Matthew 5:3-10, the Beatitudes
Matthew 5:3-10 comprises blessings upon the following:
- Matthew 5:3, the poor in spirit;
- Matthew 5:4, those who mourn;
- Matthew 5:5, the meek;
- Matthew 5:6, those who hunger and thirst;
- Matthew 5:7, the merciful;
- Matthew 5:8, the pure in heart;
- Matthew 5:9, the peacemakers;
- Matthew 5:10, the persecuted.
The blessed follow the way
To anyone in Jesus’ audience who was well versed in their Hebrew Bible, these beatitudes would have establish his agenda beyond any doubt. Beatitudes are a form of wisdom saying that is more normally found singly, but in these eight verses Jesus takes several that address a common theme and assembles them into a list, a format also found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was an introduction carefully designed to encouraging those who had thus far remained steadfastly loyal to the Way, or Path, of Righteousness, but whose resolve might be beginning to waver.
The name beatitude comes from the Latin for blessed (sometimes they are called Makarisms instead, which is from the Greek), and their name defines their most characteristic feature. Each beatitude starts by identifying a group of individuals considered fortunate because they are held in high regard by God. Some beatitudes do little more than that, but in this case Jesus went on to then associates a specific reward with belonging to that group. Except for the eighth, they all re-state promises (explicit or implied) found within the Hebrew Bible. In every case that promise stems from, or is closely related to, living in accord with or restoring the Way of Righteousness (as summarized in the notes for Matt 5:3-10).
The eighth beatitude is effectively a summary of the previous seven, for whilst it too focuses on the Way, it uses carefully chosen words, to allude not to a promise but to a general statement that God favours those who pursue righteousness. Such concluding summaries were a common feature in Rabbinic teaching, as found in Judaism’s commentaries, and we will encounter another in the Golden Rule, in a corresponding position within the trailing limb of the elegantly crafted structure of the Sermon. In this case, a play on words, finds persecution for righteousness replacing pursuit of righteousness, a switch that was most appropriate to the circumstances, as the infant church was beginning to feel the chill wind of oppression.Restoring the Way required the replacement of corrupted rule with righteous leadership, and those who advocated such a change will often find themselves part of a persecuted minority. Hence, in Matt 5:11-12, Jesus will go on to apply his summary beatitude directly to his disciples.
Each beatitude describes the reward that its target group can anticipate from restoration of the Way of Righteousness, so they provide a concise statement of how a return of Godly rule affects a minority who have remained faithful to the greatest of the Ten Commandments, and loved the Lord their God with all their heart. Thus, with the Beatitudes, Jesus has already begun to address the text that then provides the framework for the rest of the Sermon.
As Jesus embodied the Way, the character attributes identified within the beatitudes are ones that he consistently exhibited. That makes them ones to which any Christian should also aspire, with the important caveat that the context remains appropriate. For example, when the kingdom of God is manifest amongst us, as it was when Jesus walked with his disciples, or it is when Christians worship their risen Lord, then being a mourner is hardly appropriate (Matt 9:14-15). These beatitudes were born out of a time of adversity for followers of the Way, and it pays to remember that when trying to apply them.
Instead of seven beatitudes followed by a summary, some view the beatitudes as two groups of four. Such a division better reflects an underlying symmetry in the Greek text. However, their original language would have been Aramaic, so this symmetry must have been added during translation, possibly to preserve the original poetic feel of Jesus’ words, or to make them easier to remember.