‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Translation: Seeing the crowds, he went up into the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And opening his mouth, he taught them, saying, "Blessed (are) the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (are) those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed (are) the gentle of spirit, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed (are) the ones who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. Blessed (are) the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed (are) the pure of heart, for they will see God. Blessed (are) the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed (are) the ones being persecuted for the cause of justice, for of them is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (are) you when they revile you and persecute you and say every evil toward you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for your reward is great in the heavens, for in this manner they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Background and situation: The core of this passage is Q--the parallel is Luke 6: 20-26--to which Matthew has made some significant changes and additions. These beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first major speech, of five, in Matthew's gospel.
Our text follows immediately upon a summary statement of Jesus' ministry in chapter 4: "And (Jesus) was going about in all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing all disease and all sickness in the people." (4:23) This stirring sentence of unabashed good news is called the gospel.
The Beatitudes which follow are not, themselves, the gospel. In Lutheran terms, they are "law." They tell us what we ought to do. Matthew intends this sequence: The gospel is announced, and its effects demonstrated (4:23). Then, Jesus instructs his followers, or would-be followers, on how to live in its light. The gospel comes first. All of the Sermon on the Mount is response.
Jesus then sat down. Today, speakers stand up when they have something to say. In the time of Jesus, they sat down.
His disciples "came to him," says Matthew. Imagine this as theater. Jesus went up to the place of special revelation. He sat down. His disciples "came to him" and arrayed themselves around him. There is a tableau of formality to this description. The stage has been set for a special proclamation.
To whom was Jesus making this special proclamation? In 5: 1, we are told that Jesus saw the crowds. At the close of the sermon on the mount, which the Beatitudes introduce, "the crowds were astonished at his teaching" (7: 28). When the disciples "came to him," Jesus "opened his mouth and taught them." It appears, then, that Jesus was primarily instructing the disciples, but doing so within easy ear-shot of the crowds.
From one perspective, the disciples are the in-crowd. They get the front row seats while everyone else is on the outside looking in. Another way to look at it is this: The crowd hears the same teaching the disciples do and are in a good position to hold the disciples accountable for it. From the first perspective, the disciples could say, "You hear that? You'd better get on board!" To which the crowd could respond: "If you followers of his would get with the program, maybe we would."
The reign of God: Jesus is teaching about the "reign of God," which is not, incidentally, solely about life in heaven. The "reign of God" is meant for the here-and-now as well as in heaven. This is what we pray for in the Lord's Prayer: "...thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven...."
My seminary advisor used to say, "The Beatitudes are there for the purpose of being done." (Luther said the Beatitudes were there to remind us of our hopelessness of fulfilling the law and its impossible demands, which is true enough, but Luther tended to say that about everything.)
Beatitudes were not a new thing in the world of Jesus. Usually, they were common sense sayings that expressed what everyone already knew. They were short sayings that expressed the conventional wisdom, as in: "Blessed are those on a low-fat diet, for they will have healthy arteries."
As he will do often in Matthew's gospel, Jesus turns conventional wisdom upside down. Nobody would have associated blessings with being poor or in grief, then or now. In the reign of God, however, God's favor is upon those who have been left behind--the little, the lone, the least, and the lost.
These marginalized ones--the poor, lost, and bereft--constituted the major constituency of Jesus. He addressed his message primarily to them. They found his message of God's favor to be empowering and uplifting.
"Blessed"?: The Greek word we translate as "blessed" is makarioi. Makarioi refers to God's favor. It could also be translated as "honored." "Happy," as some translations have it, doesn't work. The original French translation of the Jerusalem Bible had debonair, which, while it does have a certain appeal, doesn't really work either. Debonair are the poor in spirit?
There are nine beatitudes in Matthew--two groups of four, followed by a final one. The first four beatitudes speak to the victims of injustice, those in poverty, grief, the meek, and those with a deep desire for justice.
Greek has two words for "poor"--penes and ptochos. Penes means "working poor." (Penes would be contrasted with plousios, people with land who don't work.) Ptochos, on the other hand, means being destitute. To put it another way: Penes means having to work. Ptochos means having to beg.
The Q parallel in Luke has "Blessed are you poor." Matthew makes this "poor in spirit," which, unfortunately, tends to spiritualize the text for modern readers and takes the accent off ptochos. Who isn't "poor in spirit" at least some of the time? That might preach, and not inappropriately so, but Matthew's emphasis seems more to be on those who understand themselves as being in solidarity with the ptochos. Such people would likely have constituted an overwhelming majority of the listening crowds.
People in the time of Jesus were regularly forced off their land, and many--perhaps as many as 10-15% of the population--would have been destitute. They lived in the hills or in shadows, and got by, after a fashion, by foraging off the land or robbing. Falling into the ranks of the ptochos was a very real fear for the great majority of people. In addition to the large homeless population, another 60-70% of the people stood in real danger of being forced to join them.
The second "makarism"--"blessed are those who mourn"--dove-tails with and follows from the first. One way to become destitute in the first century was to lose one's place in their family. Family identity was exceptionally important in the ancient world. People were known as the "son of" or "daughter of" their father and mother.
One could be reduced to ptochos--begging--through loss of land or loss of family. Family could be lost through the death of one's parents--hence, "blessed are those who mourn"--or through being cast out of the family. (This would be especially applicable to early Christians, c. AD 80, who had been tossed out of their family because they were followers of Jesus.)
Loss of land and loss of family would make a person "meek." Either one represented loss of status. This was especially important in a society where status revolved around honor and shame. Loss of land and/or family could move a person from an honored place in society to a shameful one--from high social standing within the context of one's village to social ostracism.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who are meek. Blessed are those, in other words, who are down-and-out, rejected, destitute, without a home. They have honor with God. They are not despised and rejected. They are lifted up, held in high esteem, blessed by God. This is called "preferential option for the poor."
These first three "makarisms" are underlined by the fourth: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice"--dikaiosunane. Matthew chose the words "hunger" and "thirst" with a purpose--they recall those who genuinely did hunger and thirst--and then turned these words in the direction not only of food and drink, but also justice. Blessed are those who yearn--who hunger--for a world where all are honored and none are shamed.
If the first four "makarisms" are for those who lack justice, the next four "makarisms" are for those who work for justice. They promise reward at the end of time for those who live into the reign of God now--the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and (again) the persecuted.
Mercy has a wide range of meaning, everything from forgiving sins to healing the sick. "Active compassion" would be another way to put it. The merciful are not only sorry at the suffering of others, but actively try to alleviate it. The followers of Jesus are able to show mercy not because of their inherent goodness, but rather because they have been shown mercy. Mercy is an attitude of God, which God's people reflect into the world.
"Pure in heart" is about the center of a person being "cleansed" from the old way of living. Katharoi is where we get our modern-day psychiatric term "catharsis." Catharsis is about purging the old to make way for the new. The "pure in heart" are "cleaned up," in other words, from hierarchy and support of what Walter Wink calls "the domination system." Their paradigm gets shifted, their worldview reset.
The "peacemakers" are those who bring God's shalom into expression in the world. This is in marked contrast to the supposed "peacemakers" of the day, the Roman Army. As J.D. Crossan has argued, Rome believed in "peace through victory." Rome brought peace to the world by defeating her enemies. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he ended the Roman Civil War and was acclaimed a "peacemaker." The early Christians, however, believed in "peace through justice"--peace through righting wrongs and treating all people, particularly the bereft, with dignity.
The eighth beatitude closes this second pair of four with the same promise extended to the "poor in spirit" in the first beatitude. Those who are persecuted for the cause of justice, like the "poor in spirit," receive the kingdom of heaven. The verb is a perfect participle which indicates a past action with ongoing effects in the present. The cause of justice has been and is going on.
This eighth beatitude, with its theme of persecution, transitions to the ninth. Here, though, Jesus shifts from the third person to the second person--not "blessed are they" this time, but "blessed are you." This word is at least partly for the people of Matthew's church who had, indeed, suffered at least some persecution for following Jesus. (Luke has persecuted "on account of the son of man." Matthew changes this to persecuted "on my account," thus underlining the close link between Jesus and the disciple.)
Those who suffer for the cause of Jesus are to "rejoice and be exceedingly glad" for their reward is great in heaven. They are the unfortunate victims of persecution, yes, but they are in a line with the great prophets of the past as well as John the Baptist and Jesus himself.