Matthew 5:1-12, the blessings of the way, rewarding the persecuted
Toward the start of the first-century C.E. the powerful Judean dynasty of Herod the Great was in trouble. Herod’s death had left his territories split between his sons, with the unpopular Herod Archelaus ruling as Ethnarch of Judah, Herod Antipas as Tetrach of Galilee and Perea, and Herod Philip I as Tetrach of the northern part of the Herodian lands (Gaulanitis, Auranitis, Batanea, Trachonitis, Paneas, and Ituraea). All Herod’s sons held their lands only with the consent of the Roman emperor, but Archelaus was the senior amongst them.
The Romans were unsure about Archelaus and refused to ratify him as king of Judea, granting him the lower rank of Ethnarch instead. Then popular unrest at his failings saw Archelaus forced into exile and the imposition of direct rule from Rome. Archelaus died in about 18 C.E. and still with Judea ruled from Roman. It was into this politically volatile situation that John the Baptist stepped, calling people to return to the Way of Righteousness by challenging them to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:1-2 WEB). Jesus’ ministry began as a direct continuation of John’s (see the Emmaus View for more detail on how this worked), and Matthew’s Gospel emphasises this continuity by using that same phrase “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17 WEB) to summarise the teaching of Jesus’ earliest ministry. The relationship between Jesus and John was complex, with each senior to the other in their respective roles, John was head of the re-born Israel, so Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, coming under John’s authority in order to become part of the new nation. However, John, as a member of a priestly family, owed allegiance to the throne of David and so openly acknowledged Jesus as his superior and therefore as his heir.
By the time of the Sermon on the Mount, John had been imprisoned, his disciples had scattered, and Jesus had been left as operational head of the movement. Jesus needed to deliver a message that would add impetus to the campaign that John had started and underline its benefits. Arriving in the vicinity of Capernaum, that is precisely what he did. Hence, whatever the genre of its component parts, overall the Sermon has the feel of a rousing campaign speech. This basic flow of events is apparent from a harmony of the synoptic gospels, whilst their relationship to the events of John’s Gospel is considered in the final chapter of The Emmaus View.
When such misguided or corrupt men as Archelaus, or the Romans who followed him, get the upper hand then those who long for justice and the return of peace frequently find themselves a persecuted minority or forced into voluntary exile, as were Jesus’ own family (Matt 2:22). Therefore, as he began to teach, Jesus acknowledged this by using a list of beatitudes, designed to encourage such folk that their perseverance would be rewarded.