Matt 5:3-10 presents a set of positive outcomes for socially or economically disadvantaged groups. Commentators often see these as the agenda for a radical reversal of prevailing social values. For example Tod Lindberg introduces them as “a dizzying commentary designed to turn upside down the political and social world” and “the opening move of a more drastic and fundamental reassessment of political and social affairs” (Lindberg 2008, n.p.), and Geza Vermes describes them as “the manifesto of Jesus addressed to those who wished to embark with him on his great eschatological mission” (Vermes 2004, 312). Such an approach generally sees each group characteristic (poor in spirit, meek, gentle etc.) as the characteristics Jesus’ requires of those who follow him. According to this assessment, each grouping implies a way of life and each outcome, the product of that way of life, along the lines - you should seek to be meek for then you will inherit the earth. Thus, Donald Kraybill can envisage each characteristic acting as an agent through which a social inversion is achieved (Kraybill 1978, 59).
An alternative approach to interpreting the Beatitudes is to recognise that the Hebrew Bible already provides ample precedents for them (which are explored in the notes for individual verses). According to such a view, the Beatitudes describe “common virtues of Jewish piety” that are “prominent in the books of the Old Testament, attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and again and again praised by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels” (Vermes 2004, 312). In this second approach each characteristic is either a desirable activity so long as unrighteousness prevailed (e.g. showing mercy and peace making) or an undesirable consequence of that situation (e.g. mourning and persecution) to be faithfully borne. Jesus’ beatitudes still point toward desirable personality characteristics, but a somewhat different set. For example, it would not be mourning itself that is commendable but perseverance in situations that cause it. From this perspective, although change is still envisaged, the group characteristics themselves are not to be seen as the primary agents of it. The change results from some other source.
Although Vermes (2004, 317) is equivocal as to whether Jesus could have presented the beatitudes in their current form. However, they are more closely tied to the issues surrounding Jesus’ early ministry that Vermes appreciated. From its setting, Matthew’s Gospel presents the Sermon on the Mount as intimately linked to a specific agenda, restoring the Way of Righteousness, as called for by John the Baptist. It is therefore possible to see the characteristics as those of groups who have remained faithful to the ideals of that Way and the outcomes as promises to those groups. In most cases it is fairly easy to identify a scriptural link between the group characteristic, the restoration of the Way and the promised outcome. Thus, with an unrighteous regime in the ascendant in Judea, it appears that Jesus was offering a timeless reminder of how a change of leadership from unrighteous to godly would inevitably benefit the disadvantaged advocates of the Way.
Whilst Jesus was encouraging an existing constituency, rather than seeking to establish a new one, it remains perfectly reasonable to develop lessons on appropriate Christian conduct from this text. However, the expositor has to be careful about the context. In practice, they may already find themselves applying the appropriate adjustments simply to avoid arriving at patently absurd conclusions. For example when Lindberg postulates a set of undesirable ‘anti-beatitudes’, he cannot bring himself to see unqualified rejoicing as the undesirable opposite of mourning (Lindberg 2008, n.p.). Therefore, he rightly takes account of whether such rejoicing arises out of following the World’s way or out of following a righteous path, even though to do so strains his argument. It is worth noting that he thereby applies his anti-beatitude to those who follow a way of life in opposition to the Way of Righteousness.
These verses are strongly repetitive, with each structured as a ‘beatitude’. This name comes from the Latin for happy or blessed and is used because each statement depicts the blessing or encouragement of a group of people. The original Greek is μακαριοι from which comes the practice of calling these statements makarisms.
The discovery of a similar list of beatitudes amongst the Qumran wisdom literature makes it likely that the list format was original (see background on beatitudes).
There are two major schools of thought concerning the detailed structure of the beatitudes. These camps divide over whether Matt 5:10 is an eighth Beatitude or to be considered as something separate (e.g. a summary of the previous seven, though some argue for it being a later addition). Thus, we have either
A. M. Farrer suggested that the the Beatitudes were divisible into groups of 2/3/3, with the remainder of the Sermon as a commentary upon them, the Beatitudes being the leading edge of a chiasmus and the remainder of the Sermon its trailing edge, a proposal that is roundly rejected by Davies (1964, 9).
In the original Greek, this passage shows evidence that either the author or a later redactor has organised the material into two groups of four. The entire of the first group showing alliteration using π.
The presence of this structure might appear to strengthen the argument for including v10 as an eighth beatitude. However, as France (1995, 108) observes, if the Beatitudes were originally delivered in Aramaic rather than Greek (which seems probable), any Greek structures are likely to be secondary.
The reflective nature of the reference to the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matt 5:3 and Matt 5:10, may also suggest these as the natural beginning and end of a group of eight.
The idea that this is a list of seven beatitudes followed by a summary also has its points that commend it. The numbers six and seven have well established biblical associations with error and perfection, so seven beatitudes find an appropriate foil in the six antithesis. But there is perhaps an even better reason for Jesus to have presented a core group of seven Beatitudes. Several isolated beatitudes occur in the wisdom literature of Proverbs, but two, toward the end of chapter 8, are particularly relevant:
32 “Now therefore, my sons, listen to me, for
blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction, and be wise. Don’t refuse it.
34 Blessed is the man who hears me,
watching daily at my gates, waiting at my door posts.
(Pr 8:32-34 WEB)Proverbs 8 starts with a picture of wisdom seeking out high places and crying out (Pr 8:1, cf. Matt 5:1-2), just as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, and at the decision point where paths diverge (Pr 8:1, cf. Matt 7:13-14). The ways mentioned in Pr 8:32, if taken together, constitute the Way of Understanding advocated in Pr 9:1-6, in other words the Way of Righteousness that features so prominently elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount. According to Pr 9:1, Wisdom has built a house and has set up seven pillars as testaments to wisdom, just like the promises that Jesus sets up in the seven beatitudes of Matt 5:3-9 (discussed below). Then a cry goes out from the highest places, issuing an invitation to eat and drink from her table (Pr 9:3, 5). The first seven Beatitudes, if viewed as a very basic chiasmus, have at their core the promise of just such a feast for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Accompanying the invitation, to drink and dine, is one to leave their simple ways and walk instead in the Way of Understanding (Pr 9:4,6). Thus, people turning to the right way may be seen as a central theme of this passage, just as it is for the seven beatitudes in Matt 5:3-10 (see below).
Experiencing the Kingdom of God would appear central to the Beatitudes, for it is promised in both the first (Matt 5:3) and the eighth (Matt 5:10). Vermes (2004, 312) notes this, but concludes that “the Beatitudes, apart from the supplementary verses mentioning the preacher himself and his Jewish (prophetic) background (Matt 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23), lack the personal and local colouring typical of the language of Jesus” (Vermes 2004, 317). On this I must disagree, for the proximity of the Kingdom of Heaven was the driving force behind both John the Baptist’s call for repentance (Matt 3:2) and Jesus’ taking up of the same cry (Matt 4:17). However, to establish such an outcome it was imperative to establishing the way of righteousness in the wilderness (Matt 3:3, cf. Isa 40:3). The Way was central to the ministry of John the Baptist and it continued to be important within the early Church (2 Peter 2:21). Thus, at this early stage of Jesus’ ministry, setting out the anticipated benefits of a corporate return to the Way would have made sense, as would warning his disciples of the cost of turning round a nation. Indeed it is restoring the Way rather than the concept of the kingdom, that is pivotal to the passage.
The centrality of God’s way to the beatitudes should be readily apparant from their focus on blessedness, for blessing, in the Hebrew Bible, is intimately related to walking obediently. Rabbi Steven Schwarzchild, in responding to a request to translate the word “blessing,” suggests meanings akin to “on the right path” or “on the way the Creator wants us to go” (Forest 1997, n.p.).
Each of these first seven beatitudes appeals to a different group on the basis of the Hebrew Bible, highlighting what they can expect from returning to the narrow way (Matt 7:13-14), acting upon Jesus’ words (Matt 7:21-23) and building upon the foundation provided by God (Matt 7:24-27). The source passages are listed below. The passages from which the beatitude’s promises may be taken are shown below. Notice their repeated references to ‘the way’ and also how often the context of the passage is the restoration of Godly judgement. Both are recurrent themes in Matt 1:1-4:25.
The eighth Beatitude stands out from the seven that precede it, yet it encapsulates their sense. This gives it the flavour of a Rabbinical summary, and possibly one inspired by and playing on the words of Pr 15:9 and Pr 21:21 (as explored in the notes on Matt 5:10).Assuming that the Sermon on the Mount is in approximately its original sequence with respect to Jesus calling Peter and preaching in Capernaum, then Jesus’ choice to address those facing persecution was well founded. The authorities had already shown their concerned at the number of people the new movement was baptising. Furthermore, John the Baptist had recently been thrown into prison (Matt 4:12). Followers of the Way that John prepared were becoming unpopular in certain quarters. Thus, the beatitudes, and particularly this one, came as a timely encouragement.
If the Beatitudes are viewed as a list of seven groups who
chosen wisely, followed by a summary, then the
Antitheses’ appear to provide six examples of imperfect human
wisdom and correct them, as a contrast to the Beatitudes seven examples
wisdom that are commended. The numbers in each list are significant, as
seven is symbolic
of perfection and six symbolic of imperfection.
As the Beatitudes were addressed to groups delimited by certain characteristics, it has been popular to take those characteristics and see them as a sketch of God’s intended character for a Christian (e.g. see Lloyd-Jones 1962, 24), even espousing them as a route to the rewards mentioned. For example, Lloyd-Jones suggests, concerning being poor in spirit, “there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, apart from it” (1962, 42).
This idea that the beatitudes present an ideal, but challenging, lifestyle allows Bonhoeffer (2001, 60) to suggest that “only the call and the promise, for the sake of which they [Jesus’ disciples] are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the Beatitudes.”
Whilst it is reasonable to advocate seeking the virtues in order to obtain the anticipated rewards, the same is not true concerning the suffering. Mourning is necessitated by loss, hunger for righteousness implies a famine of spiritual sustenance, and the persecution of saints results in places where men reject God’s Kingdom. Seeking first the Kingdom of God will ensure that the saints have no cause for mourning, enjoy a feast of righteous judgement, and live in freedom from oppression. Hence it is the Kingdom of God and his way of righteousness (cf. Matt 6:33) that must become the emphasis. When it is, then such suffering may be the necessary cost. As Bonhoeffer (2001, 60) observes, Jesus “spoke to men who had already responded to the power of his call, and it is that call that has made them poor afflicted and hungry.” However, heaven forbid that we voluntarily invite upon ourselves a lifestyle characterised by loss, famine and oppression simply in the hope of reward, unless it is in the spirit of going into exile, fasting, or adopting sackcloth and ashes, that we, or our community, might be spared a worse fate.
Jesus’ speech in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-28) was based on Isa 61:1-2, a passage with close ties to several of the Beatitudes (as discussed below). Isaiah 61:1-2 proclaims a Jubilee and, according to Luke, Jesus claimed “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 WEB). This he did, not because he was encouraging people to seek humility and mourning, but because the “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa 61:2 HNV) was already upon them, the acceptable day of the Lord (cf. Isa 58:5) had arrived, that those who suffered might receive “the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness” (Isa 61:3 HNV). With Jesus’ presence bringing a realisation of Isaiah 61:1-2, acceptable conduct for his disciples was rejoicing rather than mourning (Matt 9:14-15). Nor need they hunger for righteousness, for as they accepted Jesus’ words they already had it in abundance (2 Sam 22:25, John 15:3).
At times there are more than one passage suggesting the progression given above, where this is the case more detail is provided in the notes on the individual passages.The presence of a common theme running through these beatitudes, together with a logical progression of thought that relates to that theme, strongly suggests that they were composed as a unit, rather than brought together by an editor, plucking them from a series of disparate contexts.
The Beatitudes provide a similar statement of radical restoration to that found in Isa 61:1-2 (Vermes 2004, 313), the passage upon which Jesus based his address in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-28). In quoting from Isa 61:1-2, Jesus comes with the way clearing voice of Isa 40:3, announcing the good news of Isa 40:9 to bring the comfort of Isa 40:1. His reading directly mentioned the humble of the first beatitude (Matt 5:3), but Jesus’ real, but unmentioned, concern was the day of the Lord (Isa 61:2). Hence he substitutes part of Isaiah 61:1 with a verse from that prophet’s definition of the acceptable day of the Lord (Isa 58:5-7), as shown below.
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on me; because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the humble” (Isa 61:1a, cf. Luke 4:18a). “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isa 61:1b, cf. Luke 4:18b in some ancient texts), “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isa 61:1c, cf. Luke 4:18c). Then Jesus replaced “and release to those who are bound” (Isa 61:1d HNV) with the equivalent of “recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed” (Isa 58:6 HNV, cf. Luke 4:18d) before returning to Isaiah 61 for “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isa 61:2a HNV, cf. Luke 4:19a), after which he leaves the congregation to supply themselves “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2b HNV). Thus, in Luke 4:18-19 Jesus brought together the topics of beatitudes 1,2 and 4, humility (Isa 61:1), mourning (Isa 61:2) and hunger (Isa 58:7). Beasley-Murray (1987, 157-158) offers this as evidence that the three could originally have been delivered together.
James 3:17 lists the characteristics of heavenly wisdom. Like the Beatitudes, it identifies eight characteristics and, as one might expect, it shares many of these with the groups found amongst the Beatitudes. They correspond roughly as follows:
James 4:8-10 introduces another cluster of topics, that overlap with several of the beatitudes and and the ideas associated with them as follows:
This is entirely consistent with the sort of prior relationship between these three topics provided by the Beatitudes.
In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary reflects upon a series of outcomes that arise from the events in progress. They show some similarities to the topics of the earlier beatitudes as follows:
France, Richard Thomas. 1995. The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Edited by Leon Morris. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1985; Paperback reprint edition. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
Lindberg, Tod. 2007. What the Beatitudes Teach. Policy Review. No. 144, August and September. Hoover Institute, Stanford University. Cited: 2 Sep 2009. Online:http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/8810342.html.