First impressions matter. And the first words from a central character are significant … especially when those words are from Jesus in a Gospel! For the first four chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, we as readers have been given access to different perspectives about Jesus: his genealogy (1:1-17); his birth (1:18-25); the visit by the magi (2:1-12) , followed by his family’s escape to Egypt and subsequent return to Nazareth (2:13-23); his baptism by John the baptizer (3:1-17); and his temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11). As Jesus’ ministry begins, Matthew notes that Jesus made his home in Capernaum, which was in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali and which fulfilled what the prophet Isaiah had spoken. But he also underscores that Jesus then started to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17), and then later called his first followers. The narrator gives us a summarizing glimpse into Jesus’ early ministry, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness, with news about him spreading as far north as Syria and crowds from the greater region following him (4:23-25). But we are not told anything more specific about those teachings.
So there are good reasons for “the crowds” that Jesus saw (Matt 5:1). People who do the extraordinary tend to attract attention. People will be curious. But as readers, we have not heard what Jesus had been saying; we do not have access to the “substance” behind the person. Matthew’s introduction of Jesus in this setting is reminiscent of Moses, who went up the mountain (see Deut 9:9) and, according to Jewish interpreters, sat down to teach the sacred Jewish law to the people. But here we are also introduced to Jesus’ disciples (5:1) for the first time. It is likely that this designation refers more generally to Jesus’ followers and not specifically to the twelve apostles, who are not specifically mentioned until chapter 10. Still, these unidentified followers are those who learn from Jesus and seek to be shaped by Jesus’ teachings and instructions. So their gathering for what is, in this Gospel, the first of five collections of Jesus’ teachings makes this a momentous occasion. And here in this Gospel, this particular collection, known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” stands out as Jesus’ blueprint regarding the kingdom of heaven that has come near (4:17). In other words, this sermon functions something like Jesus’ initial campaign speech, outlining noteworthy characteristics of this kingdom that he not only proclaims but embodies.
The problem with this passage is not with the message but with the ways that it has been used or interpreted. Known as the “beatitudes,” this list of familiar “blessed” statements has usually been assumed to be an extended list of moralisms, virtues, or character traits that Christians are to aspire to attain or follow. Thus, some have called them “be-attitudes” and have understood them as descriptions of virtues or summons to live in particular ways. The problem with this approach to Jesus’ teaching is that some of these blessings just do not fit that way of reading them. For instance, “mourning” (Matt 5:4) does not describe a character trait or a virtue to be rewarded but a condition to be reversed. But if the beatitudes are not about virtues, then what are they about?
It should be noted that the beatitudes are organized with two stanzas and a conclusion. The two stanzas each have four verses (Matt 5:3-6, 7-10), with the last beatitude in each stanza starting “Blessed are those who …” (see 5:6, 10). The conclusion changes focus, as the two stanzas are stated in a third-person perspective, with the conclusion shifting to a second-person perspective. So although the contexts suggests that the conclusion directs the reader’s attention to the disciples (since they are Jesus’ primary audience; see 5:1), the third-person perspective of the beatitudes themselves suggests a broader scope beyond the disciples (or the church). Thus, what we have here is Jesus’ “agenda” regarding the kingdom of heaven that extends beyond the disciples to others … or to all people.
What we find in the first four beatitudes (i.e., the first stanza) are not entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven but descriptions of the nature of God’s rule and reign, which is to characterize the kingdom of heaven. First, the “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) are not those who are humble or voluntarily poor. Rather, these are related to the dispossessed and abandoned of Israel for whom the prophets speak (see, e.g., Isa 11:4; 29:19; 32:7; 61:1; Amos 2:7; 8:4). Although in the Old Testament such persons may have an intense hope in God, here in Matthew such persons have lost all hope in this world and are about to give up hope entirely. For such persons, God’s rule and will (see 6:10) can accomplish that for which they have lost all hope. That is why Jesus says, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3). Second, “those who mourn” are those who can find no reason for joy. These are persons who are miserable or unhappy, perhaps related to death or loss that may have been tied to social injustice, but the phrase “they will be comforted” implies that God will act so that there will be no need for continued mourning. Third, the “meek” (5:5) may refer not to those who are humble but, given the nuances of the Greek term, to those who are humiliated … a description of those who are oppressed or powerless. Given the promise that they will inherit the “earth” or “land” (as the Greek term also suggests), this probably reflects Old Testament traditions of the exodus and the exile that speak of the disenfranchised (slaves, captives) receiving promised land as signs of great reversals enacted by God. Fourth, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is a parallel description of the first three beatitudes, so that these are persons longing for God to make things right or for God’s justice (which is also how the Greek word translated “righteousness” may be rendered). None of these beatitudes describes a condition that characterizes someone when God’s will is accomplished or when the kingdom of God is present. Rather, when God rules, things will be set right.
The second stanza offers a set of four beatitudes that are parallel to the first stanza. The second four beatitudes describe those who assist in bringing about the blessings promised to others in the first stanza. First, “the merciful” (Matt 5:7) live out God’s desire for mercy over sacrifice and embody Jesus’ own response to those who called out for him for mercy (see Matt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30-31). In Matthew’s Gospel, the use of terms related to mercy suggest that being merciful extends broadly to economic relief (6:12), caring for the poor (6:2-4), healing the sick (9:27; 20:30-31), eating with outcasts (9:10-13), and caring for foreigners (15:21-28). Second, “pure in heart” (5:8) should probably be understood more generally, since the term “heart” was understood to represent the true self. This would relate to other beatitudes, with a focus on integrity and genuineness (cf. Ps 24:4). With other beatitudes, this would be seen not merely in virtue but also in one’s actions for the sake of others, despite the risks. Third, “peacemakers” (5:9) would naturally seek to bring reconciliation within a world that is often divided. However, Jesus himself mentions that he has not necessarily come to bring peace in that way (10:34-36) because the values that he espouses may be rejected by those who embrace human values. Thus, we should clarify that the peace at the heart of a peacemaker’s mission should be understood more conceptually within the Hebrew framework of shalom, which is committed to the work of divine justice in bringing wholeness to humanity and the world. Fourth, “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10) describes those who are committed to God’s mission and purposes, even if opposition arises. In this sense, the last four beatitudes are virtuous, in that they respond on behalf of those described in the first four beatitudes. Yet because of their being numbered with the oppressed and the unfortunate, they too are persecuted and will suffer. Yet notice that the same promise offered at the beginning is still offered to them: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10). For in the kingdom of heaven, God sets things right.
With the change in the concluding portion of the beatitudes (Matt 5:11-12) to a second-person perspective, the message shifts to an address of the disciples. For when they would do the various things described in verses 7-10 and thereby associate with those described in verses 3-6, they would likely find themselves treated in ways depicted by Jesus here in verse 11. Their devotion to justice for the sake of others would result in themselves being deprived of the very same justice, for the values of the kingdom of heaven are antithetical to values in human kingdoms. But this is nothing new: even the prophets of the Old Testament experienced similar treatment (see 5:12).
The agenda set by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry provides the blueprint for his ministry as depicted in Matthew’s Gospel and the unfolding kingdom of heaven/God. But the inherent values and assumptions about God and God’s nature stand in contrast to human values and social structures. How fitting (or perhaps ironic) it is that this lectionary passage appears as the gospel reading on the Sunday before elections in the United States. When many Christians celebrate and embrace politicians for their brashness or their “in-your-face” approach to others that seems to belittle and demean others more than respect them as fellow human beings (not to mention persons created in the image of God), here we find Jesus’ teaching that calls for a different agenda, one that is shaped by God’s rule rather than the values that come from and are defined by society at large. The differences between Jesus’ agenda and that which comes from society itself are drastically different. Like the Apostle Paul delineates in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, the differences are as extensive and sweeping as how one views the cross of Christ: whereas that cross seems to be nothing more than foolishness and death from the perspective of human thinking, it is the ultimate sign of God’s wisdom and the source of salvation and life from the perspective of the gospel.
The lives of contemporary Christians are often indistinguishable from the rest of society, but the the beatitudes call for a different agenda. Such an agenda suggests that our lives be shaped by values that reflect God’s reign rather than the reign of human leaders (and what they ultimately value). As a result, this gospel/kingdom agenda may call out persons, policies, and social ills that treat individuals, groups, and God’s creation in ways contrary to the will and purposes of God … not merely to complain, but to stand with those who may have no voice. The gospel is not just about what we believe; it affirms those who need God’s grace … who have been oppressed and dis-graced by society, some in the church, family members, etc.