Do I Want to be “Makarios”?
by Marie Notcheva
Practically speaking, the fifth chapter of Matthew is one of the most difficult in the Bible. While the theology behind the Beatitudes and Christ’s instruction on how His followers are to conduct themselves is not difficult to grasp, the unattainable standard of holiness He sets forth in this passage has endless implications to the Christian’s personal life – as well as discipleship in the counseling room.
The Beatitudes are counter-intuitive, because some of the states of being Jesus is calling “blessed” we would instinctively avoid. We might be ok with being gentle; and we certainly like to think of ourselves as hungering for righteousness, but mourning? Being persecuted, or slandered? Poor in spirit? What’s “blessed” about that?
The word used for “blessed”, makarios, does not mean “blissfully happy or contented.” Also used seven times in Revelation, (and twice to describe God in 1 Timothy), Jesus is after something much more than temporal warm, fuzzy feelings here. Makarios , from the root mak (large or lengthy), and denotes “the nature of that which is the highest good” (Vine’s Concise Bible Dictionary) and referred in Greek both to the state of the gods, or later, to the upper crust (elite) of society who had achieved material blessing presumably by upright living.
Now, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. He reverses our understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. The elite in God’s kingdom, the “makarios”, are those at the bottom.
Is this what we want when we sign on as Christians?
The Blessing of Humility
Throughout the Gospels, Christ makes the cost of discipleship clear. However, Matthew 5 is a concise glimpse not so much at entrance requirements for outsiders; but a declaration of a present reality – what already characterizes the true Christ-follower. Each of the beatitudes is characterized by a type of humility. Perhaps Jesus’ opening statement, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is the most intriguing – what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Why would I want to be poor in spirit? What is He getting at here?
Spiritual poverty, like material, is characterized by a lack – not having something. Someone who is truly poor, like the beggar of Luke 16, is utterly incapable of helping himself and is awaiting crumbs. Spiritually bankrupt and without anything to offer before our Creator, God values those who seek Him realizing they have nothing of their own merits to offer. Being “poor is spirit” means being able to sincerely say, like the Pharisee of Luke 18, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is the opposite of resting in one’s spiritual pedigree, good works, or ministry accomplishments.
It is the beginning of the understanding of grace.
When beginning discipleship with a new believer, or counseling for a specific issue with a more mature Christian, this is a good starting point. Most of Matthew 18 (and Christ’s instruction to His followers generally) hangs on this first statement – recognizing our own spiritual poverty and brokenness is the beginning of a relationship with God.
The question we need to wrestle through then becomes, “Is this something that I really want?” The problem is, if we are honest, we want some of the glory for ourselves. Of course, we want to be counted as Christians; but how do we really react when mourning – does it challenge our faith, or do we count ourselves ‘blessed’ to have the God of all Comfort on our side?
Checking our Reactions in Persecution: Our Hearts in Anger
After demonstrating His priority on humility in the first part of the chapter, Jesus turns His attention to interpersonal relationships. This is where meekness and Christ-like humility is truly put to the test – it is easy, after all, to be meek, humble or gentle if living on a desert island (or in a convent). But in the messy world of jealousies, rivalries and petty gossip, can we really “rejoice” for being persecuted? Or, if provoked to anger, are we able to see that as seriously as murder? Christ is after heart attitudes here, demonstrating that anger and lust are as serious before God as their logical conclusions (murder and adultery).
What’s so difficult about this chapter is that no one is capable of living up to this standard – apart from Christ Himself. It continually reminds us that our thoughts are as loud in heaven as our shouts, and that God expects our responses to be rooted in humility. Often, people are suffering because of someone else’s sin. When someone continues to hurt us without remorse, it is almost impossible not to want to strike back. This is a good starting point in counseling (including counseling ourselves) to deal with the sting of betrayal or being slandered.
Praying for those who persecute us and loving our enemies is the hardest thing Christ has ever called us to do, but He declares it our greatest good. This is His definition of what it means to be blessed, although it is an intangible and often unappreciated blessing to us in this world. Taking a close look at how God defines blessedness (versus the short-sighted way we often see it) will help us and our counselees redefine our priorities and gain the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).