The Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is Luke 6.17–26, this gospel’s version of the Beatitudes. One of the most obvious questions arising from the reading is how they relate to the Beatitudes as recorded in Matt 5.1–12. This might seem like a distraction to preaching on the passage itself, but I think there are three reasons why we need to take this seriously.

First, people in our congregations notice these things! Whenever I offer a session on ‘Bible questions’, inviting people to ask any question that they like and which perhaps they have not had the chance to ask before, I am always amazed by the range of great questions that are asked—which are clearly not answered even in churches which prioritise ‘Bible teaching’. People notice the differences when they read the gospels!

Secondly, engaging with the question of the relationship between the two does affect our reading of each. We do need to take seriously each text in its own right—otherwise, why bother with reading four gospels rather than just consolidating them into one harmonised version? But the reaction against a harmonised gospel can be an unhealthy separation into reading the four accounts as if they had nothing to do with each other. In this case, I have come across readings of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes as if they were all about social transformation, and had nothing to do with the question of discipleship which are prominent in Matthew’s version.

This leads into the third issue—that some readings of the gospels treat them as if there were four different Jesuses (from which we choose our favourite), rather than four different accounts of the one Jesus, with his teaching drawn out and applied with different emphases and in different contexts. This is, of course, where we touch on some foundational questions of NT scholarship, and whether or not the gospels reliably connect with the teaching of the historical Jesus or not—questions which emerge as we consider the Beatitudes themselves.


Before going any further, let’s look at the differences between the two texts.

Blessings in Matthew Blessings in Luke Woes in Luke
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,  and he began to teach them. He said: He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, … power was coming from him and healing them all. Looking at his disciples, he said:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.* Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.*
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 you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

 

There are several things in the introductory section worth noting. The most obvious is that in Matthew, this begins the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, whereas in Luke many Bible subheadings (which are addition of the translator, note, and not authoritative parts of the text!) describe this as the ‘Sermon on the Plain’. In fact, neither is strictly accurate. In Matthew, though the phrase εἰς τὸ ὄρος (eis to oros) is singular, Dick France argues that it natural meaning should be taken as ‘into the hill country’, that is, the hills of Galilee to the north of the lake. But of course the singular phrase suits Matthew because it suggests a parallel with Moses who went ‘up on the mountainside’. In Luke, the ‘level place’ is still in the hills of Galilee—and in fact the traditional site of the sermon, marked by the Church of the Beatitudes, is on a level place in amongst the hills affording a panoramic view over Lake Galilee.

Within the Beatitudes themselves, there are at least four notable differences. The most obvious is the number: whilst Matthew gives us eight, the first four appearing to focus on the subject’s situation and the second four focussed on the subject’s character, Luke gives us only four. They only partly correspond to Matthew’s, in that the fourth actually follows the pattern of Jesus’ concluding comment in Matthew, which then flows into the next section of the ‘sermon’, and the order is changed so that ‘hunger’ comes earlier, and ‘weeping’ later (hence I have marked it with an asterisk*). The second thing to note is that, whilst Matthew’s are couched in the third person (‘Blessed are those…’), which gives them a sense of sayings with a wider relevance, Luke’s are in the second person (‘Blessed are you…’) which suggests a more direct focus on the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking. But the third key difference, Luke’s inclusion of the ‘woes’, has a compensating effect, in that it is most natural to read the blessings as directed towards Jesus’ followers and the woes directed to those who do not take up the costly call of discipleship. This draws our attention to something that both have in common: the introduction in both cases makes it clear that Jesus’ teaching here is, in the first instance, directed towards his disciples, who are distinguished from the crowds in both narratives, and only (as it were) hear the teaching as eavesdroppers.

(We ought also to note a couple of distinctively Lukan emphases—that Jesus was ministering with ‘power’ that was coming from him, and the developed emphasis on joy in the fourth blessing, in which we should not just ‘rejoice and be glad’ but also ‘leap for joy’ when we are hated for our faithfulness.)


Noticing these differences, how might we account for them? The most common view in NT scholarship is that the two accounts stem from a common source, known as Q (from the German Quelle meaning ‘source’) which was a written document, composed largely of sayings of Jesus, and is hypothetically reconstructed from the material and Matthew and Luke have in common which is not found in Mark. Within this view, it is thought that Luke is more faithful to the Q version, which goes back reliably to the teaching of Jesus, since its form is simpler, and the elaborations (poor in spirit…and so on) are Matthew’s revisions and additions. Mark Goodacre tackles this ‘consensus’ view head on in chapter 7 of his book The Case Against Q and points out that:

  • Luke has a clear sense of concern for the poor, and uses this language frequently in his gospel
  • The inclusion of the woes along with the blessings fits well with the theme of reversal which we have already encountered in the Magnificat, and which is expressed most clearly in the story unique to Luke of the rich man and Lazarus (in Luke 16.19–31)
  • Luke is clear that discipleship has economic consequences; the ‘poor’ here are not the poor in general, but the poor disciples, who have (we read last week) ‘left everything’ to follow him.
  • The language in Matthew, when read in context, is not really ‘spiritualising’ language, in that Matthew’s focus on ‘righteousness’ is very practical.
  • There is evidence from the parallel saying in the Gospel of Thomas against ‘the poor’ being the most primitive version.

In other words, the differences here offer no evidence of one version being closer to Jesus’ teaching, whilst the other is an elaboration that takes us away from the original. This leaves us with two important things to consider—the context of Jesus, and the context of the gospel writer.

In relation to the context of Jesus, I am always surprised when the possibility is not more often entertained that Jesus taught on a subject more than once, and that he might have adapted his teaching and varied it depending on the situation and the audience. This is a possibility worth considering simply based on the amount of material that we have in the gospels (which, after all, only takes a few hours to read) compared with the length of Jesus’ ministry. This view is expressed as far back as Plummer’s 1896 ICC commentary on Luke (p 177):

We know beyond all question that some of our Lord’s words were uttered several times, and there is nothing antecedently improbable in the hypothesis that the words in this discourse…were delivered in one or other of these forms more than once.

Howard Marshall makes a similar observation in passing, and Dick France, in his NIC on Matthew, notes (p 163):

The cumulative effect of these observations is to cast serious doubt on the common assumption that there was a single original set of Beatitudes which either Matthew has ‘spiritualised’ or Luke has ‘radicalised’. Jesus may well have used the familiar beatitude form on various locations in the course of his teaching…

France goes on to note that Matthew’s inclusion of ‘you’-form beatitudes immediately following ‘they’-form beatitudes (the very thing which allows Luke’s version naturally to include his fourth saying) is evidence of the commonness of this form of saying.

One intriguing article I came across recently even suggests that the detailed economic differences between neighbouring regions might account for the differences, and the economic situation of Jesus’ audience is in fact highlight by the gospel writers:

In Luke 6.17, we see that Jesus’ message was given in a context which centered on the capital region of Judea and its capital city, Jerusalem. There were people from Tyre and Sidon as well, which were major financial centers and which had some close financial ties with Jerusalem. For example, Tyre minted the Temple Shekel for the Herodians (which we will see was important tool of economic extraction from the people centering in its use in the temple system).

An interesting study by Gary Meadors in Grace Journal adds an important element of OT context as we think about the language of the ‘poor’:

The identification of the poor in Luke 6:20 has been disputed. Some have seen them as the economically impoverished. However, it must be noted that Jesus was specifically addressing his disciples when he uttered the beatitude of the poor. Furthermore, Luke (6:20-26) stands in the literary tradition of an eschatological reversal motif found in Psalm 37, Isaiah 61, and in certain Qumran materials. A comparison of Luke 6:20-26 with these materials indicates a connection between πτωχοί in Luke 6:20 and the Hebrew term עֲנָוִ֗ים which had become metaphorical for the pious. This connection is supported by the fact that Matthew records the same logion of Jesus as πτωχοί, thus the term “poor” in Luke 6:20 is used in reference to the pious.

Now, there is a real danger that we end up ‘spiritualising’ the language of ‘the poor’, thinking it is ‘merely’ a metaphor—where Jesus’ teaching in Luke (and Matthew) hold the two things together strongly. But we can see that Matthew and Luke are drawing out the complementary elements of a single OT idea that has shaped Jesus’ message here. Part of their concern is to relate Jesus’ message to the possible different audiences for the two gospels:

Whereas Matthew identifies with Jewish thought, the Lukan beatitudes identify humanity as the poor and the rich. Dieter Betz concludes that this division in Luke reflects the divisions typically made by Hellenistic moralists, Gentiles typically considered to be Luke’s audience. The law, rightousness and piety found in the Matthean text is all but absent from Luke and the Jewish background so distinctive of Matthew is less obvious. In fact, Luke neither links nor even mentions the Mosaic law within the text. The main theme running through the Gospel of Luke is the universality of Jesus. Although His mission is first to the Jews, Lukan theology includes Jesus’ concern for the Gentiles and social outcasts, such as immoral women, tax collectors, Samaritans and the poor. It is especially clear from the Gospel of Luke that the author has a special concern for the economic poor of his world and much of the content of the beatitudes and the Gospel at large reflects this.


Put together, what does this mean for our preaching? First, that we need to take each of the texts seriously, noting their distinctive emphases. Second, that this need not lead us into treating them in silos, as if they were unconnected with one another. But third, it is plausible that Jesus adapted his teaching (which he gave more than once) in different contexts—and that it is clear that gospel writers are drawing out the implications of Jesus’ teaching for the contexts they are concerned with.

The question then is, given that there is a clear connection between our following of Jesus as his disciples, and the realities of everyday life, including its economic consequences—how is that going to work out in our context?


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16 thoughts on “The Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew”

    • Alastair, thanks for this. I don’t think I have come across this observation in commentaries, and the writer of the article notes the same. Has it been noted more recently do you know (the article is from 1989)?

      Reading the article, I think the correspondences look interesting—though not exact, so I would need to think about that a little more. (If we were intended to match them, why did Jesus or Matthew not make that slightly more evident?)

      And have you looked at the text critical issues around v 14 (the second of eight woes)?

      If there is a correspondence, what should we conclude from this? Perhaps a. that Jesus taught differently at different times; and b. that he was accustomed to put blessings and woes together?

      I don’t think necessarily sheds any light on the pre-history of the sayings i.e. I don’t think it suggests particularly either that Matthew or Luke have edited from a common single source or that they are recording events from different occasions.

      • Ian,
        I’ve not seen it mentioned elsewhere.

        My suspicion is that the correspondence serves as a framing device for Jesus’ public teaching ministry in Matthew. The ministry begins with the Beatitudes and ends with the Woes. Following the Woes, Jesus gives the Olivet Discourse to his disciples, which seals their result. It also presents Jesus’ ministry as a window of blessing that is opened up, before finally being closed in the woes as that window is rejected.

        It also has the effect of concretizing the woes. Rather than referring to a generic judgment, it refers to the very particular judgment that is falling upon Jerusalem on account of its corrupt leaders.

        I believe you are correct to suggest that Jesus delivered similar material on various occasions with variations. I think that Matthew arranged the material very intentionally for the purposes of the message of his gospel.

    • What an exciting finding! I think it must be right. It has ramifications text-critical and source-critical. Searching for patterns is such a fruitful approach sometimes.

      What is the link on no.7 – is it death/war vs peace?

        • OK. 7 is less than clear and 4 not fully clear, though neither is unsuitable either. The remainder are.

          The beatitudes certainly seem to predate/precede the woes conceptually.

          This sort of thing has ramifications in all directions. One example: Matt is a structured writer who forms sets, and he also does not create things de novo (as opposed to from a kernel). Previously in my source-critical analysis of Matt (which was given to Prof Stanton’s Junior NT Seminar in 1999) Mt 23 stood out like a sore thumb as very atypical, being basically MtR (Matthean redaction) passim. As there was no kernel for Matt actually to redact (!) this basically meant that the chapter was Matt holding forth (letting rip) on his hobby horses in a stream of consciousness. The aforementioned atypicality of this was clearly a problem, though I thought that (e.g.) the John the Baptist material in ch3 was comparable. Now the stream of consciousness idea is shown to be quite clearly mistaken, which is good, because it would have been so atypical of Matt and was therefore not a convincing idea.

          Another ramification: The first and last of Matt’s 5 discourses can be seen to balance one another in their initial material. ‘Framing’, as you say.

  1. The point that Jesus doubtless made the same points/told the same stories more than once is also made by Dorothy L Sayers in her introduction to “The Man Born to be King”. Can I add that the ending of the Sermon on the Mount emphasises the reaction of the crowd in general? Surely Jesus was intending His teaching for all who could hear, and not merely “the disciples”, however we define disciples?

    • Thanks Penny–I think it is interesting (and only just struck me as I was writing this) that both gospel writers are clear that Jesus is teaching the disciples…but also clear that the ‘crowd’ can also listen in. It is an interesting double dynamic, and perhaps tells us something about our preaching—that it should be directed to those who are committed, but will be overheard by those who are not.

  2. 1Are there not also here echoes of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27-28. Blessings and Curses?
    2 Don Carsons sets it out: “The setting envisaged by Deut 27- 28 is spectacular. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they are to perform a solemn act of national commitment. They are to divided themselves into two vast companies, each hundreds of thousands strong. Six tribes are to stand on the slopes of mount Gerazim. Across the valley, the other six tribes are to stand on the slopes of Mount Ebal. the two vast crowds are to call back and forth in antiphonal responses. for some parts of this ceremony, the Levites, standing with others on Gerazim are to pronounce prescribed sentences, and the entire host shouts its “Amen”. In other parts, the crowd on Gerazim would shout blessings of obedience and the crowd on Ebal would shout the curses of disobedience. The shear dramatic impact of this event , when it was actually carried out (Josh 8:30-33) must have been astounding. The aim of the entire exercise was to impress on the people the utter seriousness with which the Word of God must be taken if the blessing of God is to be enjoyed, and the terrible tragedy that flows from disobedience, which secures only God’s curse.” For the Love of God, vol 1, D.A. Carson.
    2 Are the not here also in a more expansive for echoes of God blessing and curse in Genesis 3?
    3 Do the blessings and curses not cohere, coalesce, and conflate in the Kingdom of God, that is in Christ Jesus , and those outside? And this extends to the end times, into eternity. Jesus took the curse(s) of our disobedience and we who believe in him, who are in union with him. are credited with his perfect obedience. Amen and Amen.
    5 As has been said, Jesus Christ is the beatitudes.
    5.1, “Do not seek the beatitudes, Do not turn them into moralistic teaching. Seek Jesus Christ who alone embodies the Beatitudes and the Beatitudes will then be true of you as well. Why? Because Jesus fulfills them.
    5.2 The beatitudes are all about Jesus. Seek him through the gospel.
    5.3 The Beatitudes contain no imperatives .
    5.4 The Beatitudes presuppose that you have turned from your sin and self- righteousness to trust in Jesus as the one who lived the life you could never live and died the death you deserved to die and now gives you the benefit (blessings) of that life and death as a free gift.
    5.5 Christians who have come to understand the grace of God in Jesus, are people who Are poor in spirit, who mourn and are meek, who hunger and thirst for a righteousness not their own, with mercy and purity of heart , make peace, experience persecution for Jesus sake.” The Gospel of the Beatitudes. RW Glenn)
    All of this is over and against the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

  3. Geoff, thank you for such a helpful ‘setting in OT context. ‘

    Ian this is a splendid article, and in particular the quote from Gary Meadors.

    I think he expresses very clearly the contextual understanding of ‘poor’ in the gospels. Whilst it may overlap with economic poverty, and whilst the compassion of God always encompasses the vulnerable, the preoccupation with economic wealth is mainly a reflection on our society and our intimation with secular and socialist values. Poverty in the gospels is always related to a dependence on God. I think your anxiety about spiritualising Entirely unnecessary and rather misplaced. The early church and the apostolic influence showed no sign of trying to collate the gospels and economic re-ordering. It’s concerned with the economic power always about compassion and not with justice. The Beatitudes are a narrative of the soul and not a commentary on social justice Or injustice. It is a discourse of the S/spirit.
    Meanwhile this was an excellent article and thank you very much for it.

    • Hello Gavin,
      All the credit must go to others.
      1 Alastair Robert’s comment and link was a reminder of the Blessings and Curses and took me back to D A Carson’s memorable description. Although Carson didn’t link it to the Beatitudes, his two-volume books “places each (daily) reading into the larger framework of history and God’s eternal plan, in order to deepen our understanding of his sovereignty and the unity and power of his Word”.
      2 As you will be aware Carson is a well versed, prolific Christian scholar, a proponent and exponent, a supporter and promoter of biblical theology. I think he has identified over 20 themes running through the whole canon. And I have a series of recorded his scholarly lectures tracing the history of biblical theology: it’s far from new, though as a layman Goldsworthy was my first introduction around the time I also came across the now moribund site “Beginning with Moses.”
      3 1″Poor” Don’t we all come to Christ empty-handed, bankrupt as it were.
      3.2 From Thomas Watson’s, The Beatitudes. Banner of Truth 1971
      3.2.1 Referring Chrysostom and Tertullian who view poverty of spirit as humility and humility the cause of that poverty Watson says this: “I rather think that poverty of spirit is the cause of humility, for when a man sees his want of Christ, and how he lives on the alms of free grace, this makes him humble. He that is sensible of his own vacuity and indigence, hangs his head with humility with the violet. Humility is the sweet spice that grows from poverty of spirit.”
      3.2.2 “The poor in spirit sees himself nothing without Christ.”
      3.2.3 “… Christians must be poor in spirit, or the jewel which Christians must wear…when a man sees himself nothing, out of nothing God makes a most beautiful creature. It is God’s usual method to make a man poor in spirit, and then fill him with the graces of the Spirit.”
      3.2.4 “Till we are poor in spirit :
      3.2,4.1 “we are not capable of receiving grace. He who is swollen with an opinion of self excellency and self-sufficiency is not fit for Christ. He is full already. If the hand be full of pebbles, it can not receive gold. The glass is first emptied before you pour in the wine. God first empties a man of himself before he pours in the precious wine of his grace. None but the poor in spirit are within Christ’s commission. Isaiah 61;1 the broken hearted ..such as broken in the sense of their unworthiness.
      3.2.4.2 “Christ is never precious. Before we see our own wants, we never see Christ’s worth…He who sees himself clad in filthy rags (Zech 3:4.5) what will he give for the raiment of the righteousness of Christ!…The pearl of price is only precious to the poor in spirit..he will do anything for the bread of life.
      3.2.4.3 ” …we can not go to heaven. Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
      3.5 “If blessed are the poor in spirit, then by the rules of contraries, cursed are the proud in spirit (Proverbs 16:5. There is a generation of men who commit idolatry with themselves: no such idol as self! They admire their own parts, moralities, self-righteousness… swelled in their own conceit…built a tower of their own righteousness..
      3.6 “How many have perished by being their own saviours! O that this might drive the proud sinner out of himself…
      3.7 ” A man never comes to himself till he comes out of himself. And no man can come out, till first Christ comes in”
      4 How up-to-date, how necessary, how wonderful, how marvelous Good News.

    • “The early church and the apostolic influence showed no sign of trying to collate the gospels and economic re-ordering. It’s concerned with the economic power always about compassion and not with justice.” Is that really and unambiguously what we read in, e.g., Acts 2.44-46?

  4. Ian, this is as good an article as I’ve ever seen on the Beatitudes. Well done. I would add this thought for anyone who might be interested. In William Barclay’s commentary on another passage in Luke (the transfiguration story), there is a beautiful observation from the English composer Edward Elgar, after listening to a young singer who was technically perfect but lacking in feeling and expression: “She will be great when something breaks her heart.” I suspect that maybe something like this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

    • Thanks for your encouraging comment!

      Your story has a personal ring to it. I think I was a competent preacher, but perhaps a little technical. Then something broke my heart (a job for which I was the only applicant and which I was sure I would get, but didn’t) and my preaching changed forever.

      • Great personal story! I hope you thanked those people who turned you down. 🙂 (Just pulling your leg a little)

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