“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Matthew 5:4 (NRSV)
In many ways, this flows from the same streams as the Beatitude about the poor. Both have strong roots in Isaiah 61 as well as many similar passages in the Old Testament. To look at some of the specific facets of this particular Beatitude, we need to take a look at that Isaiah passage, again.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)
This passage tells us a lot more about those who mourn.
First of all, they mourn in Zion. Mount Zion is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. These mourners are in Israel weeping in the Temple. What are they weeping about? In Isaiah 61, it’s the condition of Jerusalem. It’s the corruption, the idolatry, the constant threat of enemies, and the apparent abandonment by God in the face of disaster.
The crowds that Jesus speaks to will have mourners like this – faithful Israelites who mourn over the condition of Israel – conquered by foreigners, governed by pagans, the Temple run by Empire-appointed stooges who aren’t even Jewish half the time.
Luke tells of one such person in chapter 2 – a man named Simeon who “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” This is the same man who prophesied that Jesus would be for the rising and falling of many in Israel and thanks God that he got to see Israel’s salvation before he died.
He is looking forward to the consolation of Israel – the day Isaiah talks about when the mourning will be comforted by the coming of the Day of the Lord.
And what will happen when this day of comfort comes? Those that mourn will build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. They will take what has fallen over the years and build it back up. In Matthew, this could be alluded to in order to bring forth the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem, which in the Apostles’ minds, will bring an end to this corrupt power structure in Jerusalem, and those who escape this destruction will have a new life that is rebuilt in the creation and survival of believing communities throughout the Empire.
Or perhaps the image looks backward. One thinks back to when the exiles were released from Babylon to return to Jerusalem and how they built up the ruins there that had lain for decades.
Or perhaps the image is meant to be more general. There are other Old Testament passages that describe the ruined condition of Israel as a fallen structure or city. Perhaps the rebuilding imagery is meant to suggest the rebuilding of Israel as a reborn, holy nation.
Or, perhaps all of that. Perhaps all of those things are really the same kind of event, just presented at different key points in Israel’s history.
Whatever the specific referents might be, one thing is clear – the Israel that is in exile and suffering under a corrupt power structure is about to be free of it. The mourners are about to be comforted. The ruins are about to be rebuilt. Mourning will turn to dancing. The world will be turned over, and those who have been crushed into the ground will see the sunlight.
Like the statement about the poor, these events have come and gone in Israel’s history. Does it hold any power or relevance for the experience of the people of God, today?
I think it does, but we have to adjust our sights a bit. What we don’t have here is a guarantee from Jesus that we’ll eventually feel better about anything that troubles us. Nor do we have a guarantee that people who mourn over the condition of the people of God, today, will have a day that overturns those things.
What do we have, then?
What we have is a mission to bring the blessings of the new creation into the dark recesses of this world and a promise and a hope that the whole world will one day be renewed, such that even Death is brought low. To steal Paul’s assurance to the Thessalonian community and their martyrs, we mourn, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope.
A resurrection is coming. A new world is coming. And you and I are commanded in the here and now to testify to this reality by living it. We make things new as a message to the world that God is making all things new. Part of this will be giving comfort to those who mourn in the here and now, but with every mourner we comfort in this age, we are breathing out a faithful testimony that an even greater renewal is coming, where God will wipe away the tears from every eye.
- What would it mean to mourn over the situation of the people of God in the world, today? What would have to happen for that mourning to be comforted? Are there things we could be doing about it?
- The destruction of Jerusalem was a horrible event by anyone’s lights. The gospels’ narrative is, as terrible as this event was, God used it to bring an end to the oppression of His faithful. Does this way of thinking have any impact on how the Bible speaks of other significant past events?