top of page

Matthew 5:1-12

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?