Matthew (Part 07) - The Beatitudes

11/11/2009 08:25

Most Bible scholars will offer Luke 6 as the parallel passage for Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. But there are notable differences. The first is that in 6:7 Luke tells us Christ came down from a mountain and stood on a “level place.” We could surmise that once finished with healing, he retreated back up the mountain in order to preach from that vantage point. But merely the fact of similarities in the message to follow does not compel us to assume that this message in Luke 6 was spoken at the same time (or place) as that in Matthew 5-7. And the differences in the message may even point to different emphases.


At first reading, the sermon in Matthew seems a bit disjointed, seemingly moving from subject to subject without much connection. Various reasons have been given for this, including that Matthew did not record the sermon word for word. Another reason put forward is that this is not one sermon but rather Matthew’s compilation of several teachings of Christ given at different times. There is a danger in being satisfied that the text really is disjointed. Even in passages that are known to be cohesively delivered thoughts (as in the epistles), Christians have a tendency to pull verses out of context. By labeling a passage disjointed due to summary note-taking or compilation, we may tend to (perhaps subconsciously) feel justified in pulling verses out of context. But even if what we know as the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation, we have to read the passage carefully because Matthew did (with God’s inspirational oversight) record this passage with intended organization.


The sermon begins with beatitudes (from Latin for blessings). We are given nine characteristics of attitude or action that the blessed one exhibits. But, as with any list, we may pause to wonder why these attitudes and actions are highlighted when certain others are not. Let’s review the nine characteristics.


Those blessed:

How blessed:

The poor in spirit

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Those who mourn

They shall be comforted

The meek

They shall inherit the earth

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

They shall be satisfied

The merciful

They shall receive mercy

The pure in heart

They shall see God

The peacemakers

They shall be called children of God

Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven

You when others revile you, persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely on Christ’s account

Your reward is great in heaven


Many scholars point to these characteristics as indicative of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. But then, why are not the lovers of God listed? What of those who spread joy (2 Cor 1:24)? Or give thanks (Psalm 140:13)? Or those who lay down their lives for others (John 15:13)? We may answer that this, like many other NT lists, is not meant to be exhaustive. But that doesn’t satisfy as to why these and not others.


A few things should be noted about this list. First, these characteristics all seem to have to do with humility. To be poor in spirit, to be meek, to be merciful, to be a peacemaker, and the others all speak of a denial of self interest. Further, the ninth characteristic suddenly changes from third person (“they” and “those who”) to second person (“you” and “your”). This ninth beatitude appears to be a summation of the other eight. Notice too that the blessing of the ninth—“Your reward is great in heaven”—does encompass the blessings mentioned in the previous eight.


So now our question of “why these blessings” may be refined to why is Christ recounting characteristics of humility? For the answer we need to once again take a step back to recount the overall flow of Matthew’s presentation so far. He began in chapter 1 with the genealogy to show that Jesus belonged to the covenant (of Abraham), had a right to the throne (of David), and was born of a virgin (of God). Matthew, remember, throughout this book is demonstrating Christ to be Messiah, while at the same time correcting false Jewish notions of Messiah by presenting him as the Shepherd King Immanuel. In chapter 2, Matthew recounts God’s special care and protection of Jesus, ending the passage by calling him the Nazarene (the guarded one). In chapter 3 Christ is baptized first by John in water. That act was to show the intent of Jesus to focus on the Kingdom. Immediately after, God baptizes Jesus with the Holy Spirit, declaring him righteous and in relationship as the Son of God. Notice then that here at the very beginning of Christ’s focus on the Kingdom—the beginning of his earthly ministry—Jesus is immediately attacked by Satan concerning his relationship with God (“If you are the Son of God…” 4:3, 4:6). And in this attack, he is tempted to act on his own initiative—on his own authority. Jesus meets that attack and temptation by demonstrating his total submission to God. And so he thus begins his ministry, from there going to preach repentance and focus on the Kingdom while calling others and ministering.


The next event is this Sermon on the Mount. Matthew places this as the next event to show what Christ preached to those who had followed him in turning their focus on the Kingdom. Would it not seem logical, then, that the first instruction to them would mirror his own experience when he turned his focus to the Kingdom? When he was baptized both with water and with the Spirit, he faced an attack to his focus and relationship with God. His disciple followers would also surely face attack to their focus and relationship with God. So Christ begins this sermon urging them to withstand the attack just as he had—in humility, not asserting his own authority, but relying on God. And therefore we have the blessings spoken regarding humility. This we can see especially in the ninth blessing—the summation of the other eight. Jesus says that they are blessed if attacked verbally, harmed physically, or even slandered in reputation. And their blessing doesn’t come from a self-proclaimed vindication or assertion of their rights. They are blessed by their God through their relationship in their eternal salvation. In these attacks they remain poor in spirit, pure in heart, meek, and merciful. They mourn the sin that produces the attack. They make peace with their attackers rather than seek to fight them (driving them further away from the Kingdom). And they don’t hunger and thirst after vindication or their presumed “rights,” but they continue in their Kingdom quest for righteousness. This humility in the face of attack for their Kingdom focus and relationship with God is the characteristic that identifies them.


And based on that focus, Christ moves from these beatitudes to the next verse proclaiming them the salt of the earth. How is it that they are salt? Will they preserve the world in their Gospel witness as salt does? No, the world doesn’t need preservation; it needs transformation. The Greek word moraino is translated in 5:13 as “has lost its taste.” The word is also used by Paul in Romans 1:22 describing the God-rejecters who “claiming to be wise, they became fools.” The “became fools” of this verse is translated from the same Greek word moraino. Again Paul says, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20).  “Has made foolish” is also translated from the same word. Salt without its saltiness is as the wise without wisdom. It has lost the very thing that identified it—the thing that gave it meaning and purpose. From this we understand Christ’s point as he says if we promote ourselves when attacked by the world for our Christianity, we as tasteless salt have lost our very identify as children of God. Children are dependent on their father parent. Our identifying characteristic as Christians is our humility—our dependence on God—not our arrogance or self-promotion. In the same manner, we are the light of the world (5:14-16). We are different from the world in this significant aspect—our dependency on God.


Jesus is speaking to Jews. These Jews live in a nation of Jews—a nation whose culture and one religion is entwined tightly providing meaning for everything they do. Think how this message must have been received by Jews of this mindset. They are told by Christ that in focusing on the Kingdom and in following God—in following Christ—they would be salt and light to those around them. Those around them were other Jews deeply entrenched in their OT religion. Immediately what must have been deduced by these Jews is that Christ is offering an alternative to what everybody else had. Those around them, including the scribes and the Pharisees, had the Law with its rules and regulations and descriptions of what is “good.” Now Jesus tells them that based on their Kingdom focus these others would see their good works. Surely these new good works that Jesus would give them are a repudiation of the old standard and institution of a new standard.


But Jesus, recognizing their out-of-control reasoning, puts an abrupt end to it. In verse 17 he tells them, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus says (just as Paul later says) that the Law is good and right. It will be fulfilled. But Christ in this section both honors the Law while denouncing the Pharisees for their self-righteous attitude in performing the Law. They do what the Law says but without the heart that is bound in dependent relationship to God. Jeremiah 31:31 tells us that the New Covenant relationship is one in which the Law is written on our hearts. This is not the memorization of some list. It is the embrace of the principles or essence upon which the Law was founded. It is a union with the very heart of God who is righteousness. It becomes our desire, our motivation, our thought process, our life. How can we act separately from that? How can we be separate from that?


This is the transformation that leads us to understand not only that we should not murder, but that murder is destruction of life and relationship born by a heart of hatred (5:21-26). Righteousness will not hate based on our own selfish pride. As we recognize our dependence on God, his nature of love will rule our thoughts and consequently our actions.


The act of adultery (self-interest) destroys a marriage relationship formed in the righteousness of self-sacrifice. Therefore, it is not only the act that is unrighteous, but the very thoughts of lust that carry the same selfishly-motivated interests destroy the intimacy of our marriage relationships (5:27-30).


And the destruction of our marriages (divorce) is not a capricious activity for the righteous. Righteousness motivates us to secure not tear apart our marriages. Therefore, Christ tells us to hold fast in our marriage relationships unless the relationship itself is destroyed through unfaithfulness (5:31-32).