The beatitudes

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The beatitude in Judaism

The beatitude is a common Jewish literary form, found widely in biblical and post-biblical writings. Essentially, it is an affirmation of those who have gained divine approval or of a way of life that will ensure divine approval: a man is blessed, for example, if he fears the Lord or delights in his law or does not walk in the way of the ungodly; a man is blessed ‘whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (Ps. 32:1).

The beatitude functions, in effect, as an informal linguistic boundary marker. It defines within the larger corpus of Israel a group of people who, on account of their behaviour or spiritual condition, experience to an extraordinary degree the goodness of God.

In many instances this ‘goodness’ is realized in quite worldly and material terms: the man who ‘fears the Lord, who walks in his ways’ (Ps. 128:1) will eat the fruit of his labour, his wife will be a fruitful vine, his children will be like olive shoots around his table, he will see the prosperity of Jerusalem. But also the way of obedience and faithfulness is itself the source of joy: ‘Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!’ (Ps. 112:1). In later Jewish writings, as one might expect, the beatitude takes on an eschatological orientation:

Blessed are you, righteous and elect ones, for glorious is your portion. The righteous ones shall be in the light of the sun and the elect ones in the light of eternal life which has no end, and the days of the life of the holy ones cannot be numbered. (1 Enoch 58:2-3)

The programmatic function of the beatitudes

These structural observations are not merely incidental. The highly stylized format of the beatitudes and the prominence given to them at the front of a major body of teaching - the sermon on the mount in Matthew, the sermon on a level place in Luke - suggest that these resonant statements are of some importance for understanding Jesus’ purposes.

Matthew and Luke agree in situating the beatitudes in close relation to his early healing ministry in Galilee. Large numbers of people came from Jerusalem and Perea in the south and from as far north as Syria to hear him and be healed from their diseases. Although it is the disciples who are directly addressed at this point, they cannot be entirely dissociated from the mass of those ‘afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics’ (Matt. 4:24; cf. Luke 6:18). Indeed, in Matthew’s longer version the third person beatitudes could easily be taken to encompass not only the disciples, who have ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28; Matt. 19:27; cf. Luke 5:11, 28), but also these larger crowds. In any case, it is in this sort of milieu, amongst the weary and heavy-laden, the anawim of Israel, not amongst the ‘hypocrites’, that the true recipients of the kingdom of heaven will be found.

What Jesus has done, therefore, is to take an informal and ad hoc means of identifying the righteous within Israel and fashion it into a very deliberate, almost programmatic, definition of those who at this critical juncture in Israel’s history will experience the joy of divine favour.

To understand this programmatic function, however, we must examine more closely the relation of these beatitudes to the Old Testament.

The rhetorical structure of Jesus’ beatitudes

The beatitudes appear in Matthew and Luke in markedly different forms. In Matthew nine beatitudes with the form ‘blessed are… for…’ are listed. The first eight are third person affirmations (‘blessed are those who…’) and may strike us as somewhat impersonal compared to the ninth, which addresses the disciples directly and carries the further exhortation, ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…’ (Matt. 5:12). Setting aside this last saying, the first and the eighth beatitudes form an inclusio: in both the outcome is the same (‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’) and the o[ti clause is distinguished further by being in the present tense. In the intervening affirmations (the second to the seventh) the outcome is presented in future terms.

Luke, by contrast, has only four beatitudes, corresponding more or less closely to the first, fourth, second and last (in that order) in Matthew’s version. Here rhetorical structure derives from the juxtaposition of four antithetical ‘woes’: ‘woe to you that are rich’ corresponds to ‘blessed are you poor’, and so on.

As a rhetorical unit the beatitudes differ from the Jewish parallels in two major respects. First, Jesus attaches in each instance a clearly defined outcome to the state of blessedness: the pure in heart are blessed, for example, in that they will see God. The explanatory clause with hoti is generally lacking in the parallels (but note eg. Gen. 30:13; Bar. 4:4; 1 Enoch 51:2). Secondly, we rarely find anything like the systematic arrangement of blessings that we have in the gospels (less formal lists are found in Sir. 25:7-10; 2 Enoch 42:6-14; 52:1-15).

Relation to the Old Testament

It is important to notice that not only the form but also, to a large extent, the content of the beatitudes is drawn from the Old Testament. Each statement is a thread that pulls on some part of the Prophets or Wisdom literature in the tapestry of scripture.

The first two affirmations in Matthew (‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ and ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’) are almost certainly meant to recall the eschatological manifesto of Isaiah 61:1-3 LXX, which Jesus appropriated for himself in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19): the Lord ‘anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor… to comfort all who mourn’.

This, incidentally, has a bearing on how we understand the difference between Luke’s simple ‘blessed are you poor’ and Matthew’s seemingly spiritualized version: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’. Much of the confusion that has arisen is resolved if this Old Testament context is taken into account.

The third beatitude (‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land’) is virtually a quotation from Psalm 37:11 (36:11 LXX): ‘the meek shall inherit the land and shall take delight in the abundance of peace’. But the same motif is also present in that crucial passage in Isaiah 61: ‘Thus a second time they shall inherit the land and everlasting joy (shall be) upon their head’ (61:7 LXX).

Psalm 107 speaks of the hungry and thirsty, whose ‘soul fainted within them’, who ‘cried to the Lord in their trouble’: ‘he satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things’ (vv. 5-6, 9; cf. Ps. 22:26). The fifth beatitude has its antecedents in Proverbs: ‘the one who has mercy on the poor is most blessed’ (14:21 LXX); ‘the one who has compassion shall receive mercy’ (17:5 LXX). The sixth recalls Psalm 24:3-6 (cf. Ps. 73:1):

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…. He will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Eschatological orientation

There is more to this, I think, than simply Jesus’ wish to invest his words with the authority of Scripture. What binds most of these Old Testament quotations together is the particular question of Israel’s destiny. They have a fundamental eschatological orientation - eschatological in the sense that they anticipate a decisive future intervention by God in the history of Israel both to judge and to save.

This must have a bearing on how we interpret Jesus’ teaching. If we approach the beatitudes from a modern perspective, looking for a definition of individual piety, or a general Christian ethic, or a prescription for a truly happy state of mind, we are likely to knock them off the track of Jesus’ intention. These are the wrong questions and we are likely to get, at best, misleading answers.

The beatitudes presuppose, rather, the very precise question of what is to happen to God’s covenantal people. This is an eschatological concern, but it is one that must work itself out in relation to Israel’s immediate history.

Let’s look at what this means in more detail…

Isaiah 61:1-3 belongs to a prophecy about the restoration of Israel and the return of the Lord to Zion following the Babylonian exile. This thematic background must somehow be taken into account as we seek to determine who the ‘poor in spirit’ are. We misunderstand Jesus’ intention if we remove them from the drama of Israel’s crisis and make them walk on a universal stage.

Likewise, it is specifically ‘those who mourn in Zion’ who will be comforted, those who mourn over the destruction of Jerusalem. And their comfort is to be experienced in concrete historical terms: ‘They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations’ (Is. 61:4). In Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish beatitude, therefore, those who mourn are not the bereaved; nor are they people who grieve over their own sinfulness; they are those saddened specifically by the condition of Israel.

The texts from the Psalms that lie behind the third and fourth beatitudes have as their focus the repossession of the land. So when Jesus says that the meek ‘shall inherit the land’, this is in the first place the land of Israel – not the ‘earth’, as the later universal church has come to understand it.

The point of the saying is not that ‘meekness’, as a general moral or spiritual quality, is a prerequisite for personal salvation. In Psalm 37 the meek are differentiated from the ‘wicked’, who plot against the righteous and ‘bring down the poor and needy’ (vv. 12, 14). Written on the back of these words of blessing, therefore, are words of judgment on the hypocrisy of establishment Judaism, which is why in Luke the beatitudes are matched by equivalent woes. The fate of the wicked will be destruction; they will be ‘cut off’, but ‘those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land’ (v. 9) - this is where Israel’s hope lies.

Similarly, those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ will experience the redemption of the Lord who gathers the scattered in ‘from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south’ (Ps.107:2-3).

If ‘blessed are the merciful’ also has Hosea 6:6 LXX as its subtext (‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’), the words that precede again point clearly to a context of judgment against faithless Israel: ‘my judgment shall go forth as the light’.

In Psalm 24 the pure in heart, who seek God, are those who aspire to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place. The Psalm concludes with the triumphal acclamation: ‘Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.’ To ‘see God’, then, as the sixth beatitude has it, is to see the King of glory return to Zion - which we should probably understand in terms of the sort of renewal that Peter describes in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-36).

Jesus’ approval of peacemakers no doubt implies disapproval of the activity of the militants or zealots who sought to bring about the kingdom of heaven - to save Israel - by violent means. The context for interpretation is again both eschatological and historical. And if the disciples are persecuted for Jesus’ sake, it is because God has assigned to them the same role that the Old Testament prophets played in previous crises of divine judgment (Matt.5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23).

What we discover, therefore, is that the beatitudes are bound up, as much as any other part of Jesus’ teaching, with the proclamation of a great eschatological reversal. They have been constructed largely out of texts in the Old Testament that interpret Israel’s turbulent history as salvation-history; but they have been constructed around Jesus’ distinctive conviction that this salvation-history was approaching a cataclysm. In view of this impending reversal he invites the disciples to see in themselves, those who are poor enough in spirit to receive, the fulfilment of God’s purposes.

The beatitudes and contemporary spirituality

At this point we are in a position to address the question of how we should measure the church today against this programmatic definition. That, of course, is more than we can do here, but some brief comments may be made.

First, the beatitudes must remain controversial and subversive, challenging, disturbing. We must be shocked by them. They oppose the complacency and hypocrisy into which religious people so easily slide.

Secondly, we should not allow the beatitudes to be misappropriated in the interests either of political ideology or of a private and individualistic pietism. They define a commitment and a piety that is inescapably caught up in the dynamic of God’s kingdom, that is centred around the redeeming work of God and its proclamation in the world.

Thirdly, although we must keep in mind that the beatitudes were addressed first to Israel, we can find in them the outlines of a spirituality that still brings us close to the heart of the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - a spirituality with a marked bias towards the poor in spirit.

The beatitudes challenge us to rediscover a quality of blessedness in life very different to the shallow satisfaction provided by the modern industry of hedonism, the frantic mechanical stimulation and gratification of desires that too many people today mistake for happiness.

Read time: 12 minutes