Once upon a time there was a TV preacher who proclaimed the Prosperity Gospel: Commit your life to Christ and you will be blessed with good health, wealth and a happy home life.
Perhaps there is a grain of truth in that message. Churchgoing Christians do, on average, have more stable marriages and are more successful in their work lives. If your belief system tells you not to live a life of dissipation through booze, gambling and wild women (or men), chances are you will preserve your money, health and marriage.
The TV preacher, however, went into bankruptcy. If the Prosperity Gospel were true and if the preacher really was faithful to Jesus, how could he possibly end up bankrupt?
The truth is that Jesus does not promise prosperity; he promises the cross. Remember Jesus' words: "Do not suppose that it is peace that I have come to bring to the world. It is not peace I have come to bring, but the sword" (Matthew 10.34).
It is supercilious nonsense to refer to the Beatitudes as the "Be Happy Attitudes." As we have seen over the past nine weeks, the Beatitudes call for a searing self-examination. They challenge our grandiose expectations for our lives at the same time as they challenge us to put aside our fears.
It is by carrying the cross with Jesus that we learn to walk the way of the Beatitudes.
Reflect seriously on the Beatitudes and you will see life in a new perspective. That perspective will not be in terms of getting what is best for me; it will be in terms of how my life can model the life of Jesus.
Jesus went beyond being generous with his time, talent and treasure; he lay down his life for his friends. He did not do what he wanted to do; he did the will of the Father.
The one who is committed to doing the Father's will is bound to be humble. Such a person will strive to live up to the commitments he or she has made and be less concerned about actualizing their personal potential. God has given each of us a great vocation; it is not our destiny to also carry out the vocations he has given to other people. Life is limited.
Such limits, however, are not constricting. They call us to go deeper rather than wider. In that commitment to stability and depth, one finds eternal life. Eternal life is lived in this moment more than all the moments in the future for which one might be scheming.
Pope Benedict, in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, says the Beatitudes are not a theory. They are "proclaimed in the life and suffering, and in the mysterious joy of the disciple who gives himself over completely to following the Lord" (p. 73-74). The Beatitudes are fully realized when we can say with St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2.20).
The Beatitudes, unlike the Commandments, are blessings. They are something more than the natural law; they contain promises. In them, Jesus promises us the kingdom of heaven, comfort, mercy and that we shall see God.
These promises do not take the form, "Do this and someday you will get that." Rather, it is in living the beatitude that the promise is fulfilled. At the moment in which you are a peacemaker, for example, you are also a child of God. It is when you are poor in spirit or persecuted for the sake of righteousness that you are also abiding in the kingdom of heaven.
It is often said that Christ's teachings, especially the Beatitudes, turn our secular expectations upside down. This is true, but perhaps it is said so often that we have lost our ability to hear it.
Can we really rejoice and be glad "when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account" (Matthew 5.11)? I know that I cannot do this. On a good day, I can put up with it. But I do not ever rejoice at being abused and at having people say a bunch of garbage about me.
Yet this is our call. With God's grace and ongoing intensive critical self-examination, one can move in that direction. The Father shows us his will. Jesus sets the example for carrying out that will. The Holy Spirit gives the grace.
In striving to live the Beatitudes, we will become more like Christ. We will be blessed, not with a superficial happiness, but with God's eternal life.