What are the “Beatitudes”? How did Jesus use them to teach?

Jesus was frequently called a teacher (in Hebrew, Rabbi). Jesus taught about God as his Father and the Father of all human beings. He taught about his Father’s mercy and forgiveness of sin. He taught about the Kingdom that his Father was establishing, a Kingdom where justice and love conquer injustice and hatred. He taught about himself as the Servant of God, sent by the Father to bring about conversion, even by the sacrifice of his own life.

Jesus also taught his disciples how they were to live in order to achieve the fullness of life and happiness that is God’s will for all people. He did this by his own way of life and by his words. His teaching flowed from the tradition of ancient Israel but he also deepened that teaching and perfected it. A good illustration of this is his dialogue with a young man narrated in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” he answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” he asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Mt 19:16-22)

In this dialogue, Jesus reiterates the fundamental importance of the Ten Commandments for a moral life. He also goes beyond them and calls for a radical detachment from material goods and their distribution to the poor. Jesus himself lived as a poor man. The attainment of fullness of life and happiness requires fundamental attitudes and virtues such as the one that Jesus recommends to the young man and others that Jesus teaches throughout his public ministry as underlying the keeping of the Commandments.

These attitudes and virtues were proclaimed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart [or pure of heart],
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mt 5:3-12)

These are called Beatitudes. The word Beatitude refers to a state of deep happiness or joy. These Beatitudes are taught by Jesus as the foundations for a life of authentic Christian discipleship and the attainment of ultimate happiness. They give spirit to the Law of the Ten Commandments and bring perfection to moral life. That spirit is ultimately the spirit of love. In response to a question from the leader of the people, Jesus taught that love is at the heart of all law.

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

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