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 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.