From Virtue to Blessing
Raising his eyes toward his disciples Jesus said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.
There are four statements of blessing in this passage, four beatitudes we might say. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who are weeping, and those who are hated on account of the Son of Man (a.k.a. Jesus). Now, we can take all of these statements at face-value, and there would be nothing wrong or inaccurate to do so. We can also look beneath the surface and see something even more powerful. St. Ambrose, one of the great saints in the history of the Church, does just that. He compares these four blessings to what we call the Cardinal Virtues, namely temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude. Let’s take a look:
Blessed are you who are poor… Why are they poor? This could mean the kind of poverty that immediately comes to mind, which is material poverty. Yet even those who are materially poor sometimes cling to the little bit that they have. So there must be more to the story. Jesus here is talking about those who choose to be poor, or who choose to have less, for the sake of Heaven. For this blessing, we can look to the virtue of temperance, which is simply defined as moderation or self-restraint. Those who are temperate know how to say, “I’ve had enough _____ right now,” or “I don’t need any ______ right now, even though it seems pleasing to me.” The “poor” in this blessing are temperate because they are shunning vanity and excessive pleasure for the sake of Heaven. Their poverty is a sign of their discipleship. Am I choosing poverty in any way for the sake of Heaven?
Blessed are you who are now hungry… Again, it seems there has to be more here than only lack of food to eat, for the same reasons as before. Jesus is talking about those who choose to be hungry. For this blessing, we can look to the virtue of justice, which is simply defined as the use of power to ensure each receives what is his/her due. The just person recognizes when others do not have something they ought to have – especially food and water – and then finds a way to help them get it. In this example, the “hungry” are exercising justice because they have given some of their own food to those who have none, since everyone ought to have enough food. They have made a sacrifice for their brothers and sisters in need! Have I given anything to my brothers and sisters in need?
Blessed are you who are now weeping… This weeping isn’t the result of any normal sorrow. No, this sorrow comes from looking at the world – perhaps even my own life – and seeing people turn away from the straight and narrow path. This blessing looks to the virtue of prudence, which is considered right judgment. When I exercise prudence, I am able to distinguish between those things and actions that will lead me closer to Heaven and those that will lead me further away from Heaven. Those who are weeping are weeping because they see so many people choosing things and actions that lead them away from eternal life with God. They are lamenting the vanities of the world, while keeping their own eyes fixed on eternal life. How often do I consider eternal life? Do I ever feel sorrow because of the vanities of the world?
Blessed are you when people hate you…on account of the Son of Man. As Christians, we have a duty to live holy and virtuous lives, but it doesn’t end with that. We also have a duty to tell people about Jesus and invite them into a living relationship with him. Obviously, not everyone is going to receive my words of preaching with gratitude and joy. In fact, many will outright reject the name of Jesus, and so will reject us. How do we respond? Hopefully, we respond with the virtue of fortitude, which is defined as courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Those who have the virtue of fortitude will persevere in their evangelical efforts no matter the results they get. Even when the world rejects the name of Jesus, the courageous disciple will continue to announce to all those s/he encounters that s/he is a disciple of Jesus Christ. These people are hated, excluded, insulted, and denounced because they have persevered in their efforts to bring Jesus Christ into every corner of the world…and they will be blessed for it. Do I ever tell people about my relationship with Jesus? Do I ever tell them that they, too, can have a relationship with him?
There we have it: four blessings, four virtues. Let’s strive to live blessed lives.