Background behind the Eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus Christ gave us the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, recorded for all posterity in the Gospel of Matthew, the first Book of the New Testament of the Bible. Jesus offers us a way of life that promises eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The teachings of Christ Jesus were simple but unique and innovative at the time of his life on earth. He began teaching about 30 AD in the time of the ruthless Roman occupation of Palestine. The four groups in the Jewish religion, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots, presented a different viewpoint to the Jewish people. The Pharisees and to some degree the Sadducees demanded strict observance of the Mosaic law as well as Jewish customs and rituals. Nazareth was in Galilee, an important center of the Zealots, a militant Jewish group who wanted freedom for their homeland. The Essenes awaited a Messiah that would establish a Kingdom on earth and free the Israelites from oppression.

The Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, relates a series of “Thou shalt nots,” evils one must avoid in daily life on earth.

In contrast, the message of Jesus was one of humility, charity, and brotherly love. He taught transformation of the inner person. Jesus presents the Beatitudes in a positive sense, virtues in life which will ultimately lead to reward. Love becomes the motivation for the Christian. All of the Beatitudes have an eschatological meaning, that is, they promise us salvation – not in this world, but in the next. The Beatitudes initiate one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel, that the Kingdom so long awaited in the Old Testament is not of this world, but of the next, the Kingdom of Heaven.

One of the first contemplations on the Beatitudes came from St. Gregory of Nyssa, a mystic who lived in Cappadocia in Asia Minor around 380 AD. He described the Beatitudes this way:
“Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good,
from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.
Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us
if it is compared with its opposite.
Now the opposite of beatitude is misery.
Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings.”

St. Augustine called the Beatitudes the ideal for every Christian life!

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