The Second Stanza – Promises of Reward to the Virtuous

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 drilled deep into the nature of the first part of the Sermon known as the Beatitudes. In today’s post we considered the first stanza of the beatitudes (vv.3-6). Today we look at the second stanza (vv.7-10)

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.

All the beatitudes in Matthew 5:7-10 are best interpreted as promising eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. The second stanza does not, however, represent a logical departure from the thought that undergirds the first, for the virtues that are rewarded with blessings are ones exercised on behalf of the people mentioned in Stanza One. In other words the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6.

The merciful. “Mercy” (eleos) can have quite a broad range of meanings — which all involve concrete acts rather than just an attitude. It can mean “to forgive sins.” A related word (eleemosyne) refers to the giving of money to the poor (6:2, 3, 4). “Showing mercy” (eleeo) can mean “to heal those who are sick” (9:27; 20:30, 31) or “those possessed by demons” (15:22; 17:17). Twice in Matthew, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In the first of these (9:13), he metaphorically illustrates mercy as being a physician to those who are sick (9:12). It is spoken in the context of eating with sinners and tax collectors (9:10-13). In the second instance (12:7), the context is feeding those who are hungry. As already illustrated by Joseph’s actions in the opening scene of the Gospel, Matthew does not understand “justice” and “mercy” to be alternatives (1:19; see also 20:1-16, esp. v. 4). In Matthew, Jesus is generally referring to concrete acts of mercy rather than a merciful attitude.

Powell (131-32) writes that in a basic sense, “the merciful” are healers, people who seek to put right that which has gone wrong. They favor the removal of everything that prevents life from being as God intends: poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons, debt…The blessing pronounced on the merciful is that they will receive mercy. Surely this means that they themselves will be treated with mercy on the final day of judgment, but in a broader sense it may mean simply that they will see mercy prevail. They will receive mercy not only for themselves but also for those on whose behalf they have sought it. The advent of God’s kingdom is a blessing to those who value mercy, because God also values mercy and, when God rules, what God values will become reality.

The clean of heart. This beatitude is perhaps the one with a wide variety of OT allusion that can be associated with it, giving a richness to the meaning of “the clean (katharos) of heart.”  Katharos is from the root word kardia, which here and elsewhere in scripture seems simply to represent “the true self,” what one really is, apart from pretense. Thus, to “understand with the heart” (13:15) means to understand truly; to “forgive from the heart” (18:35) means to forgive truly. In other words, “clean of heart” amounts to an internal integrity that transparently manifests itself in outward behavior. Matthew presents certain Pharisees as models of an external, rule-oriented purity that Jesus rejected and condemned because it masked inner corruption (cf. 15:1–20; 23:25–28). His disciples must possess an inner piety and purity that surpasses mere externally acceptable behavior (5:20–22, 27–28). They have experienced the power of the Kingdom, which purifies from the inside out. Thus, they must cultivate integrity in their private intellectual, emotional, and volitional lives (cf. 5:28; 6:21; 9:4; 12:34; 15:8, 18, 19; 18:35; 22:37).   Powell (133)writes: “… we may surmise that the pure in heart are those who are truly pure as opposed to those who are only apparently so (23:25-28). Just as people may worship God with their lips when their hearts are far from God (15:8), so also may they appear katharos [“pure” / “clean”] to others when they are actually full of akatharsia (“uncleanness,” 23:28). Thus, many commentators believe the real accent in Matthew’s sixth beatitude is on integrity.”

Concerning the blessing that they will see God, Powell (134) writes: “Such a blessing is especially appropriate for the pure in heart because, as people who are truly pleasing to God, they have offered the world a vision of what is godly. Those who will see God are those in whom something of God has been seen.”

On another level, scholars such as Boring (179) see this beatitude as a recasting of Ps 24:3-4.  In this vein, “clean of heart” is not merely the avoidance of “impure thoughts” (e.g., sexual fantasies), but refers to the single-minded devotion to God appropriate to a monotheistic faith. Having an “undivided heart” (Ps 86:11) is the corollary of monotheism, and requires that there be something big enough and good enough to merit one’s whole devotion, rather than the functional polytheism of parceling oneself out to a number of loyalties. Faith in the one God requires that one be devoted to God with all one’s heart (Deut 6:4-5; cf. Matt 22:37). This corresponds to the “single eye” of 6:22, the one pearl of 13:45-46, to Paul’s “this one thing I do” (Phil 3:13 NRSV) and Luke’s “one thing is needed” (Luke 10:42 NIV)—not one more thing. The opposite of purity of heart is a divided heart (Jas 4:8), attempting to serve two masters (6:24), the “doubt” (distazō; lit. “have two minds”) of 14:33 and 28:17, and the conduct of the Pharisees (23:25).18  Put differently, it is a single-hearted passion for God.  This is well said by St. Augustine (Confessions 2.1) when he wrote:  “While turned from Thee, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things.”

The one whose one passion is God and whose inward nature corresponds with his outward profession: “Such are the people that love the LORD, that seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Ps. 24:6).  They receive the promise that they shall see God. This can only fully be realized in heaven, when ‘we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2); then ‘we shall be like him’, and the longings of v. 6 will be finally satisfied. But the vision of God is already the experience of his true lovers on earth, who persevere in his service: “persevered as if seeing the one who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).

The peacemakers. Those whom Jesus pronounces blessed in 5:9 are best regarded as agents of God who are actively establishing shalom. This correctly stresses that this beatitude is not about being a passively peaceful person but an active reconciler of people (cf. Luke 2:14; 19:38; Acts 10:36; Eph 2:14–18; Jas 3:18). Those who would be called God’s children will bear a filial likeness to their heavenly Father who treats enemies well (5:43–48). The experience of peace with God enables Jesus’ disciples to seek the cessation of their hostilities with people. While the gospel itself may offend some people and lead to hostility (10:34), Jesus’ disciples actively seek harmonious relationships with others. In this age of individual, ethnic, and national aggression, Jesus’ reminder that peacemakers, not warmongers, have God’s approval, is sorely needed. Carter (Matthew and the Margins, 135) starkly reminds us that in Jesus’ time – as well as our own – peace can be proposed or imposed:

Rome’s peace (Pax Romana) consisted of Rome’s “gift” of order, security, and prosperity, guaranteed by the emperor as commander of Rome’s military. G. Zampaglione notes that “almost all the Roman writers agreed that spreading peace … meant subjecting other peoples to Roman dominion,” an expression of the “proud conviction” that Rome had been “vested with the mission of imposing [its] laws and way of life on the rest of the world”.

In Matthew’s Gospel, people are identified as God’s children when their conduct is similar to God’s own (5:48), in the same way that people are identified as members of Jesus’ family when they do God’s will (12:50).

Those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Although dikaiosynē was discussed briefly in the fourth beatitudes, it has a different meaning here. In the fourth beatitude, it was God’s activity to bring about a just world. Here, it is our human activity to participate in what God is doing. The virtue being promoted is not persecution, but commitment. The virtuous are not like those who “hear the word and immediately receives it with joy; … but … when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, they immediately fall away” (13:20-21).

This eighth beatitude serves as a fitting conclusion to the second stanza of four and summarizes the basic thought of the unit. Those who show mercy and those who work to establish God’s shalom are examples of people committed to dikaiosynē, and if these people are pure in heart, then their commitment will not falter in the face of persecution. In every case, the people described by these beatitudes are virtuous. They display qualities that, ideally, all people should display. In one sense, then, the thought of the second set of beatitudes is quite different from that of the first. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God’s will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness/justice. (Powell, 136)

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

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