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Beatitudes: The New Testament Decalogue
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present meditation is on the beatitudes: the New Testament Decalogue. In the history of Christian spirituality the eight beatitudes have been regularly associated with the Ten Commandments. Saints and scholars have analyzed the Decalogue in contrast with the beatitudes. By now there are many learned and useful writings on the subject-- volumes in fact.
Our focus in this meditation is more specific. We ask ourselves: How are the beatitudes given to us by Christ a compendium of what we may call the New Testament Decalogue? Keep in mind that Jesus insisted that He had not come to abolish the law of the prophets, on the contrary He came to fulfill. We ask ourselves how are the beatitudes the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments?
To be noted is that Christ gave the beatitudes to His own disciples selectively. They in turn having received the beatitudes were to teach them to others. This is exactly what Yahweh did on Mt. Sinai. He chose Moses the leader of the chosen people who in turn was to give the tablets of the law to the Jews.
Similarity Between the Decalogue and the Beatitudes
First I would like to have us reflect on the similarity between the Decalogue and the beatitudes. Both the commandments and the beatitudes were given to us by God therefore they are not constructs of human reason. They are divinely revealed manifestations of the will of God. As we know over the centuries indeed, from the dawn of human history God has given what we call revelation to the human race. Therefore two reasons-- to reveal to us who He is and to reveal to us what He wants. Both the Decalogue and the beatitudes are divine revelations of what God wants.
Secondly both the commandments and the beatitudes are enunciated indeed enumerated God is the great mathematician. God counts things all the number of numbers revealed in the Bible three of this seven of that forty of something else and twelve of something still else. And here ten of one and eight of the other-- in other words both the commandments and the beatitudes have a specific number of directives. That is crucial. Numbering things distinguishes one thing from another and the essence of clarity is distinctiveness. God wanted to be clear, very clear when He gave Moses the Decalogue. Christ wanted to be very clear and in fact so clear that He began each beatitude with well, with only one correct translation (Blessed are they who).
Third both the commandments and the beatitudes are specific. They are not generic directives like do good and avoid evil. Thanks Lord. What good should I do- what evil must I avoid? God is never generic.
Fourth both the commandments and the beatitudes were given to the chosen people. The Jews of the Old Testament and the Christians in the New Testament. Needless to say neither all the Jews of the Old Testament nor all the Christians of the New Testament appreciate God's well, selectively choosing certain people. Thanks Lord, Thanks!
Fifth, both the commandments and the beatitudes synthesize the essential expectations by God of the two chosen people. And finally both the commandments and the beatitudes are imperatives. They are not ten suggestions or even ten options. They are Ten Commandments. No doubt we commonly speak of the Decalogue as the Ten Commandments and call the eight promises of happiness the beatitudes. But the beatitudes no less than the commandments are preceptive. On whom? On the people of God before Christ and on the people of God after Christ. So much for the similarity.
Now the differences.
Differences Between the Decalogue and the Beatitudes
In the Ten Commandments it was Moses the prophet who received the Decalogue from Yahweh and remember the thunder the lightening the celestial phenomena put on by God to impress the Jewish people of what was happening on the mountain between Moses and Yahweh. The beatitudes however were given by no prophet. They were given by God Himself who became man. There was no human person as intermediary. It was God Himself who gave us the beatitudes. As Saint Paul says in the opening verses of his letter to the Hebrews. That is how it opens up and listen to the Hebrews. Says Paul, God in certain times and in diverse manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets. Last of all in these days He has spoken to us by His Son. Unquote Saint Paul.
What a difference, Christ Himself, the Incarnation of the beatitudes. He personally gave us the beatitudes and remember through those who in turn believing and living the beatitudes would pass them on to others. Get those two words believing in and living the beatitudes. Nobody else is able to do it. You might believe and you must put your faith into practice and then ten-thousand ears can be opened to listen to what you are saying but not a single heart will be opened to live what you are telling them unless you yourself believe and live what you are preaching to others. And nobody cheats here.
We go on, remember reflecting on the differences. Moreover Christ lived the beatitudes. Unlike the precepts of the Old Testament which were directed to human beings who could sin we can not say, we dare not say that God Himself lived the Ten Commandments. It doesn't make sense. God can not sin. God became man when then He gave us the beatitudes. It was what He Himself was living, He who could not sin. There is a profound sense in which we can say the beatitudes build on the commandments, the beatitudes presume the observance of the commandments.
We go on again contrasting the beatitudes with the Decalogue. The beatitudes were given to the human race which was about to be redeemed by the passion and death of Christ. The Commandments were given centuries before the actual redemption. Thus the beatitudes built and build on the treasury of graces, which Christ had to win for the human family by His own death on Calvary. If I were to distinguish between what we call theologically, evangelical precepts and evangelical councils, I would say evangelical precepts are the Ten Commandments elevated indeed and sublimated by Christ Himself. But they are still the Ten Commandments binding under pain of sin. Where as the beatitudes belong theologically speaking, to the evangelical councils. One of the great statements of the Second Vatican Council was to define religious life as a lifetime commitment to living the beatitudes. We need that. In other words a lifetime self-commitment under the impulse of divine grace to go beyond what we are commanded under pain of sin where the motive is no longer as it should be, the fear of God's punishments, but rather a deep love for the God who became man out of love for me, who lived the beatitudes and dare I say and died because He practiced the beatitudes.
We continue. Remember we are reflecting on the differences. The beatitudes therefore are expectations that Christ could make to those promises if you wish, who believe in Him for which the human race was not prepared when Moses first received the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai.
God is not unjust and neither places demands nor makes expectations of people unless and should I add, until they have the means for living up to God's demands and expectations. In the Old Testament at the time of Moses, the then chosen people did not have the means of living up to but centuries later God had to become man to provide the means of living up to what we now casually call the beatitudes.
We're still on the differences. The beatitudes are specific covenants as you may call them, between Christ and His followers. He promises happiness on eight different conditions provided we fulfill these conditions our happiness is assured. Christianity is all about happiness. That's the New Covenant. Christ promises happiness but not on these worldly terms. Thus we are comparing the Commandments with the beatitudes. The happiness promised in the beatitudes is supernatural in five ways. It's happiness all right but it is supernatural happiness, super earthly happiness, superhuman happiness, superhumanly possible happiness.
Supernatural Happiness Promised in the Beatitudes
How first? It is supernatural and underline supernatural happiness because it was revealed as eight mysteries of our faith. Of course the Trinity is a mystery, of course the Incarnation is a strict mystery. Surely the Real Presence is a mystery. They are mysteries for the mind. Oh, but they are also mysteries for the will the mind believing that provided we fulfill our part of Christ's covenant we will receive a happiness that surpasses all rational comprehension. It just does not make Aristotelian or Platonic sense to say happy are they who mourn. It doesnt make sense humanly speaking I have to use the language it's nonsense.
We go on. The happiness that Christ promises in the beatitudes is supernatural because the beatitudes require superhuman light and strength to observe. We can read the beatitudes. You can read it all and if you are a learned theologian you can even explain them or write books about the beatitudes.
But you will never experience the happiness unless you have had access to that supernatural light and strength, in other words, divine grace. And therefore the beatitudes are just impossible without getting the grace in the three basic ways that we get grace.
How do we get grace? By praying for grace, by receiving the sacraments and in many ways the hardest by cooperating with graces we've received. I pray for the graces I need tomorrow and I sure need them but God is giving me graces today and I ignore them. Sorry my dear sorry, I was going to give you those graces tomorrow provided you would cooperate with the graces I gave you today.
How then is the happiness supernatural promised in the beatitudes? Because the happiness they promise is not the happiness that comes either from nature or is experienced in our nature. There is an ocean of theology behind that statement. We have desires and desires from the most sublime to the lowest. And all happiness my prior definition is the satisfaction of one's desire. But the beatitudes do not promise the satisfaction, to say the least, of all our desires indeed they do not even promise the satisfaction of our natural desires as legitimate as they can be.
In other words the joy assured from living the beatitudes comes directly from God and is to be experienced in the soul indeed even to the body but in a person who is animated by the grace of God.
We continue. The happiness promised from the beatitudes is supernatural because it will not be fully satisfied here on earth but only in eternity.
And just for the record, to live out the beatitudes does give us the promise of happiness already on earth, but that happiness here on earth is mainly the happiness of hope. The happiness of the confident desire that everything God promised He will give us. To use a very homely comparison. The joy that students, how well I know, have anticipating a holiday. They are happy long before the holiday, just thinking, dreaming, about what that holiday will give them. But this is no dream.
Finally the happiness assured us by the beatitudes is supernatural because it is conjoined with opposition and persecution from a world that does not accept Christ. Whatever else the beatitudes should teach us, it is that two words, by divine revelation belong together and they are joy and pain. That pain and joy are not incompatible. I can experience the pain especially say of abandonment or rejection or open opposition from those who do not believe in Christ and yet and listen and Christ saved the hardest beatitude for last. Blessed are you when people persecute you, calumniate you, say all manner of evil against you for my sake. And the Greek allows us to say, rejoice and dance for joy because your reward in heaven is great. I'm not finished.
Law and Love
A law and love. If we were to give a name to the Decalogue in one word it would be law. If we were to give a name in one word to the beatitudes we could say love. However we better be sure that these two, law and love are seen as not only not incompatible, on the contrary, the one is an expression of the other. What the beatitudes do therefore is to bring out what is only implied in the Ten Commandments. What is it? That the laws of God are so many manifestations of His love. We commonly but I would say incorrectly think of a commandment as something we do not like to do but ordered to obey under penalty of suffering if we disobey. I've seen it. A mother tells her boy to do something. He stands up, "do I have to do it?" "Yes, Johnny" as I've heard more than once from my mother, "you have to do it." The beatitudes on the other hand are so many divine assurances of happiness from a loving God. Certainly we have to cooperate with his will. Yes, we must submit our selfish desires for what we want to His all-wise demands corresponding to what we really need. But as beatitudes they are not so much demands or commands as loving invitations from I repeat, a loving God. God gains nothing from our doing His will, nothing. All the gain is ours. To love someone is to share what I have with the one I claim to love. In the beatitudes Christ is giving us a share in His own divine happiness both here and hereafter. All we have to do is follow His example. Everyone wants to be happy the universal desire of the human heart. Yet so many people are not only unhappy but sad, discouraged, despairing. Shall we call them civilized countries? There are countries that now legalize suicide. And our nation is pushing, shoving, and the one state being mainly used is Michigan to legalize suicide. Why? So many people are unhappy. As the pagan philosopher Seneca wrote, the greatest freedom that man has is the freedom to take his own life. Thanks Seneca, thanks. Back to our subject. Everyone wants to be happy yet so many people are unhappy. It cannot be because they do not want happiness. It can only be either because they do not know how to be truly happy or they may know all right but they are unwilling to pay the price. There is no greater lesson we can learn ourselves or teach others, none than the lesson we have learned ourselves. The happiness promised us by Christ in the beatitudes is the joy of doing the will of God. This is the only true joy here on earth as it is the only true promise of perfect joy in the world to come. If I were to identify false joy, the joy promised us by the world it is the happiness that comes from doing your own will. And conversely true joy taught by Christ and enshrined in the beatitudes comes only and in the measure that we are doing the will of God.
I would like to end with a short prayer. Lord Jesus, you want us to have a foretaste of heaven here on earth. Protect us from the folly of thinking we shall be happy in doing our own will. Teach us to believe, really believe what you said, abide in my love. If you keep my commandment you will abide in my love as I also have kept my Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be made full. Amen.
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