Blessed are the narrative-historical interpreters: preaching the Beatitudes

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We had a very good sermon on the Beatitudes yesterday. It did not sentimentalise the passage. It paid attention to the literary form. It was sensitive to language. It warned against careless application to our own context. But it made the assumption that this was generally relevant ethical-religious teaching: some care needs to be taken over translation, but Jesus is speaking as much to us as to his first century audience. I don’t think we should make that assumption.

In Matthew the Beatitudes stand at the head of a lengthy passage of teaching, outlining a radical way of obedience and trust for the disciples, and concluding with condemnation of those who prophesy falsely and a stark, divisive story about two houses, one which survives the coming storm, the other which is destroyed—“and great was the fall of it”.

The historical—and therefore contingent—significance of Jesus’ warning can be inferred from two Old Testament passages. Jeremiah denounces the prophets and priests in Jerusalem who falsely say that there will be peace, who will be put to shame: “Therefore they shall fall in their fall, and they shall perish in a time of visitation, said the Lord” (Jer. 6:15 LXX).

Similarly, Ezekiel has a parable about the false prophets who proclaim peace for Jerusalem, the absence of war: the people have built a wall, the prophets paint it with whitewash, but a storm will destroy the wall. The Lord says:

I will raze the wall that you plastered, and it shall fall, and I will set it on the ground, and its foundations shall be uncovered, and it shall fall, and you shall be finished off with reproach, and you shall recognize that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 13:14 LXX; cf. Is. 28:17)

This establishes the historical frame of reference for Jesus’ announcement regarding the imminence of the kingdom of God and the call to repentance (Matt. 4:17, 23). The Beatitudes presuppose the same setting. They are not generalised wisdom sayings. They have to be read eschatologically: they declare that a particular group of the righteous in Israel are “blessed” in view of the coming political-religious calamity.

The Beatitudes were old treasures brought out by this foremost scribe of the coming kingdom to help his followers grasp what was going on.

The eschatological orientation becomes even clearer when we begin to trace the Old Testament origins of these sayings. It is the poor and wretched who mourn over the condition of Zion who are blessed, who will be comforted, and therefore who will receive the kingdom of heaven—those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Is. 61:1-3; cf. Lk. 2:38). It is not the powerful and wicked who will inherit the land of Israel but the “meek”—those “who wait for the Lord” (Ps. 37:9, 11, 29; cf. Is. 61:7). The hungry and thirsty among scattered Israel will be satisfied when God restores his people: “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9). Those who will find salvation are those who have “clean hands and a pure heart”, who seek the face of the God of Jacob, who will see God (Ps. 24:4-6).

Jesus is drawing on Israel-centred narratives of judgment and salvation and highlighting the fact that in the midst of eschatological chaos there is a blessed group of righteous people who will directly benefit from the impending inversion of fortunes.

In the course of the eschatological upheaval, however, the righteous can expect to face opposition and violence from the wicked. So Jesus concludes by focusing on those who will be reviled and persecuted on his account: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12). He is clearly aware that there are antecedents for the present crisis in the history of Israel—not least the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

Commending the disciples for their understanding, he said: “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). The Beatitudes were old treasures brought out by this foremost scribe of the coming kingdom to help his followers grasp what was going on.

So the argument here is that the Beatitudes are as much part of the story of first century Israel as the execution of John the Baptist or the revolt against Rome. Our responsibility as preachers and teachers today is, first and foremost, to tell that story with a diligent and detailed appreciation for the constraints of historical perspective. That is partly a matter of hermeneutical integrity, but I would also suggest that the narrative-historical framework gives us a much better way of interpreting and responding to our own “eschatological” crisis than the traditional, uncritical, and frequently sentimental reapplication of texts. That said, there’s no reason why the Beatitudes should not supply the template for a contextually appropriate restatement of blessing today—if, by the Spirit of the living God, we judge that to be good and right. 

And that last bit is the tricky part, because I agree with everything you said here.

And yet, when we transpose this, or look at the church’s current experience in comparison, or whatever it is we’re doing to appropriate the reading for our own experience, it seems very natural to carry over at least principially that this is what the kingdom of God look like when a rival kingdom oppresses her.

For instance, when a Christian is taken to prison in China, I can’t imagine Jesus being ok with that Christian shooting their way out or organizing an armed revolution to overthrow their government. And it’s not strictly because the Beatitudes forbid it, but because I identify the historical contingency of the Beatitudes as the law of the kingdom when she faces the Beast — a situation that is not hard to transpose onto, say, China.

So, while I might be reluctant to use the Beatitudes as a blanket provision for submitting to abuse in any circumstance, I also know that doing good to enemies is part of faithful martyrdom which is the exact mechanism God used to overthrow the oppression of Rome. While I can’t guarantee that, in a given situation of oppression, God will overthrow that oppressor through the same mechanism, I also don’t feel like there’s a complete disconnect between the two situations such that the testimony we have of God acting -that way- in history has no real implications for our expectations in similar situations.

Like, prophetically, that feels wrong (not saying that’s what you’re recommending). I feel like I should be able to appropriate that text to give meaning to that facet of the church’s experience in the future.

Historical context is always inescapable, but it seems to me clear that the Biblical Scriptures operate on a platform of general applicability. Yes the walls of Jerusalem would fall, but so will the walls of, say, China or, say, the US. The great struggle of Christ versus antichrist, or autonomous individual versus empire rings today as loudly as it did in the first century. Now as much as then are the poor in spirit blessed, as are the peace makers and the meek.

@Arie Uittenbogaard:

Hi Arie,

This is something I was trying to work through in my own comment further up (or down, depending on how the comments show up).

I think what’s important is to realize the difference between a given Scripture’s scope and how we might appropriate that meaning in our own scope. I would not agree that the Scriptures operate on a platform of general applicability. I would say, though, that the work of the Spirit through people in another day and age may very well cause them to look back on the past, find the meaning there, and appropriate that meaning to make sense of the experience of the people of God in their time.

For example, take Isaiah 7:14ff. I don’t think anyone would say that passage is generally applicable. I’ve not yet heard the sermon that, whenever there are times of trouble, God will send a special baby as a sign of His presence and favor. We know this is something Isaiah the prophet is declaring God will do within the particulars of Israel’s oppression by Assyria.

Later, the author of Matthew will look at Israel under Rome’s oppression and the advent of Jesus Christ and declare that Isaiah 7:14ff has happened in their own day. Jesus is the Emmanuel of that time in that historical circumstance that has rather obvious similarities at a general level to Israel’s situation when Isaiah was a prophet. By doing this, he gives a world of meaning and coherence to the situation of the Israel of his day as well as the great comfort that is derived by such a sign — the meaning and the comfort both squarely derived from the original historical contingency behind Isaiah.

Might the day come when a special baby is born in China and his or her arrival heralds a great working of deliverance for God’s people there? Sure. That baby won’t be Jesus, of course, or even little Emmanuel, but perhaps God will send a sign of His imminent liberation to China in that form, and it would be appropriate for a prophet to declare that what happened to Isaiah was happening again (assuming that’s what happens, of course).

I use that example because it’s a very obvious one. Other situations are more complex, but I’d say that it’s perfectly appropriate (no pun intended) to take meaning from an event in the historical experience of the people of God and “transpose” it to the current experience of the people of God to help make sense of it, receive encouragement, gain insight as to how we might appropriately respond, etc.

But I’d also say that’s different from extracting general, timeless principles from a given text and generically applying them across the board to the people of God at all times. Maybe I’m splitting hairs too finely.