus is teaching through these announcements of blessing.
You see, these are not prophecies about the way things will be in some yet to be determined future. Nor is Jesus here speaking new commandments that must be followed by all people. These are not even conditions for being included or incorporated into the kingdom of God. Rather, Jesus is stating here the reality of God's kingdom as it is. Through these Beatitudes, Jesus assures the community that while life may be difficult now, those who faithfully endure will be blessed through God's kingdom.
A parable is told of a farmer who owned an old mule. The mule fell into the farmer’s well. The farmer heard the mule "braying", or whatever mules do when they fall into wells. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the mule, but decided that neither the mule nor the well were worth the trouble of saving. He would have to rent a crane, and the old well was dried up anyway. So instead of going to such trouble, the farmer called his neighbors together and told them what had happened. He then enlisted the neighbors to help haul dirt to bury the old mule in the well and put him out of his misery.
As you can imagine, initially, the old mule was hysterical! But as the farmer and his neighbors continued shoveling and the dirt hit his back, a thought struck the animal. It suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel load of dirt landed on his back, he should shake it off and step up! So this he did blow after blow. "Shake it off and step up...shake it off and step up...shake it off and step up!" he repeated to encourage himself. No matter how painful the blows, or distressing the situation seemed the old mule fought "panic" and just kept right on shaking if off and stepping up! It was not long before the old mule, battered and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well! What seemed like it would bury him, actually blessed him, all because of the manner in which he handled that dirt being shoveled into the well.
That's life! If we face our problems, respond to them positively, and refuse to give in to panic, bitterness or self-pity, the adversities that come along to bury us usually have within them the potential to benefit and bless us!
Most of the people standing around listening to Jesus as he began to preach were probably feeling a lot like that mule. They would have felt like an entire village was throwing dirt on their back. Many would have been struggling through life, just trying to make ends meet. They would have felt like all their efforts were getting them nowhere and it was just one struggle after another. Then, for those listening to Jesus who felt that they were not poor in spirit, or mourning, or meek, or any of the other traits Jesus mentioned; they would have believed that they were doomed. There probably would have been a sense of panic among such people. What do I need to do to get out of this mess?!? What do I need to do to be blessed?!? I've got to get busy or I am going to be buried alive!
Jesus words might have caused great panic among those listening to him, but it turns out that he was speaking exactly the words they needed to hear. These "blessings," the "wonderful news" that he's announcing, are not saying "try hard to live like this." Nor is Jesus suggesting that these are simply timeless truths about the way the world is, about human behavior. If he was saying that, he was wrong because mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don't inherit the earth, those who long for justice often take that longing to the grave. This is an upside down world, or perhaps a right-way up world; and Jesus is now saying that with his work it's starting to come true. Jesus is saying it may feel like you're at the bottom of a well with dirt being heaped upon you, but it turns out that dirt is a real blessing. It turns out that dirt you thought was going to be the death of you is actually going to bring you life! That's why Jesus' words here are gospel, good news, not just good advice!