Since God has revealed himself uniquely and fully in Jesus, the way to know God is by following Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1–3). Hans Denck, a radical reformer of the sixteenth century, said, “No one can truly know Christ unless he follow him in his life,”1 a conviction that the heirs of the Anabaptist movement continue to hold. Therefore, following Jesus concretely is, without doubt, the most fundamental element of a truly authentic Christian spirituality.
Segundo Galilea, a leading Chilean theologian of the past generation, has expressed it this way:
The originality and the authenticity of Christian spirituality consists in following a God who has taken on our human condition; who had a history like ours; who has lived our experiences; who made choices; who dedicated himself to a cause for which he had to suffer; who experienced successes, joys, and failures; and who yielded his life. This man, Jesus of Nazareth, is like us in every way except that he was without sin. In Jesus, all the fullness of God dwelt; so he is the only model for our life, as humans and as Christians.2
Lamentably, Christians have not traditionally thought about spirituality in these terms. Catholic spirituality, as well as that of classical Protestantism, has generally thought of the divine nature of Jesus as the Final Judge to be worshipped or as a sacrifice to appease divine wrath – but only rarely as a Lord to be followed in daily life. This has contributed to the emergence of a highly inward, abstract, and otherworldly spirituality.
When we remember that there have been more martyrs in our lifetime than in any other period of Christian history we recognize the contemporary relevance of the Beatitudes.
Yet according to the vision of the New Testament, the words, deeds, ideals, and commandments of Jesus of Nazareth offer the only path to a knowledge of God (John 14:5–11). Jesus has revealed the true nature of God to us – all-powerful precisely in his longsuffering love and compassion. In Jesus we discover the qualities of God’s reign and the model for our lives. This is not a legalistic or slavish imitation – wearing sandals, for example, or working as a carpenter, or remaining celibate – but rather following him by adopting his attitudes, his Spirit, his values, and his way of being and actions in the world. True Christian spirituality will focus especially on the manner in which we embrace the attitudes, the Spirit, the deeds and words of Jesus in the concrete expressions of discipleship in daily life.
One of the best summaries we have of a spirituality that reflects the reign of God, inaugurated by Jesus, is found in the Beatitudes as recorded in Matthew 5. As a synthesis of the entire Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes capture the qualities that Jesus taught and modeled. Unfortunately, in the centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection, the church has tended to assign a utopian character to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount so that they came to be understood as “counsels of perfection,” appropriate only for a small minority, like those in religious orders, who take the Christian life extremely seriously.
The early church of the first century, however, used the Beatitudes to instruct new disciples. They clearly must have expected that these qualities would characterize the lives of all believers. And the way in which the Beatitudes summarize the spirituality reflected throughout the entire New Testament indicates that they were never intended as unrealistic ideals.
To follow Jesus is not a purely spiritual matter.
To be sure, the Beatitudes are truly prophetic in their character. As such, there will always be tension between the spirituality that they reflect and the level of understanding and practice achieved in the Christian community. We need to be honest – these values clash with our human tendencies. There is an element of scandal in the gospel with its understandings of mercy and forgiveness, non- violence, sexual chastity, and spiritual poverty. This should not surprise us, because these are the values that characterize the kingdom of God, and they are possible only thanks to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The Beatitudes summarize the blessedness of life under God’s rule. Foundational for the spirituality of the messianic community, they assume a shared life within the community of God’s reign rather than heroic efforts to live them out as solitary individuals. The spirituality of the Beatitudes is “good news” in the fundamental sense of the word evangelium – the full-orbed good news of social, political, and economic well-being. The eight beatitudes listed in Matthew 5 are therefore not merely isolated spiritual virtues offered to disciples of Jesus as options to be chosen or disregarded according to personal preferences. Rather, they describe a truly messianic spirituality in a global sense. All of them, taken together, describe a fully integrated spirituality that characterizes life under the reign of God.
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit ...” A posture of spiritual poverty is fundamental to all Christian spirituality. Spiritual poverty consists of freely assuming the spiritual condition of being a child in the family of the Father. It is both the attitude and the practice of absolute dependence on God, trusting in God’s providence as well as God’s protection. It is that intimate relationship of utter confidence in God that Jesus himself demonstrated so clearly when he dared to call God Abba and taught his disciples to do the same.
But the Gospels do not permit an abstract or spiritualized understanding of this poverty. Sharing life together in the new community of the Messiah and living in radical dependence on God’s providence cuts off all of our idolatrous and materialistic attitudes and practices at their very roots. “Choosing to be poor” (as the translation of the Nueva Biblia Española reads) in a world oriented in the opposite direction implies solidarity with Jesus – with the spirit and practice of poverty that he assumed freely and concretely in his mission in the world.
2. “ Blessed are those who mourn ...” Living out the values of God’s reign in the midst of the world necessarily assumes solidarity with human suffering. It involves living in sympathy (literally, “to suffer together with”) with those who suffer – indeed, freely assuming suffering on behalf of others. This innocent and vicarious suffering is absolutely central to an authentic Christian spirituality.
The Old Testament prophets spoke of the saving virtue that is found in innocent suffering freely assumed on behalf of others. But in Jesus we encounter the fullest expression of this reality. Our identification with Christ and our solidarity with fellow humans who suffer from all the various consequences of evil in the world calls us to take up the cross, even on behalf of our oppressors, with full confidence in what the resurrection of Jesus Christ promises to us – namely, that our innocent suffering for the sake of others will not be lost in God’s salvific plan to restore creation.
3. “Blessed are the meek ...” The meekness of the third beatitude is intimately related to the poverty of spirit noted in the first beatitude. It includes the inner strength that enables us to steadfastly resist the pressures of sin without yielding to its claims. It is the capacity to stubbornly resist evil without doing violence to the evildoer. This kind of meekness is rooted solidly on our hope and confidence in God. The meek person is one who truly believes that evil can be overcome with good. It calls us to reject the temptation to avenge ourselves with any form of violence or retaliation – to renounce all violence in the quest for justice and to struggle against evil with “clean hands” and a “pure heart.” Far from being an ineffective strategy, this is, in fact, the strategy of the cross, uniquely and powerfully incarnated by Jesus of Nazareth.
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ...” Biblical justice consists of healthy relationships with God and with our fellow human beings in the context of a community that is absolutely dependent on the saving actions of God, both for its life together and for its very survival. Biblical justice includes the full range of interpersonal relationships and is anchored in the faithfulness of God reflected in the common life of the human community that bears his name. This justice is visible only in the context of God’s righteous (or just) reign.
Biblical justice, in contrast with what is generally called retributive justice, consists in giving people what they need rather than what they may deserve, be that reward or punishment. For this reason, we read over and over again in Scripture about God’s justice for the widows and orphans, for the stranger in the land, and for the poor and oppressed. Authentic Christian spirituality expresses itself through our participation in the saving activity of God that leads to the restoration of just relationships among humans. It is within this community of salvation that the “hunger and thirst for righteousness” – just relationships among all – will be satisfied.
5. “ Blessed are the merciful ...” It is in showing mercy that we become most like God. The story of the Good Samaritan provides us with a clear and concrete example of a spirituality characterized by mercy. To the degree that we are able to show mercy we will be in a condition to receive God’s mercy for ourselves.
Mercy in the Gospels means, first of all, to forgive wholeheartedly in the same way that God forgives us (Matt. 18:35). In the second place, to be merciful is to unselfishly come to the aid of the afflicted and the needy. The limits of this mercy are not found in the one who extends acts of mercy, but in the capacity of the “neighbor” to receive mercy. What Jesus has taught us about the nature of mercy simply underscores the fact that a true Christian spirituality is characterized by our willingness to freely heap forgiveness upon our enemies and to share lavishly with the needy.
6. “Blessed are the pure in heart ...” The “purity of heart” evident in all authentic Christian spirituality can probably be best understood in light of Psalm 24:3–5:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? ... 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.
This purity of heart expresses itself in acts of integrity and in relationships characterized by faithfulness. Biblical spirituality is characterized by a close relationship between our inner attitudes (“purity of heart”) and our external practices (“clean hands”). To know and to experience God is to obey and accompany God in his salvific actions, without divided loyalties.
7. “ Blessed are the peacemakers ...” Those who work for peace are children of God, especially in the sense that in doing so they are like their Father, who is the Peacemaker, par excellence. The God of the Bible does not rest in his efforts to restore wholeness, or shalom, to all areas of brokenness in creation. Jesus was fully committed to the restoration of peace – reconciliation with enemies occupied his attention throughout his lifetime as well as in his death. Activities oriented toward the restoration of shalom will characterize all authentically Christian spiritualties.
8. “ Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...” The Beatitudes conclude with the innocent suffering of God’s people. The spirituality that they reflect was countercultural, then as well as now. Persecution for faithfulness to God’s reign of justice and peace was the lot of the prophets, it marked the fate of Jesus, and it continues to characterize the community faithful to its messianic calling. Biblically speaking, witness and martyrdom go hand in hand (marturía is the Greek word for witness).
When we remember that there have been more martyrs in our lifetime than in any other period of Christian history we recognize the contemporary relevance of the Beatitudes and their importance for our understanding and practice of authentic spirituality. This is true for the entire church, not merely for the church in the global south. The powers of death – arrayed as they are against God and his intention for the restoration of justice, peace, salvation, and life in our world – remind us that the spirituality of God’s people is inherently countercultural.
The spirituality of the Beatitudes is not an unattainable ideal, but rather a realistic and visible reflection of the Spirit and the words and the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. The Beatitudes express the central values that characterized the life of the messianic community of the first century.
To follow Jesus is not a purely spiritual matter in the sense of being an inner or invisible reality in the life of the disciple. Rather, discipleship is a visible and concrete reality that expresses itself through the attitudes and actions described in the Beatitudes.
- Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 87.
- Galilea, El camino de la espiritualidad, 59.