The Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers
Who doesn’t want to have peace in life? Just a little time off from the daily grind. No more arguments with the kids or the spouse. Just getting along with the boss or the employees. Wouldn’t it be nice? Peace and tranquility. Life as a vacation.
But it isn’t usually like that, is it? Life seems to bounce us from one crisis to the next. Just when you think you’ve got the finances figured out, someone near to you has a terrible health issue. Maybe your health is great, but you can’t seem to get the bills under control. You work all your life to get ahead, and just when you arrive, she says that she doesn’t feel appreciated any more and wants a divorce. You get a promotion, but the market takes a bath. The family is great but the neighbor starts a rumor that destroys your reputation at church.
Peace, peace, just give me some peace. We all want it. But it seems so hard to get. The Beatles got the flavor when they said, “Give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind”.
Unfortunately, Jesus is not going to make things easier with this Beatitude. This macarism is not for those who want peace but for those who make peace. And you can’t make peace unless you are in conflict and ready to put yourself at risk.
“Peacemakers” is a term constructed from more than one Greek word – eirene (peace) and poeio (to make or do). For the first time, we have a Beatitude that incorporates a necessary positive action by the subject. In the other Beatitudes, Jesus pronounces happiness on groups of people whose defining characteristic is their present passive condition or negative relinquishing action. They appear to be destitute, grief-stricken, afflicted, painfully deficient, unclean and losers. But now Jesus says that something positive must be done in order to belong to this group. The one who is “blessed” here must make peace.
A great deal of material has been written about the peace-making activity of the Christian. Rick Warren devotes an entire chapter to the idea that restoring relationships is an essential part of God’s purpose for the believer.
If you want God’s blessing on your life and you want to be known as a child of God, you must learn to be a peacemaker. Jesus said, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.”
Nicoll echoes the thought of most commentaries when he says that this word does not mean merely those who are peaceable or peace loving, but rather those who are “the active heroic promoters of peace in a world full of alienation”.
Finally, Foerster says that this word:
denotes the establishment of peace and concord between men. The reference is to those who disinterestedly come between contending parties and try to make peace. These God calls his sons because they are like Him.
It seems that this Beatitude fails to comply with the pattern of a macarism. On the surface, there is no sacred paradox in this statement. If you go about trying to make peace between men, God recognizes your efforts. It’s a bit more than common sense because God’s blessing is usually not part of our common sense language. But it looks like a far cry from the upside-down backwards thinking of the previous announcements of Jesus. Is this really all that Jesus is saying?
Let’s return to the First Century audience. How would they have understood Jesus’ words?
First Century Palestine was a melting pot of major cultural influences. The Greek influence arrived as the backbone of intellectual society, the foundation of Roman law and the cultural heritage of the common trading language of the entire Mediterranean world. The Roman influence made its presence felt in the politics of oppression and the power of military occupation. And, of course, the Jewish population held on to its own roots through its religion and customs, dating back through the ages to Father Abraham. All three of these powerful forces were at work in the lives of the people of Jesus’ time. All three of them affect the concept of peace.
For the Greeks, the idea of peace is not about harmony between men. Peace is not about relationships at all. It is rather a description of an abnormal state of affairs lasting for a designated time. The Greeks believed that strife and conflict were essential elements of life. This can be seen in their fables, games, gods and history. Peace was a negative concept. It was simply the lack or absence of war, whether external or internal. Peace was the intermission between the stage acts of real life.
This negative non-relational understanding is completely reversed in the Hebrew concept of peace. The Greek word eirene was used to translate the Hebrew word shalom. But shalom is first and foremost a concept about relationships between men. In fact, its fabric is so entrenched in human relations that it is used as a common greeting like “How are you today?” Jews greeting each other passed mutual blessings with the word “Peace” (shalom). They still do this today. In this capacity, it carries the meaning of a wish of well being, especially material prosperity. It signifies bodily health and stability in life’s affairs. But it is always couched within the framework of Almighty God. Peace is ultimately a gift of God. David expresses the connection between material blessings, national security and spiritual salvation in Psalm 85 – all a result of the outflow of God’s loving kindness (the Hebrew word is hesed – a critical word in the understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people). In thirteen verses, David shows that God is the responsible agent of favor, liberty, forgiveness, mercy, revival, salvation, truth and prosperity – a summary of the relational concept of peace. David says, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. This can only be true if God provides peace since righteousness is ultimately the sole work of God.
There are three categories of meaning to the Hebrew word shalom: well being between men with an emphasis on material and bodily prosperity, peace between peoples and nations and finally, salvation accomplished by God. In the Old Testament, this last sense, salvation, looks toward the future. The prophet Isaiah demonstrates the connection between salvation and peace in that famous verse:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)
When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek so that it could be read by converts throughout the Roman Empire, the word eirene was used to translate shalom. But we have already seen the eirene had nothing to do with relationships between men while shalom had everything to do with relationships between men and God. The result of this combination meant that the Greek word eirene added the three meanings of shalom. “Peace” came to mean a state of well being that described the entire condition of men. This peace was internal and permanent protection and salvation because it was given by God. Even death could not disturb it.
Another influence made its way into the meaning of the word “peace”. First Century Jews revered the teachings of the Rabbis. These commentaries on Old Testament literature added the idea that “peace” was more than a gift of God to men – it was actually a description of the state of affairs between men and God. According to rabbinical teaching, God was in conflict with all ways of the flesh. Peace and strife were polar opposites describing the condition of men before God. Men play an essential role in the balance of peace and strife. If they obey the Law, they set aside strife with God and enjoy God’s peace. If they disobey the Law, only strife and punishment can result. Peace becomes a word that directly describes the relationship between men and God.
The last impact on the idea of peace for the first Century Jew was Roman. This was not a linguistic influence. It was the ever-present, visible influence of brutal occupation. Rome stood against everything that the Jews believed, from culture to religion. Rome ruled with an iron fist, an in-your-face power that reminded every Jew of the lack of peace in life. The Jewish population longed for that sweet taste of freedom and the refreshing breeze of peace.
When Jesus opened his mouth and said, “Happy are those making peace” many senses of the word would have come to mind. While the previous Beatitude (pure in heart) seemed to exclude everyone, this Beatitude seems to include everyone. The Greek word is so broad in meaning that every segment of those listeners could nod approval. But as soon as we understand how each group may have responded, we see a contradiction emerge.
The common people of his audience would have immediately thought of their own well-being and prosperity. Peace for them meant good fortune, good heath and good times. But it was beyond their grasp. They were the am haritz, the masses of poor. They might greet each other with shalom, but they had never experienced the blessing of shalom. There was no peace for them in their world.
The political activists would have thought of the happiness for those who were not in conflict and war. And, of course, Israel was an occupied and oppressed country. Making peace by removing the brutal suppression of Rome would have been happiness indeed! But there was no end in sight for the tortures and brutality of Roman rule. Every uprising had been squelched. The roads were lined with crucifixions. The inhumanity of man toward man was the order of the day. Peace was only a dream, available when sleep overcame the nightmare of being awake.
Still another interpretation could have sprung to mind. The Rabbis in the crowd would certainly have thought of peace with God. They preached ritual purity and practice in an effort to turn away the wrath of God and find peace with Yahweh. But even here peace could not be found. Because Rabbinic Judaism believed that God judged man on the basis of fulfillment of the Law, no man could claim personal peace in front of a holy God. Under the weight of the Law, it was always possible to unintentionally overlook some action that should have been performed (a sin of omission) or, in the final moments of life, discover some sin that had not been cleansed. The Rabbis lived in constant fear that God would find some fault they had overlooked. Under this system, no Jew could ever be certain of final salvation. Peace was just a wish that mocked the reality of moment-by-moment fear of failure in obedience.
Finally, no Jew could have missed the allusion to the prophecy of the coming Messiah. It had been instilled in them for hundreds of years – waiting for the Messiah who would usher in the golden age of peace. Isaiah, Jeremiah, David and Daniel all foretold a coming age of God’s peace through the reign of the Messiah. Hope against hope, yet to be realized. Hundreds of years of waiting, waiting, waiting. And still God was silent. Could the Messiah finally be coming on the stage? Even though this must have been in their minds, nothing about Jesus would have given them reason to believe that he was the one. He shunned military involvement. He opposed the religious rulers. He remained isolated from the mainstream. About Jesus only one thing was certain – confusion.
None of the meanings of peace seem to have applied to the crowd who listened that day. Is this the sacred paradox of Jesus’ macarism? I don’t believe so. Even though in each case the meaning of peace seems to be just beyond the audience, there is no paradox here. Peace was no more available in the First Century than it is today, and surprisingly, for many of the same reasons. This is not paradoxical. It is just disheartening.
To see the paradox here, we need to look at the use of this Greek word in the rest of the New Testament. What we find is this: eirene is almost always used in the deeper sense of salvation, but rarely used to describe the relationship between God and man. It is salvation in the Rabbinic sense – the end of strife with God. It is almost always a present condition, not a future hope. The New Testament understands peace as the cessation of hostility with God through salvation provided by Christ. Peace describes the state of the believer, assured of God’s grace, content with God’s authority. Peace is directly connected with righteousness, safety, love, grace and glory.
Peace in the New Testament is the normal state of affairs. War with God is not the intention of this world. Paul contrasts peace with confusion. Peace is normal, confusion abnormal. Peace is the result of God’s salvation provided to men. God guarantees the security of citizens of His Kingdom. It is the opposite of affliction. Peace is the normal condition of life. In the New Testament, peace and life are opposed to strife and death. Peace, then, is a word that summarizes the life of those who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. At last, they have clarity, security and contentment as God intended, under God’s protection and guarantee.
Not a single person in the crowd on that hill experienced this reality of peace. Nevertheless, the paradox is not that they wished for peace but didn’t experience peace. The paradox is connected to the combination of “peace” with “maker”. The paradox is that only those who are presently giving up this reality reflect God’s character.
Let’s say that again. Everyone wants peace. That is to say, everyone wants to experience life where they themselves enjoy peace. But not the peacemaker. The peacemaker is one who actually gives up personal harmony and tranquility in order to put himself at risk for the sake of peace. He stands in harm’s way because he attempts to bring someone else’s conflict to an end. You can’t be a peacemaker without stepping into a war. You can’t be a peace-maker if you watch from the sidelines, waiting for well being to come to you, waiting for political freedom to be given to you, waiting for God’s wrath to be turned from you, waiting for the Messiah to make things better for you. Peacemakers are active. They engage the battle – not to fight but to diffuse, not to aggravate but to appease, not to control but to counsel. But peacemakers are in and of themselves a paradox. The very thing they long for is exactly what they relinquish. In order to bring peace, they must become part of the strife – step into the fire.
Jesus says, “Happy those who give up their peace for the sake of someone else’s peace”. This is a paradox, all right. What we learn from the four meanings of peace is that giving it up seems to be the last thing anyone would want to do. It certainly seems contradictory to say that happiness falls on those who deliberately step out of tranquility into conflict. Should this verse really be translated as the New Living Translation suggests?
God blesses those who work for peace
Does this mean that God blesses anyone who puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of peace? Does it mean that God therefore, automatically, blesses Jimmy Carter, the Peace Corp., Colin Powell, General Tommy Franks, the NYPD and dozens of other “peace-makers”? Jesus never suggested such a broad application with any other Beatitude. On closer examination, every other Beatitude had a much more restricted audience than first appeared to be the case. Why would that change now?
I believe that the only way to really see the paradox of this macarism is to read it backwards. To understand this macarism, we must start with the phrase “called sons of God”. Two concepts are important. “Sons of God” means those who are designated God’s children. They are children in the sense that they exhibit a family resemblance. They are adopted into God’s family. The term “sons” here emphasizes the parental care toward those who yield their lives to the formation of God’s character in them. They are like God in His benevolence, self-sacrifice and mediation.
The “sons of God” are those who are being conformed to the image of the Son of God. The action of stepping into conflict in order to bring peace is exactly what God does. By being peacemakers, these people relinquish their own tranquility and harmony as a reflection of God’s self-sacrifice for them. They work toward reconciliation. They follow the same pathway trod by the Son who left the tranquility and harmony of divinity (the peace of heaven) to become a slave, be tormented and abused and finally executed as the One who stood between those in strife.
This is another example of mirror image behavior. John tells us that we love because He first loved us. We mirror His action. Here we reconcile because He first reconciled us. Mirror action. The hidden reality is that the one who spoke these words to the world was in fact the ultimate example of self-sacrificing on behalf of peace.
As the crowd heard this Beatitude, they felt the longing for peace – a God-given desire for what God intended to be normal. Some may even have understood that real peace comes only when someone gives up tranquility and engages in reconciliation. But those who jumped for joy knew that they were face to face with the One who exemplified ultimate peacemaking. They jumped for joy because they were no longer at war, and they couldn’t wait to help others end the conflict as well.
The second word is klethesontai. It is from the root kaleo, which means “to call”. Here it is passive. So, we should translate it as “are regarded or accounted as”. The designation is not something they earn. It is a description of their character by someone else. When they act as mirror images of God’s self-sacrifice, they are viewed as though they have God’s nature. Jesus made it all very clear when he said if you do this to the least of these, you do it as though you were doing it to me. In other words, peacemakers step into God’s shoes. That’s why they are described as God’s children. They act the way their Father does. They do not earn the title “sons of God” because they act as peacemakers. They act as peacemakers because they reflect what it means to live as God’s sons.
Now we can answer the question: “Does God bless anyone who steps into harm’s way for the sake of peace?” The answer is YES but also NO. It’s YES because many human actions reflect God’s values but do so without acknowledging the divine-human mirror. When we love unselfishly, we reflect God’s love even if we don’t know it. When we show mercy, we reflect God’s mercy. When we comfort, we demonstrate God’s care. God’s image, however tarnished, is reflected in being human. Even if we do not worship our Creator, the innate character of His values resides in us because we are made in His image.
But the answer is also NO. God does not bless anyone who steps in harm’s way. God’s idea of peacemaking is not the same as Man’s. It is for this reason that the New Testament tells us “not by might or by power, but by my Spirit”. Peacemaking is ultimately from God, but only those who act on God’s behalf and in God’s stead with God’s method really know the joy of self-sacrifice for another. The dim reflection of the divine image is there in every peacemaking act. But the “jump for joy” makarios excitement can only belong to the one who knows his own peace is but a prelude to God’s peace for all – in every sense of the term:
End of hostilities
The reign of the Messiah
All at once. All together.
The peacemaker knows his own peace is built on self-sacrificial relinquishing of peace. He is just reflecting what was given to him. The peacemaker who is called a son of God enters the conflict without any of Man’s weapons. He is not from the United Nations security force. He is not with the Marines. He does not wear a badge. He is armed with only the assurance of God’s love for the end of conflict. And for him, that is more than enough to defeat any army.
The sacred paradox is this: the peacemaker joyfully relinquishes his own peace for the sake of ending strife between men for no other reason than reflecting the character of his Father. The peacemaker knows God’s peace is found in standing in conflict. The peacemaker knows that he can bring peace only by letting go of peace. And God recognizes that this decision is just what He does.
Incredibly happy are those who deliberately step into their Father’s shoes in efforts to bring peace between men. God considers them symbols of His family image.
Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, (Zondervan, 2002), p. 153.