Matthew 5:4. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shalt be comforted.
He began this sermon against the doctrine and belief of the Jews—in fact, not only of the Jews but of the whole world as well, even at its best, which sticks to the delusion that it is well off if it just has property, popularity, and its Mammon here, and which serves God only for this purpose. In the same way He now continues, overturning even what they thought was the best and most blessed life on earth, one in which a person would attain to good and quiet days and would not have to endure discomfort, as Psalm 73:5 describes it: “They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like other men.”
For that is the highest thing that men want, to have joy and happiness and to be without trouble. Now Christ turns the page and says exactly the opposite; He calls “blessed” those who sorrow and mourn. Thus throughout, all these statements are aimed and directed against the world’s way of thinking, the way it would like to have things. It does not want to endure hunger, trouble, dishonor, unpopularity, injustice, and violence; and it calls “blessed” those who can avoid all these things.
So He wants to say here that there must be another life than the life of their quests and thoughts, and that a Christian must count on sorrow and mourning in the world. Whoever does not want to do this may have a good time here and live to his heart’s desire, but hereafter he will have to mourn forever. As He says (Luke 6:25): “Woe unto you that laugh and have a good time now! For you shall have to mourn and weep.” This is how it went with the rich man in Luke 16. He lived luxuriously and joyfully all his life, decked out in expensive silk and purple. He thought he was a great saint and well off in the sight of God because He had given him so much property. Meanwhile he let poor Lazarus lie before his door daily, full of sores, in hunger and trouble and great misery. But what kind of judgment did he finally hear when he was lying in hell? “Remember that in your lifetime you received good things, but Lazarus evil things. Therefore you are now in anguish, but he is comforted” (Luke 16:25).
See, this is the same text as: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” which is as much as saying, “Those who seek and have nothing but joy and fun here shall weep and howl forever.”
You may ask again: “What are we to do, then? Is everyone to be damned who laughs, sings, dances, dresses well, eats, and drinks? After all, we read about kings and saints who were cheerful and lived well. Paul is an especially wonderful saint; he wants us to be cheerful all the time (Phil. 4:4), and he says (Rom. 12:15): ‘’Rejoice with those who rejoice,’ and again: ‘Weep with those who weep.’ That sounds contradictory, to be joyful all the time and yet to weep and mourn with others.”
Answer: I said before that having riches is not sinful, nor is it forbidden. So also being joyful, eating and drinking well, is not sinful or damnable; nor is having honor and a good name. Still I am supposed to be “blessed” if I do not have these things or can do without them, and instead suffer poverty, misery, shame, and persecution. So both of these things are here and must be—being sad and being happy, eating and going hungry, as Paul boasts about himself (Phil. 4:11, 12): “I have learned the art, wherever I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:8–10: “In honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute; as dying, and, behold, we live; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
So this is what it means: A man is called “spiritually poor,” not because he has no money or anything of his own, but because he does not covet it or set his comfort and trust upon it as though it were his kingdom of heaven. So also a man is said to “mourn and be sorrowful”—not if his head is always drooping and his face is always sour and never smiling; but if he does not depend upon having a good time and living it up, the way the world does, which yearns for nothing but having sheer joy and fun here, revels in it, and neither thinks nor cares about the state of God or men.
In this way many great and outstanding people, kings and others, who were Christians, have had to mourn and be sorrowful, though in the eyes of the world they lived a glorious life. Thus throughout the Psalter David complains about his weeping and sorrow. Now, too, I could easily cite examples of great men, lords and princes, who have experienced and learned this about the gracious Gospel, at the recent Diet of Augsburg and elsewhere. Externally they lived well, dressed in princely fashion in silk and gold, and looked like people for whom life was a bed of roses.7 But daily they had to be right in the midst of poisonous snakes; and in their heart they had to experience such unheard-of arrogance, insolence, and shame, so many evil tricks and words from the vile papists, who delighted in embittering their hearts and, as far as possible, in denying them a single happy hour. Thus they had to stew within themselves and do nothing but lament before God with sighs and tears. Such people know something of what the statement means: “Blessed are those who mourn and are sorrowful,” though they do not always show it. They eat and drink with other people and sometimes laugh and joke with them, to forget their sorrow. You must not suppose that “to mourn” means only to weep and cry and scream, like women and children. It is not the real and most profound mourning when it has come over the heart and breaks forth through the eyes, but when really great shocks come, which strike and shake the heart so that one cannot cry and dare not complain to anyone.
Therefore mourning and sorrow are not a rare plant among Christians, in spite of outward appearances. They would like to be joyful in Christ, outwardly, too, as much as they can. Daily, whenever they look at the world, they must see and feel in their heart so much wickedness, arrogance, contempt, and blasphemy of God and His Word, so much sorrow and sadness, which the devil causes in both the spiritual and the secular realm. Therefore they cannot have many joyful thoughts, and their spiritual joy is very weak. If they were to look at this continually and did not turn their eyes away from time to time, they could not be happy for a moment. It is bad enough that this really happens oftener than they would like, so that they do not have to go out looking for it.
Therefore simply begin to be a Christian, and you will soon find out what it means to mourn and be sorrowful. If you can do nothing else, then get married, settle down, and make a living in faith. Love the Word of God, and do what is required of you in your station. Then you will experience, both from your neighbors and in your own household, that things will not go as you might wish. You will be hindered and hemmed in on every side, so that you will suffer enough and see enough to make your heart sad. But especially the dear preachers must learn this well and be disciplined daily with all sorts of envy, hatred, scorn, ridicule, ingratitude, contempt, and blasphemy. In addition, they have to stew inside, so that their heart and soul is pierced through and continually tormented.
Because the world does not want to have such mourning and sorrow, it seeks out those stations and ways of life where it can have fun and does not have to suffer anything from anyone, as the monks’ and priests’ station used to be. It cannot stand the idea that in a divine station it should serve other people with nothing but care, toil, and trouble, and get nothing as a reward for this but ingratitude, contempt, and other malicious treatment. Therefore, when things do not go with it as it wishes and one person looks at another with a sour face, all they can do is to batter things with cursing and swearing, and with their fists, too, and be ready to put up property and reputation, land and servants. But God arranges things so that they still cannot get off too easily, without seeing or suffering any trouble at all. What He gives them as a reward for not wanting to suffer is this: they still have to suffer, but by their anger and impatience patience they make it twice as great and difficult, and without finding any comfort or a good conscience. The Christians have the advantage that though they mourn, too, they shall be comforted and be blessed both here and hereafter.
Therefore, whoever wants to have fellowship with Christians and does not want to be an outright child of the world, let him be on the list of those who are willing to sigh and mourn, so that he may be comforted, as this promise says. We have an instance of this in Ezekiel 9. God sent out six men with “destroying weapons” against the city of Jerusalem, but one of them He sent with a writing case; he was to go through the middle of the city and put a mark upon the foreheads of those who sighed and groaned over the shameful situation and who had to watch it with sorrow in their hearts. Whoever was marked this way, was to live, but all the others were to be killed. You see, this is the Christians’ advantage. In the world they have to see nothing but sorrow and trouble. Yet when the world is at its smuggest and is riding along on sheer joy, suddenly the wheel turns, and a misfortune comes upon them in which they have to stay and perish. But the Christians are rescued and saved, the way dear Lot was saved in Sodom; for as St. Peter says (2 Peter 2:7, 8), they had long vexed and distressed his heart with their licentiousness. Let the world, therefore, laugh now and live riotously in its delights and pleasures. Though you have to mourn and be sorrowful and daily see your heart troubled, take it in stride and hold fast to this saying. Let it satisfy and comfort you. Outwardly, too, refresh yourself and be as cheerful as possible.
Those who mourn this way are entitled to have fun and to take it wherever they can so that they do not completely collapse for sorrow. Christ also adds these words and promises this consolation so that they do not despair in their sorrow nor let the joy of their heart be taken away and extinguished altogether, but mix this mourning with comfort and refreshment. Otherwise, if they never had any comfort or joy, they would have to languish and wither away. No man can stand continual mourning. It sucks out the very strength and savor of the body, as the wise man says (Ecclus. 30:25): “Sadness has killed many people”; and again (Prov. 17:22): “A downcast spirit dries up the marrow in the bones.” Therefore we should not neglect this but should command and urge such people to have a good time once in a while if possible, or at least to temper their sorrow and forget it for a while.
Thus Christ does not want to urge continual mourning and sorrow. He wants to warn against those who seek to escape all mourning and to have nothing but fun and all their comfort here. And He wants to teach His Christians, when things go badly for them and they have to mourn, to know that it is God’s good pleasure and to make it theirs as well, not to curse or rage or despair as though their God did not want to be gracious. When this happens, the bitter draft should be mixed and made milder with honey and sugar. He promises here that this is pleasing to Him; and He calls them “blessed,” comforting them here, and hereafter taking the sorrow away from them completely. Therefore say good-by to the world and to all those who harm us, in the name of their lord, the devil. And let us sing this song and be joyful in the name of God and Christ. Their outcome will surely not be the one they want. Now they take pleasure in our misfortune and do much to harm us. Still we take heart, and we shall live to see that at the last they will have to howl and weep when we are comforted and happy.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:17). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.