"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."
We talked about what "after" means in this context - that it is used most often in cases where someone "seeks after" something. This means "pursue" or "search for", which means the verse is talking about pursuing righteousness in a hungry and thirsty manner.
I asked the students how many of them have ever experienced potential starvation - or even missed enough meals that they literally thought they were going to die if they missed another one. None of them had. I asked them how long they had gone without water - or liquid generally. Again, none of them had gone more than about a day-and-a-half, and each time was part of an official fast. I told them that I also have not experienced extreme hunger or thirst in my life, which means I don't understand this verse in quite the same literal way as many people do or would who might read it. For us, it is more of an intellectual understanding - and we might translate it as:
"Blessed are they who want righteousness so badly that they seek for it as passionately as people who are starving to death seek food and water."
We then talked about what "righteousness" means. After some discussion of various aspects, we settled on "being right with God" - and we talked about the two great commandments and how everything else hangs on love. Our Bishop had read from I Corinthians 13 where it says we are nothing without charity, no matter how great we are at other things - even extremely important things, so we talked about how we seek to become like Christ in order to be right with God - to be what he wants us to be.
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
I asked the students what mercy means. After a brief discussion, we looked up "mercy" on dictionary.com. (I love having students who have smart phones in class.) It said that mercy is forbearance to inflict harm or take action that is in our power to inflict. That means having the right and power to do something (generally something bad or punishing) but choosing not to do it.
We talked about situations in their own lived when people do something to them and they have the right or power to respond in a way that would cause harm of some kind. We talked about how mercy is important especially in situations where the other person is weaker or subordinate or unable to defend themselves but how there really aren't simple limits to mercy. I mentioned my favorite humorous statement about the lack of mercy:
I asked God to give me what I deserve, so he slapped me and sent me to Hell.
We talked about how we are told that we will be judged with the same judgment we judge others, which the second half of this verse says.
"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."
We talked about what it means to be pure. I asked them how many of them had taken a chemistry class and could tell me what pure means in chemistry. One of them said, "Not having any unnecessary elements", so we used that to talk about the concept of being stainless, spotless, free from corruption, etc. I also mentioned how much we miss when we talk of purity only in terms of chastity - that we need to understand it as perfectly (completely) as possible.
We then talked about what "heart" means in this context. We decided it could mean "spirit" or "core feelings" or "our desires and intent" or some other wording that focuses on our core identity. We talked again about the two great commandments and charity - how the reason we do things says as much about our "hearts" as anything else.
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
We spent a lot of time talking about this verse. For purposes of this summary, I am going to link to a few posts I wrote years ago on my personal blog, which served as the foundation for the discussion in class. I think this concept (being peacemakers and why that qualifies us to be called the children of God) is one of the most important, least understood principles in all of Christianity. If you want to see the outline of the discussion, read the following posts:
Blessed are the Peacemakers
They Shall Be Called the Children of God
Peace, Be Still: And There Was a Great Calm