It’s very easy to read the Beatitudes and assign it meaning more aligned with how we see the world, than what Jesus originally meant. We tend to read Jesus through our cultural biases, socio-economic contexts, through our genders, our assumptions, and our doubts.
Also, it’s not just the beginning of a new year, but also the beginning of a new decade. These beginnings are the best times to refocus our priorities, question our questions, and critique the answers we’ve settled on.
Know that God guides us forward into faith, as a Father who loves his children. He encourages us forward even when it is uncomfortable and we can’t bear to hear it.
God continually asks to expand our horizons, to join him in the wide open spaces of his kingdom at work in the here now. He ever asks us to question our deeply-held assumptions and to let his kingdom continually disrupt our lives.
The two questions we should ask ourselves as we walk through this verse are: (1) What are the implications for us personally and as a community? (2) How might we let these implications transform us?
The Pure In Heart
When we read “Blessed are the pure in heart”, we read heart with western sensibilities. In our culture we regard the mind as the intellectual center, and the heart as the feeling center.
To these Jewish disciples and crowd, there was no delineation between the intellectual center and the feeling center. You see this in Deuteronomy as Moses speaks to the young nation of Israel, a people recently liberated from slavery, still forming their national and spiritual identity.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.Deuteronomy 6:5-6 NRSV
The Hebrew word for heart speaks of the inner world of a person. In biblical Hebrew, the heart is where we feel feelings, think thoughts, and make choices motivated by our desires. This explains why Moses says, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”
Purity as Jesus speaks of it here, has this idea of being unmixed or uncorrupted. The word was translated as pure, clean and innocent in other NT passages.
If we’re honest with the meaning of the word, it’s not easy to understand what Jesus is really saying. Our motives and intentions are often mixed, corrupt, and even sinful. We aren’t blameless or innocent. There are a host of things that motivate us. More often than not, we are driven by advancing our own status or our respective group’s status, be it family or organization or enterprise or state.
The struggle we face in understanding purity as Jesus speaks of it, is not that dissimilar to the Jewish cultural context Jesus spoke into.
Judea was under Roman occupation with puppet kings and squabbles for the scraps of power that remained. Outside of that ruling class and priestly class, Jewish society in Jesus’ time was shaped by:
+ The Pharisees whose faith orbited around a tightly wound set of DOs and DONTs. Unfortunately, they lorded these DOs and DONTs over others.
+ The Sadducees who were from the Hellenized Jewish upper class, and supported stable conditions and the prevailing social order. Their faith was reasonable and worldly. They didn’t believe in life after death, and cared most about life in the here and now.
+ The Essenes were a protest movement which withdrew from the world into monastic communities. They didn’t believe in the traditional Jewish religious system, and believed themselves to be the only true Israel.
+ The Herodians didn’t care as much about faith, as they did in supporting the puppet kings, propped up by Roman power… the Herods.
+ The Zealots (as their name suggests) were very zealous about their specific cause, opposing the Roman occupation or corrupt powers that be, and they believed that any measure was worth that goal.
Many of Jesus’ followers came from these disparate groups. They saw in a Jesus, someone who could help them fulfill their dreams and accomplish their desires. Each of these groups were driven by specific motives and intentions that were self-serving and self-advancing.
The Message paraphrase reads, “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right.” It succinctly reveals to our Western ears, the purity Jesus was getting at.
“Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil – and by their own virtues too… Purity of heart is here contrasted with all outward purity, even the purity of high intentions. The pure heart is pure alike of good and evil, it belongs exclusively to Christ and looks only to him who goes on before.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer / The Cost of Discipleship
The purity Jesus speaks of here, this putting right of our mind and heart, demands from us self-examination.
They Will See God
Jesus takes this further when he says, “for they will see God.” When we are motivated by self-advancement, when we continue propping up systems of oppression and injustice, when our lives more represent consumption + privilege + indifference, we don’t ever truly see God.
When we are driven by such mixed motives/intentions, we only see what protects our place in society, or what helps us accumulate more while we ignore the plight of those less fortunate. This state of being affords us the chance to be both charitable and indifferent, lacking true compassion and empathy.
The truth is, we only see what we are able to see. Another way to say this would be, we only see what we tend to look for.
For most of us, if we go out to the wilderness at night and look up at the stars, we might only see a pinpoints of light. We aren’t trained (or discipled) into seeing the nuance of that night sky. In that same sky, an astronomer will call stars and planets by name, as if they were friends. In that same sky, a navigator could orient a ship and set course across the vast ocean expanse.
When our motives and intentions are fixed on Christ, what we see begins to reorient towards the person and work of Christ. Our perspective begins to change, and we understand that there’s more to life than what we originally thought.
This perspective change disrupts our our self-advancement, disrupts what we feel we’re entitled to, disrupts how we attempt to secure our place in society, and disrupts our indifference for those less fortunate.
It draws us out into the fray. It asks us of more than we have asked of ourselves. It encourages us to sacrifice and serve and love. This purity that Jesus calls us into helps us see God at work in the world at large. More specifically, we begin to follow Jesus, wherever he may be leading us.
In that Jewish cultural context Jesus spoke into, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, and Zealots, all wanted him to fulfill their dreams and desires. They pushed for Jesus to agree with them, to support what they support, and give them what they thought was best.
Jesus wasn’t having it however. He wasn’t trying to be an uptight rule-follower like the Pharisees, or maintain the social order of things and have a reasonable faith like the Sadducees, or escape from society all together like the Essenes, or support the corrupt powers that be like the Herodians, or try to bring about revolution and rebellion by any means necessary like the Zealots.
The way of Jesus was and is different. It doesn’t play to the game of culture or transact in the currency society runs on. Jesus-followers were a sign and a wonder, something entirely otherworldly. They weren’t united according to what strata of society they came from, but were united around new creation possibilities, this revolutionary third-way, this kingdom of heaven in-breaking on earth.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” How does this purity of mind and heart connect with our seeing God at work? John helps us connect the dots in his letter to the early church:
See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.1 John 3:1-3 NLT
So what connects a purity of mind+heart with seeing God at work? It is a perseverance borne out of hope.
Or put another way, it is an actively engaged, eager expectation for new creation possibilities in this life and the next.