Mar 1, 2023
“The eight beatitudes are a 'manifesto' for change, a change in the way we understand the world…behave in that world… (and) act toward one another.
Hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a bit like going down a rabbit hole…or passing through a looking glass. Nothing is as it should be, everything is turned around…or upside down…or inside out.
The heart of Jesus’ sermon is the so-called Beatitudes. Next to the Lord’s Prayer, these eight aphorisms are probably the best known verses in the entire New Testament. Found in the Gospel of Matthew (5: 3-10), they are short enough to be reproduced here in their entirety:
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, 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.
Like I said, everything is turned upside down. The poor and the persecuted take possession of a kingdom while the meek inherit the land. Those who mourn are the ones comforted. The merciful are they who receive mercy.
In our experience, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and those who work for peace are invariably frustrated. Not so, according to Jesus! Their efforts are rewarded. In fact, they will be called children of God. Those with clean hearts (like Job?) will even see God.
In another essay in this issue, we spoke about a linguistic phenomenon called the “Middle Voice”. The middle voice is the voice of reciprocity. It replaces, at least in some contexts, the tyranny of the active and passive verb voices.
So let’s return to our eight aphorisms and see if they can fairly be described as examples of middle voice consciousness. The eight may be grouped into three families, each family illustrating a certain aspect of the middle voice:
First, “the kingdom of heaven” belongs to the “poor in spirit” and those “who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”. Whether you understand “poor in spirit” as economic poverty or personal humility, this is not a trait often associated with the possession of a kingdom. Rather, wealth, or at least arrogance, is thought to be the gateway to political power.
How about the victims of persecution? By definition, these are folks who lack political power. Then there are the meek. They will inherit the land. Not the ambitious, not the workaholic, not the greedy, not the ruthless, but the meek!
Power relationships have been reversed. Every few millennia, the earth’s polarity reverses (south becomes north and north, south). Just this year, scientists in China claim to have detected a reversal in the rotation of the earth’s core. Likewise, the Beatitudes!
From our perspective, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a sort of ‘anti-kingdom’. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass, where walking towards something puts you further away from it, while walking away from something brings you closer to it.
Second, mercy is shown to those who are merciful. This beatitude builds on the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses.” Today, in the language of the streets, we’d say, “What goes around comes around!” In Eastern spirituality, it’s called ‘karma’. According to middle voice consciousness, whatever you do to or for another is automatically and simultaneously done to or for you.
This is not a matter of reward and punishment. It is an unshakable characteristic of middle voice ontology: any activity (e.g. being merciful) is always and immediately bidirectional. “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” All action radiates outward toward another and inward toward the self.
Those who mourn experience a variation of this. Mourning acknowledges loss and opens us up to experience that loss. It is through being open to the experience of loss that comforting takes place.
Another staple of middle voice consciousness: need is the mother of satisfaction. “Give us this day our daily (necessary) bread.”
Third, the remaining beatitudes concern our relation to God. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. God hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Our own hunger and thirst conform our minds to the mind of God. God is also the fullness of all things. So to the extent that we conform our minds to God’s, we are hungry, but we are also satisfied.
That is why we pray the Psalms: to conform our minds to God’s, to internalize his values. In doing so, we own our hunger and recognize its satisfaction in God. The human ‘heart’ (not the organ) is the seat of love and a window onto God. It is through our love that we connect with God who is Love. A clean heart allows us a clear view of the Divinity.
In middle-voice ontology, the relationship between subject and object is no longer mediated by action. Instead, the relationship is primary; actions flow from that relationship – they do not constitute the relationship. To surrender power and status is to purify the heart…and so to see God.
Finally, the peacemakers! In relation to the world, God has two primary functions. First, he is the source of the values that stimulate creativity and motivate events. Second, he is Peacemaker-in-Chief; he is the harmony (peace) that guarantees the eternal preservation (salvation/redemption) of those events.
To the extent that any of us makes peace in our world, we do the work of God (opus dei). But who does the work of God? His children, of course! We carry on his work: “God & Daughters Construction Co., Inc.” As peacemakers, as God’s children, we are extensions of God into the historical world. We build on a foundation of Incarnation, Eucharist, and Pentecost.
The ‘mind of God’ is the ultimate example of middle voice consciousness. To the extent that we adopt a middle voiced view of the world we conform our minds to God’s; and to the extent that we conform our minds to God’s, we both see and act in terms of reciprocity.
So Jesus’ ministry and the New Testament record of that ministry can be seen as an effort to change the way people view the world…or at least to give folks an alternative. The eight beatitudes are a manifesto for change, a change in the way we understand the world, a change in the way we behave in that world, a change in the way we act toward one another.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.