Beatitudes: context

sermon-on-the-mount1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 He began to teach them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. 6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,   for they will be satisfied. 7 Blessed are the merciful,  for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers,  for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of  righteousness,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Matthew 5:1-12)

Context. By way of preparation for the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus’ superiority to John the Baptist (3:1–12), recounted the divine acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God (3:13–17), and shown what kind of Son of God Jesus is (4:1–11). The scene as been set: the Messiah had begun to preach in Galilee as Scripture foretold (4:12-17). The Son of God, has begun to form a new messianic community via the calling of the four disciples (4:18-22).  Boring (The Gospel of Matthew, 169) notes that “The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the messianic community: the church. Jesus’ baptism and temptation were not merely individualistic religious experiences of a ‘great man,’ but the recapitulation of the birth of Israel in the Red Sea and the wilderness testing; they lead to the formation of a new community, the Messiah’s people (1:21).” In addition to the first disciples, large crowds are being drawn to his teaching (vv.23-25).  The Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) will reveal Jesus as the authoritative teacher and the manner in which “the Law and the prophets” are fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

Introduction to the Discourse. From the 4th through the 9th Sundays of Year A the Catholic Lectionary covers most of Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel according to Matthew – popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” These verses are the first, the longest and the most carefully structured discourse in the Matthew’s narrative. Roughly 27 percent of Matthew’s discourse is shared with Luke 6:20-49, a further 33 percent has parallels elsewhere in Luke, and 5 percent in Mark, while the remaining 35 percent is unique to Matthew. In Matthew it is a lengthy collection of authoritative teaching with a parallel of authoritative deeds following in Matthew 8-9.

For Whom the Message is Intended. Jesus has drawn large crowds, and because of them, has withdrawn with his disciples to a setting where he begins to instruct this intimate circle of followers on the nature of their new commitment to the kingdom of God (cf. 4:17).  The focus of the discourse is not the wider proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom of God” (v.23), but instruction for those who have already responded to the proclamation and now need to learn what constitutes life in the kingdom. The teaching will describe them as a special group set apart, and often persecuted by people of the world. They are those who have entered into a new relationship with “your Father in heaven” (6:9) and are called to a radical lifestyle distinct from the norms of society.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has these introductory comments about the entire sermon:

The focus of Jesus’ teaching concerns the “good news of God’s empire/reign” (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The sermon is not, though, a comprehensive manual or rule book not a step-by-step “how to” book. Rather it offers a series of illustrations, or “for examples,” or “case studies” of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign. (p.128)

For those who belong to the minority and marginal community of disciples of Jesus, the sermon continues the gospel’s formational and envisioning work. It shapes and strengthens the community’s identity and lifestyle as a small community in a dominant culture that does not share that culture’s fundamental convictions. The community is reminded that the interactions with God, with one another, and with the surrounding society are important aspects of their existence which embraces all of life, present and future. Mission to, love for, and tension with the surrounding society mark their participation in this society. Integrity or wholeness defines their relationships with one another. Prayer, accountability, and the active doing of God’s will are features of their relationship with God and experience of God’s empire. (p.129)

The Nature of the Discourse. The Beatitudes, which begin the “Sermon on the Mount” have a tendency to lead readers/hearers of the text to assume that Matthew has constructed a general ethical code which forms the core message. Craig Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 160) notes that there are more than thirty-six discrete views about the sermon’s message. He summarizes 8 of them:

  1. The predominant medieval view, reserving a higher ethic for clergy, especially in monastic orders;
  2. Martin Luther’s view that the sermon represents an impossible demand like the law;
  3. the Anabaptist view, which applies the teachings literally for the civil sphere;
  4. the traditional liberal social gospel position;
  5. existentialist interpreters’ application of the sermon’s specific moral demands as a more general challenge to decision;
  6. Schweitzer’s view that the sermon embodies an interim ethic rooted in the mistaken expectation of imminent eschatology;
  7. the traditional dispensational application primarily to a future millennial kingdom; and
  8. the view of an “inaugurated eschatology,” in which the sermon’s ethic remains the ideal or goal, but which will never be fully realized until the consummation of the kingdom.”

It is perhaps the first view (ethical) that is most common.  Many scholars trace this popular predominance to the influence of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy whose literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus centered on the Sermon on the Mount (The Kingdom of God Is Within You). But this ethical reading alone does not do justice to the whole of Matthew’s text. Jesus is describing a standard that is nothing less than wholeness/completeness, being like God (5:48).  As St. Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd Century, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Jesus’ use of black-and-white categories lays down a challenge which can not simply be converted into a set of rules and regulations for life in the real world. The essence of life in the kingdom of heaven is the antitheses of a legalistic code, as 5:20 will state and 5:21-48 will repeatedly illustrate. The discourse is intended as a guide to life – but only for those who are committed to the kingdom of heaven.  And, paradoxically, even they will always find that its reach exceeds their grasp.

An Outline of the Discourse. As you might imagine, there is no agreed upon outline of the discourse. There are three general forms which might prove helpful and seem to represent – in broad strokes – the majority of views:

R.T. France (2007, p.155) suggests:
5:3-16    the distinctiveness of the disciples
5:17-48    fulfilling the Law
6:1-8    piety, true and false
6:19-34    the priority of trust in God over material security
7:1-12    a collection of saying thematically connected to the discourse
7:13-27    four challenging contrasts
7:28-29    the conclusion

Eugene Boring (p.173) offers an alternative reading:
5:3-16    Triple Pronouncement: the disciples as the eschatological community
the Beatitudes
the disciples as salt
the disciples as light and a city on a hill
5:17-7:12    Triple instructions of the Way of Life in the eschatological community
Part 1 – the Law
Part 2 – temple service
part 3 – deeds of loving service
7:13-27    Triple eschatological warnings to the community
7:28-29    Conclusion

Peter Ellis and C.H. Lohr, who overall see a chiastic structure to Matthew narrative, also see, like Boring, a triplet structure, but locate the Lord’s Prayer as the chiastic center of the entire discourse.

The Message of the Sermon. Regardless of the structure assigned, this discourse deals with the character, duties, attitudes and dangers of the Christian disciple. It is a manifesto setting out the nature of life in the kingdom of heaven. As France writes (1989, p.112):

The Sermon thus makes no claim to present an ethic for all men; indeed much of it would make no sense as a universal code. It is concerned not with ethics in general, but with discipleship, with man in his obedience and devotion to God, not with a pattern for society. To interpret it legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive, going far beyond what human nature can meet, a demand for perfection (5:48). And central to it is the person of Jesus himself: for his sake the disciples are to be persecuted (5:11); he sets before them his own interpretation of the will of God (5:17–48: ‘I say to you …’); their eternal destiny depends on their relation to him (7:21–23) and their response to his teaching (7:24–27). The Sermon is thus far from being just a collection of moral precepts. It presents the radical demand of Jesus the Messiah on all who respond to his preaching of God’s kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount compels us, in the first place, to ask who he is who utters these words.


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 171-81
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 128-37
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 153-72
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 111-7
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 160-72
  • Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) 39-51

1 thought on “Beatitudes: context

  1. very useful while writing an exegesis on the beatitudes. While looking for ideas I found your site by providential accident.
    Many blessings

    Bill Darling

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