By Dan Ebener
For the past two to three years, I have been focused on the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). Since writing a book on the beatitudes and leadership last year, I have been speaking at conferences and leading retreats around the country. In most cases, there have been opportunities to engage people in dialogue about applying the beatitudes to life, ministry and leadership.
So imagine my delight when I read these words of Pope Francis from his message to some 30,000 Argentine delegates to World Youth Day:
“Look, read the beatitudes: that will do you good. If you want to know exactly what to do, read Matthew 25, which is the standard by which we will be judged. With these two things, you have the action plan: the beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else. I ask you this with all my heart.”
When we place the beatitudes into the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we can see why the pope connected the beatitudes – the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount – to Matthew 25 – the story of the Final Judgment.
The beatitudes describe the inward journey of Christian discipleship: To be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure of heart, peace-loving and persecuted – are qualities of the righteous. They are signs of the kingdom. The beatitudes provide a list of eight qualities for those who aspire to the kingdom of God.
The beatitudes start with the idea of placing our complete confidence in God (poverty of spirit). They conclude with the lesson that those who live and lead by these beatitudes are likely to be criticized, ridiculed or even persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The outcome of the first and last beatitude is the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 and 5:10).
In Matthew 25:31-46, we hear the only description by Jesus of the Final Judgment. This story describes the outward journey of Christian discipleship: To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned are the actions of the righteous. They are the keys to the kingdom. This story provides a list of six works of mercy for those who aspire to the kingdom of God.
Initially, Jesus describes those who perform the works of mercy as “the sheep” who are “on his right” (Matthew 25:32, 33 and 34). Later in the story, Jesus describes them as “the righteous” (Matthew 25:37 and 46). This word “righteous” is a rich and significant term that goes to the heart of the two Scriptural passages the pope is asking us to read.
Have you ever wondered why we say, “It is right and just” in the Offertory Prayer of the Mass? It is interesting because dictionaries often use the word “right” to define “just” and vice versa.
I would suggest that to be right and just is to be righteous. To be righteous means to be “right with God” and “just with the people.”
The beatitudes provide a road map to reflect on the inward journey of the righteous. The story of the Final Judgment provides the keys to the outward journey of the righteous. In both of these Scriptural passages, it is the righteous who are the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.
It has been a gift these past few years to focus on the beatitudes – and to place them into the context of the Gospel of Matthew. I was happy to see Pope Francis elevate them in his comments in Brazil. I couldn’t agree more that these two readings from Matthew provide a call to action for ourselves and our Church.
(Dan R. Ebener is author of “Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes.” See www.blessingsforleaders.com.)