Connections 01.29.2017: The Nature of the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

I’ve read Jesus’ well-known Beatitudes many times in my life, viewing them as a striking reversal of humanity’s expectations. Are you poor in spirit? You get the kingdom of heaven! Mourning? You’ll be comforted. Meek? No worries; you’ll inherit the earth! And so on. Jesus lifts the qualities that people usually consider weak and undesirable to a level of honor and reward. That’s part of what Jesus came to do: reverse our expectations and show us the way of humility and self-sacrifice.

I have also viewed these Beatitudes as something to strive for. Do you want the kingdom of heaven, comfort, the earth, and so on? Then be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, etc. But as I read these again this week, I realized something. Every quality Jesus lists here—poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, making peace, and being persecuted—is either innate (they are part of a person’s character) or enforced (they occur as the result of outside forces).

I’m not sure I can actively try to be poor in spirit, meek, or pure in heart. I either am or I am not. Once I start trying, I think I will lose the humility of being that way. And I can’t mourn, show mercy, make peace, or be persecuted unless someone or something else causes me to do so.

This should discourage me. I can never live up to Jesus’ Beatitudes—his famous list of those who are blessed among us. But I’m not discouraged. I don’t think his Beatitudes are a list of the way we should be. Instead, I think they’re a description of the people we often choose not to see: the lowly, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the hopeless, the helpless, the lonely, the humble, the innocent. These people are not loud and powerful. They are quiet and lack influence. Jesus, however, points them out. He lifts them up. He encourages them. He sees them. When he speaks to the crowd, many of whom are probably not so poor in spirit, mournful, meek, or pure, he is telling them that these others whom they often ignore, even revile, are precious to him.

And yes, they have qualities that we should long to emulate. We must, however, be careful lest we lose our humility. Someone said that humility is one of those funny traits that you lose as soon as you recognize you have it. That makes sense to me. We can’t boast about being humble. We can simply pray that God will cultivate that kind of spirit in us. And if—when—God does, we can rejoice in the blessings that will follow, which are not of this world but are so much greater.

Discussion

1. Jesus gives this list that we’ve come to know as the Beatitudes shortly after beginning his earthly ministry. He’s just called his disciples. He is healing people and also teaching the crowds of people who are curious about him. Why do you think he shares this list so soon after his ministry starts? What kind of tone does it set for his ministry?
2. How have you read the Beatitudes in the past—as a reversal of the world’s expectations or as a list of qualities to strive for? What else have they meant to you?
3. What do you think of the idea that this list describes the people we sometimes choose not to see—the lowly, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the innocent, etc.?
4. Do you think humility is a quality we can learn to have? Why or why not?
5. What do you think is Jesus’ overall point in sharing this list—then and now?

Reference Shelf

The Beatitudes, 5:3-12

The Beatitudes are some of the most familiar verses of the sermon, and they have in fact been over-interpreted for so long that its hard to peel back all the excess verbiage of commentators and get back to the essence of this material. Fundamental to understanding this material is realizing in the first place that it is wisdom literature, and secondly that therefore it should not be seen as general ethical maxims or truisms. It is not true in many cases that in the ordinary course of affairs, the merciful receive mercy, nor do all those who mourn get comforted. Some have seen this material as about attitudes, some about actions, some about blessings. What helps in figuring out these sorts of issues is realizing not only the sapiential character of the material but also its eschatological orientation. It presupposes that there is a God who rights wrongs and will make things turn out all right in the end, and it also presupposes that the person who is wise enough to realize this fact has found the source of true contentment or blessedness. These beatitudes are given by the one who inaugurated the new state of eschatological affairs. In each case, we discover that the being satisfied, the obtaining mercy, the being called sons of God, and most clearly the seeing God all refer to a destiny set aside for the faithful followers of Jesus, and not just anyone. These then are not rules that somehow will work on the stage of history apart from a context of Christ’s work and the destiny of the believer. Nonetheless, I must insist, though there is the action of God that precedes and rewards the behavior being discussed here, what is the focus are actions and to a much lesser degree attitudes. In any case, it is not true that the First Evangelist has simply spiritualized the original (read Lukan) beatitudes.

It also needs to be realized that there are many other beatitudes in the New Testament (for example, twenty-eight just in Matthew and Luke, and seven in Revelation). This literary form then is not unique to the Sermon the Mount or the discourses in Matthew. Nor should these beatitudes in Matthew 5 be interpreted in a different manner than the others, but all should be seen in the light of the larger context of Jesus’ ministry.

It is clear enough that the Evangelist has carefully arranged the eight beatitudes so that, for instance, the first and the last one involve the present tense verb, while the ones in the middle all have future tense verbs. Only the last of these beatitudes is in the second person, which personalizes the discourse as this segment comes to a close. The rest of the beatitudes are all in the third person. I agree with Guelich that it appears that the Matthean form is more original than the Lukan form, as a comparison with Old Testament beatitudes suggests. Many have noted the close parallel between the first and the third beatitudes, and in fact in some manuscripts v. 4 and v. 5 are reversed so the two can be together. Possibly these two were originally a pair. What this indicates is that Jesus believed the Dominion of God was already being realized on earth through his ministry and also that this Dominion ultimately would be on earth, not merely in heaven.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 118–19.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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