Beatitudes: scripture, culture and theology

This coming weekend is the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel is the beginning of Matthew’s well known “Sermon on the Mount.” In yesterday’s post we covered the nature and alternative outlines of the Sermon. Today we go a little deeper into the nature of the first part of the Sermon known as the Beatitudes.

Beatitudes are found elsewhere in Matthew (11:6; 13:16; 16:17; 24:46) and more frequently in Luke. They are based on a common form of expression in the poetic books of the Old Testament (e.g. Pss. 1:1; 32:1–2; 40:4; 119:1–2; 128:1), but nowhere in the Old Testament or other Jewish literature is there so long and carefully constructed a series as here. A beatitude (Latin) or makarism (Greek) is a statement in the indicative mood beginning with the adjective makarios, declaring certain people to be in a privileged, fortunate circumstance. It is not original to Jesus but occurs frequently in the OT as well as in non-Scriptural Jewish and other writings. Used here, the beatitudes reflect the Jewish use and setting: wisdom and prophecy. In the wisdom setting beatitudes declare the blessings of those in fortunate circumstances, based on observation and experience (e.g. Sir 25:7-9), and declare their present reward and happiness. In the prophetic setting beatitudes declare present and future blessings to those who are presently in dire circumstances but who will be vindicated at the coming of God’s kingdom (e.g. Is 30:18, 32:20; Dan 12:12).  Paraphrasing Boring (177-8), to that end:

  • The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act (blessed) – not the subjective feeling of a person (happy).  As with covenant language the opposite of “blessed” is not “unhappy,” but “cursed” (Mt 25:31-46).
  • The beatitudes are not an imperative or exhortation, but rather an indicative. They declare blessedness to those committed to the future reality of the kingdom of God – even as they imply an imperative in the call to decision/commitment. They do not so much exhort conversion, but declare the marks of the church.
  • There is an ethical demand in that the blessed community does not remain passive but acts in accord with the coming kingdom. This aspect is elaborated in 5:17-7:12.
  • The beatitudes are written in unconditional performance language. The form is not “if you will x then y,” but they unconditionally declare that those who are x will be y.  Like the prophetic word of Scripture, the beatitudes effects what it says, bringing into being what it states. They are not entrance requirements, they are declarations about insiders. They are gospel, not law.
  • The beatitudes are true on the basis of the authority of the one who speaks them. In that light, the beatitudes make an implicit Christological claim.
  • The beatitudes are bracketed by “the kingdom of heaven” and thus they are eschatological rather than historical. The “comfort” of 5:4 refers to salvation expected as the consolation of Israel. Similarly much of what the beatitudes declare are not worldly, practical realities, but elements of the eschatological hopes of Israel as declared by the prophets.
  • The beatitudes do not describe nine groups of people who go to heaven, but are declarations about the blessedness of the community of disciples living in anticipation of God’s reign.

The Cultural Fabric of the Beatitudes

One core value among Mediterranean people – that is often missed by Western readers – is that a key cultural thread is that of honor.  It is a central value that drives all behavior. Honor is a public claim to worth and a public acknowledgment by others of that claim.  John Pilch describes how this concept is woven into the fabric of the Beatitudes:

The three basic honorable and esteemed behaviors offered by Jesus are being poor, mourning, and hungering. “Poor” in the Bible is never an economic designation. It rather describes someone who has temporarily lost honorable status and must seek at all costs to regain but never surpass that status.

“Poor” thus refers to a revolving class of people. The customary association of poor with widows and orphans confirms this notion of losing status. Widows and orphans did not have to retain this position forever. Widows could remarry (see the serious discussion of “real” widows in 1 Tim 5:3-16); orphans could be reabsorbed into an extended family. Those who lost status were culturally obliged to regain it.

There are, however, two distinctive elements in Jesus’ beatitudes. First, he says being poor constitutes true honor! Second, the passive voice in each beatitude (“will be comforted,” “be filled,” etc.) is a strategy used by our ancestors in the faith to avoid saying the name of God. Those who engage in social protest (mourning and fasting) will be comforted by whom? By God, of course! This grammatical usage in the Hebrew and Greek Bible is called, appropriately, the “theological or divine passive voice.”

In Jesus’ view, true honor and esteem are determined and bestowed by God, very publicly, for all to see. And the things that God considers truly honorable and worthy of praise are almost always the opposite of what human beings of any culture think.

Malina and Rohrbaugh (47) suggest: “Within an honor-shame setting, perhaps the best translation for ‘blessed is/are’ would be ‘How honorable …,’ ‘How full of honor …,’ ‘How honor bringing …,’ and the like. The counter to ‘beatitudes’ are the ‘woes’ or reproaches in Matt. 23:13-35; there the formula: ‘Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites …’ ought be translated: ‘How shameless you are….’”

The Theological Fabric of the Beatitudes

Throughout Matthew’s narrative the word dikaiosynē (or its adjective form, dikaios) appears is key passages (e.g. 5:6). Most translations opt for “righteousness” as the translation; the New Jerusalem opts for “saving justice.”  In all translations there is a basic concept of appropriateness – the way things ought to be – and right relationship. The word dikaiosynē, in its religious setting, means the way things ought to be between God and his people.  In other words, people are righteous when they stand in right relationship to God (the medieval Latin word for this is pietas; I will use “piety” to convey this idea).  Thus righteousness/piety implies, by extension, right relationships with everything else in one’s life: possessions (6:24), one’s neighbors (22:38-40), and even one’s enemies (5:44).  When the world is the “way things ought to be” that is Matthew’s sense of the kingdom of heaven being present in the world.  Righteousness (dikaiosynē ) is the state of affairs, all affairs, when God rules.  From our perspective dikaiosynē is faithfulness to the teachings and commandment of God as a response to the imminence of God and the kingdom.

It is in their vein that the Beatitudes declare blessedness to those committed to the future reality of the kingdom of God – even as they imply an imperative in the call to decision/commitment of a discipleship rooted in dikaiosynē.

The blessings of the Beatitudes are the honor and esteem that God bestows upon those who are faithful to all that He commands.  Thus Matthew makes the case that this is the way the world ought to be.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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