The gospel lectionary reading for All Saints’ Day in Year A (this coming Sunday as I write) is Matthew 5.1–12, which is mostly composed of the set sayings of Jesus known as the Beatitudes, a name derived from the Latin translation of the opening term of each, ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’.
These sayings are very well known, often being cited as favourite texts, and yet there are some serious puzzles that they present us with. Why are there nine, with the last one seemingly tagged on at the end? Why is there a mixture of future and present tenses in the sayings? Why is one of the promises (about the kingdom of heaven) repeated—did Jesus run out of other good things to say? Are they encouragements under pressure, or commendations of virtue? More to the point, are they realistic, or are they (with the rest of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) setting out an unattainable ideal?
Some of these questions are answered by paying careful attention to the structure and ordering of the sayings. Here is the central part of the passage, laid out with a view to its structure:
(The structure is slightly clearer in the Greek text, because of the simpler structure of the verb forms.) This leads to a number of observations:
1. The ‘ninth’ beatitude does not really belong to the pattern of the first eight, since it is expressed in the second (rather than third) person, and lacks the pattern of ‘Blessed…for…’ We should therefore consider the other eight as a whole.
2. The eight beatitudes can be viewed as two stanzas: the first four beatitudes are 36 words in the Greek (and all begin with the letter pi), the second four are also 36 words. (This contributes to the evidence that Jesus might well have taught in Greek, especially in the bilingual region of Galilee; future blog post to come on this.)
3. The first beatitude has a promise in the third person ‘For theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ and so does the last beatitude. It is wholly unlikely that this repetition is the result of editorial fatigue with the speaker or writer having run out of promises, and very likely that it is deliberate, creating an inclusio. This suggests the not very surprising conclusion that the beatitudes and indeed the Sermon on the Mount, to which they are a prelude, are about the kingdom of heaven.
4. The other six beatitudes have a variety of promises with a future tense, so that we have in the first half, one present tense + three future tenses, and in the second half the mirror image with three future tenses + one present tense. This makes sense given what we have already suggested about the first and the last forming an inclusio. It also suggests that in fact all the beatitudes are promising the kingdom of heaven to people, with beatitudes 1 and 8 making the promise in general terms, beatitudes 2-7 unpacking that general promise in concrete ways appropriate to the people concerned (hence most clearly ‘those who mourn…will be comforted’, ‘the merciful…will receive mercy’. The kingdom of heaven belongs now to the people whom Jesus describes, but fully entering into the inheritance and experiencing the practical blessings of the kingdom, i.e. the comforting, the seeing God, etc., still lie in the future. So the Beatitudes reflect what we see elsewhere of NT ‘partially realised’ eschatology.
5. The emphatic focus of the Beatitudes is that of ‘righteousness’, which in Matthew means holy and ethical action, and is a non-negotiable sign of the kingdom of God—see, for example, two key texts: 5:20 ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ and 6:33 ‘Seek first the kingdom and his (i.e. God’s) righteousness’. This is a distinctive theme of Matthew, who repeats the term seven times in all.
David Wenham, in his study of the Beatitudes, (‘How do the Beatitudes Work? Some Observations on the Structure of the Beatitudes in Matthew’ in The Earliest Perceptions of Jesus in Context LNTS, 2019) comments on the significance of the two halves of the structure, and justifying his view:
The conditions described in beatitudes 1-4—poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness—all suggest need of some sort, with the possible exception of no 3, ‘the meek’, which could be seen as more ethical; the conditions described in beatitudes 5-8 all suggest people living positive kingdom lives—being merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers, and righteous.
And out of all this analysis David notes that ‘the beatitudes are carefully constructed and are a prologue and introduction to the Sermon that is to follow,’ though there is much debate about how closely the sayings here related to the teaching that follows. And he also observes how these sayings accord with the NT’s theology of grace:
The argument for the two stanza structure has been made, and is strong. But still how do the two stanzas relate to each other? They are both about people to whom the kingdom of heaven is given and belongs. The first stanza portrays them as people who are under pressure and hungry for God’s righteousness and justice to come, i.e. for his kingdom to come and his will to be done; the second portrays them as people whose lives are already demonstrating the kingdom and the will of God being done – by being merciful, pure and peace-making. The relationship of the two stanzas has often been explained in terms of dependence on God and his grace on the one hand, the starting-point of kingdom of heaven membership, and of transformation and kingdom living in love on the other. The Sermon on the Mount will develop and explain the second theme at length – living kingdom righteousness – but before that it is important to recognize the starting point of grace.
This reading connects the Beatitudes in Matthew with Is 61, which is more explicitly connected with the Beatitudes in Luke—though of course Matthew does cite Is 61 later in Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist (in Matt 11). ‘The parallels are not total, but there is what we could call an Isaianic logic to the shift of focus in beatitudes 5-8, which also prepares us for the Sermon on the Mount, which is going to describe much more fully what kingdom righteousness and following Jesus look like.’ David concludes his paper (to be published in a collection in honour of John Nolland in LNTS):
We are now in a position to answer our question about the purpose of the beatitudes: what are these blessed sayings doing? What does Matthew think Jesus is doing? The answer is threefold: first, he is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, identifying and congratulating those who are coming to him and coming into the kingdom and who will receive its amazing blessings. Jesus is thus fulfilling Isaiah 61 with its description of the Spirit-filled one proclaiming good news to the poor and to those of God’s people who mourn. Secondly, he is describing those to whom the kingdom of heaven is given, and their characteristics. The beatitudes highlight first their need, their sadness and their longings for justice, but then sum up what their lives as disciples and kingdom people will (and should) look like – merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers. Thirdly, the beatitudes form a brilliant preface to the Sermon, putting it in the context of the good news, introducing us to the key themes of kingdom of heaven and of righteousness, which the sermon will then expound.
The central term of the Beatitudes is both hard to express well and yet connects with a basic human longing—how might we live ‘the good life’, or find happiness? The question has proliferated in our Western culture of comparative leisure and wealth, which has left many people wondering (in the words of the slogan for the Alpha course) ‘Is there more to life than this?’ Jonathan Haidt’s research (in The Happiness Hypothesis) points out that happiness and true contentment are most often an indirect result of focussing on other things, and there is certainly an indirectness in Jesus’ teaching about what is important here.
Some English translations do indeed render the word makarios as ‘happy’, but this introduces a rather unhelpful sense of emotional satisfaction here, and makes the juxtaposition of happiness with mourning in the second Beatitude seem trivial or even offensive. The other main alternative is to use ‘blessed’, but this both suggests that the state promised has already been achieved, and confuses the term with another, eulogetos, which does indeed have this meaning.
A better translation might be ‘fortunate’; if the two halves of the list relate to those yearning for the kingdom of heaven and those living out the kingdom of heaven in their lives, then the full realisation of the blessings of the kingdom are both experienced in part and still to be fully realised. The life of the kingdom, in every respect, points forwards to future hope when God’s blessing will be fully experienced.
The term is found elsewhere in the gospels (Matt 11.6, 13.16, 16.17, 24.46) often with this sense of yet-to-be-fully realised promise. And it has a long pedigree (in the Hebrew term ‘ashre) in the psalms (Ps 1.1, 32.1–2, 40.4, 119.1–2, 128.1 and numerous other places). In fact, several of the Beatitudes have strong OT precedents or even take up the language of OT texts.
Those who are ‘poor in spirit’ are, in the OT narrative, those who are God’s faithful people, humbly aware of their dependence on God in the face of challenges of every kind. One version (I forget which!) translates this as ‘those who know their need of God’. In the OT, this is sometimes connected with material poverty or the threat of a powerful enemy, but here it is the inner attitude, rather than the outer situation, that is the focus. ‘Poverty of spirit’ is nothing to do with weakness of character, but concerns our relationship with God. It is surely the meaning of the requirement to ‘change and become like little children’ in dependence before we can ‘enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 18.3). We find this language in Is 66.2 and it is closely related to David’s description of the right attitude before God in Ps 51.17.
The language of ‘mourning‘, following mention of ‘the poor’, offers a strong echo of the promise of God’s anointed one bringing good news in Is 61.1–3. This suggests that, whilst the mourning of personal loss might be included, this is not the main focus. Rather, it is those who ‘grieve in Zion’ who will be given a ‘garland’ instead of ashes when they see Israel restored and God’s just reign come to pass.
The quality of being ‘meek‘ is closely related to being ‘poor [in spirit]’; both Greek terms are used to translate the same Hebrew term in the OT. Again, this is not about a character flaw or being a ‘doormat’ (as in ‘The meek shall inherit the earth…if that is alright with the rest of you!’) but is the opposite of the arrogant and presumptuous who defy God. Jesus’ saying here is an almost exact quotation of Ps 37.11; in that context, the ge might be understood as the land of Israel, but with the cosmic vision of the kingdom, we should understand it now as ‘the earth’. After all, the promise to those who ‘conquer’ through humble faithfulness to the slain lamb in Revelation is that they will ‘reign with him on the earth’ (Rev 5.10).
The language of the fourth Beatitude is in some ways the most remarkable. Although the language of ‘righteousness‘ in the OT is related to the victory of God’s justice and salvation as he intervenes on behalf of his people (which is surely the major idea behind Paul’s use of this language), within Matthew it has an ethical focus in relation to the disciple’s response to right living in obedience to God (the word occurs seven times in this gospel, of which five are in the Sermon on the Mount: Matt 3.15, 5.6, 5.10, 5.20, 6.1, 6.33, 21.32). The metaphor of eating and drinking (‘hunger and thirst’) parallels John 4.34: ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me’ as well as Jesus’ refusal to turn stones into bread, again drawing on the OT text of feeding on God’s words from Deut 8.3. The term for ‘satisfied’ is chortazomai, and is a graphic word used for fattening animals ready for slaughter. The image is that of a person sitting at the end of a magnificent feast, who has eaten as much as they possibly can and cannot manage another mouthful. Imagine being so satisfied with a life of complete obedience to God—and seeing his ways enacted in the world—that you could not manage another mouthful!
‘Mercy‘ is one of the ‘weightier matters of the law’ in Matt 23.23, and something required of God’s people.
Mercy is closely linked with forgiveness, but is broader here than just the forgiveness of specific offences: it is a generous attitude which is willing to see things from the other’s point of view and is not quick to take offence or to gloat over others’ shortcomings (1 Cor 13.4–7) (R T France, NICNT, p168).
That we will be treated as we have treated others is filled out in the ‘measure for measure’ epigram in Matt 7.2 and the ‘golden rule’ of Matt 7.12.
The notion of being ‘pure in heart‘ alludes to Ps 24.4, which asks who may approach the holy presence of God in Zion. The holiness of inner purity is matched by holiness of outer action in ‘having clean hands’. Purity also suggests a singleness of purpose and direction in life, the opposite of duplicity, and in the letter of James reflects in the life of the disciple the unity and integrity of God’s own nature (James 1.17). ‘Seeing God’ is a privilege that will be realised for the citizens of the New Jerusalem (Rev 22.4), something that we grasp only partially now in anticipation of fulfilment then (1 Cor 13.12).
It is characteristic of God’s people to ‘seek peace and pursue it’ (Ps 34.14), and Paul commands his readers to ‘live at peace as far as it is up to you’ (Romans 12.18). Peace-making and reconciliation are central to the proclamation of the good news, especially in Luke and Paul, and there is a good case for seeing ‘reconciliation’ as the central idea in Paul’s understanding of what God has done for us in Christ (2 Cor 5.19). The wisdom of God which is ours in Jesus by the Spirit is ‘peace-loving’ and ‘peacemakers sow in peace for a harvest of righteousness’ (James 3.17–18).
But anyone who seeks the kingdom of God and his righteousness will face opposition just as Jesus did, not least because his proclamation of God’s kingdom will always ‘bring division and a sword‘ (Matt 10.34), a paradox because people do not want to be called from their own insularity and conflict into God’s peace.
All this, then, offers a challenging but inviting vision of another way to live. It is striking, in the introduction to this teaching, that Matthew has noticed the presence of the crowds, gathering around to listen to the teaching of Jesus. They clearly can overhear this—but it is in the first instance directed to the disciples themselves (Matt 5.1). As we hear and live out this teaching of Jesus, the crowds will both see and hear the good news of the kingdom, so that they too might become disciples.