Matthew 5: 1-12 The Wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount

Mount of Beatitudes, seen from Capernaum. Photo by Berthold Werner, public domain

Matthew 5: 1-12

Parallel Luke 6: 20-26

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Sermon on the Mount is designed to be heard as one unit, even though we often break it up into individual readings and for the sake of space I will be dealing with smaller sections (even as I try to address it as an intentionally assembled and compact unit of teaching). Matthew constructs the Sermon on the Mount and places it early in the gospel to help the hearers in his time and later times understand what life in the community of disciples can be like, to open their ears, eyes, hearts, minds and imaginations to the kingdom of heaven. We probably do not have a transcript of Jesus’ teaching on at one specific time and place, but I do assume that the teachings collected in the sermon were among the memorable things that Jesus said and were probably used in multiple teaching opportunities. Several similar teachings are placed in different locations in Luke’s gospel, but the gospel writers were concerned with constructing their gospels to highlight what they felt was critical for their churches to understand about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven.

Location matters in the gospels, and Jesus going up the mountain is not only an action that allows him to be seen and heard by the crowds but it also (especially considering the content of the sermon) links him symbolically with Moses. Moses would go up the mountain to receive the law from God, now Jesus goes up the mountain to fulfill the law and the prophets. Jesus here and at the mountain of transfiguration will be linked to Moses (and Elijah and the rest of the prophets) and will also surpass them. But location helps to emphasize that Jesus is one speaking with the authority to declare the things he states. This will be especially important later in the chapter as he expands on the law.

The Beatitudes, the common name for Matthew 5: 3-12, get their name from the word in Latin that we translate as ‘blessed.’ This is another place where translation can obscure a linkage that may have been obvious to the initial hearers of the message. The Greek makarios is often used to translate the Hebrew asre which is often used in wisdom literature. I do think that we are invited into the framework of wisdom literature with its choice between the way of the wise and the foolish, those who follow the law and those who do not and this linkage is heightened in Luke’s similar blessings and woes in Luke 6: 20-26.  Asre is normally translated happy in the NRSV, for example:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that the sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. (Psalm 1:1)

Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2)

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Psalm 84: 4-5)

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the LORD. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, (Psalm 119: 1-2)

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, (Proverbs 3: 13)

Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. (Proverbs 8: 34)

Several other sayings in both Psalms, Proverbs, the prophets and the law take this form encouraging the people to choose the way that is being stated. Although the translation of makarios into blessed brings its own set of meaning to the passage I am going to begin to highlight terms that I would retranslate to bring in a different shade of meaning. For most people ‘blessed’ may have the sense of happiness with it but when they read religious language they simply take it as declarative language where God declares something ‘blessed’ and it is made holy but it doesn’t necessarily change anything for the ‘blessed one.’ While I agree with those who would highlight the aspect of inclusion for those excluded here in this passage (poor in spirit, mourners, meek, and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness) I also think it is important that we hear, in terms of wisdom literature and the language of the beatitudes, that in this kingdom of heaven those who have been unhappy, oppressed and excluded are invited to a community where they will be happy and the things they need to be happy will be given to them.

The gospel writers were each clever in the way they construct their gospels to link critical stories together and Matthew links this initial teaching section with his final section of teaching in Matthew 25, as Richard B. Hays can highlight:

Matthew creates an inclusio with the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 3-12 by narrating an unsettling last judgment scene in which Jesus/Emmanuel turns out to have been present among us in the hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and imprisoned of this world. (Matt 25: 31-46). This, too, is an integral part of what “God with us” means in Matthew, as exemplified in the story of Jesus’ own suffering, culminating in the cross. To recognize God’s presence truly, then, Matthew’s readers must serve the needs of the poor, for “just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers, you did it to me:” (25:40) (Hays, 2016, p. 170)

Unlike Luke where the blessings and woes are placed next to one another, in Matthew the inclusion allows us to see the invitation at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching and the consequence for not following this wisdom at the end.

Moving into the Beatitudes themselves I will divide them into two sets of four and then a final saying set off by a change in reference (from blessed are the ones/those to blessed are you). The first set of four are those who God is depicted in scripture frequently being their advocate against those in power. The second set addresses those who are attempting to live in the way that they are called to live, and the final phrase addresses those who are persecuted specifically for living on account of Jesus for their rejection among the unwise will mean reward in the kingdom of heaven.

The ideas that will be articulated in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount are grounded in the vision of what Israel was to be for the sake of the world. Israel was always intended to be an alternative vision of society to the model used by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome or any other empire or nation ancient or modern. It was to be a society where they loved and feared the LORD their God and they loved and protected their neighbor. Much of the law is imagining a society where not only are the landholding members of the people of Israel protected but also the alien, the poor, the widow and the orphan. Israel often failed to embody this type of society, often emulating the practices of the larger nations around them with the powerful enlarging their own property, power, wealth and households by exploiting or failing to protect their vulnerable neighbors. The society gathered around Jesus are invited again into a kingdom where the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness are protected both by the community and by God.

The poor in spirit, in contrast to the poor in Luke 6:20, has caused a lot of debate about what Matthew means. My reading of this passage is the ‘poor in spirit’ and the ‘poor’ are referring to the same group, it is not a spiritualization of poverty but instead refers to those who have been oppressed and are holding on to their last thread of hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that God will deliver them. The longstanding wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures is that God is the one who will side with the poor against their oppressors and in the words of Proverbs, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (Proverbs 14:31) The kingdom of the world may have no place for the poor, but the kingdom of heaven will belong to them. They can be happy because in the society that Jesus is presenting to the disciples and hearers they are included, valued and protected. They can be blessed because they have what they need to have the life God desires for them, and, as we will learn in Matthew 25, Jesus will be found among them.

The mourners are those who weep at the state of the world. The mourning may be personal, due to the loss of a loved one, or it may be social due to the loss of property, occupation, meaning or place in society. In contrast to the Greco-Roman worldview which disapproved of mourning (Carter, 2005, p. 132) and the stoic worldview many in the United States inherited, there was an expectation of mourning and a rich tradition of lament included in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Psalms. Yet, there is also a confident hope in a God who could and would reverse the situations in the world that caused the faithful to mourn and lament. Isaiah 25:7-8 is one of the articulations of hope in a God who can destroy every enemy that haunts them and then comfort them in what should be familiar language for most Christians

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, the LORD has spoken. (emphasis mine)

 Meekness in English means quiet, gentle, submissive or easily imposed upon which is similar in meaning to praus the Greek word behind it, but this word in Biblical usage is not so simple to translate. This word refers to Jesus twice in Matthew:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11: 29)

Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Matthew 21:5)

The highlighted terms are both the Greek praus translated as gentle or humble. I think meek captures a shade of what Jesus is alluding to here, for they are those who rather than rising up in violent reaction to the oppression they may encounter are those who wait for God to deal with the wicked. As Psalm 37 can state:

Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant property. (Psalm 37: 10-11)

The final Beatitude of the first section is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be filled. As with the previous three I read this as those who have suffered under the oppression of the current state of society and need God’s liberation, they are those who seek righteousness in society and before God but are hungry and thirsty in the midst of their attempt to live a righteous rather than a wicked life. When they strive first the kingdom of heaven, they are promised that all the things they need for food, clothing and life will be granted to them as well (Matthew 6: 25-34).

With the second set of Beatitudes are exhortations which point to the way of life that will be further described in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. Throughout Matthew’s gospel the understanding of what righteousness looks like is always read through the lens of mercy. From Joseph being a righteous man and deciding to act with mercy towards Mary (Matthew 1:19), to Jesus frequent transgressions of a literal reading of the law to act in mercy we are shown a hermeneutic[1] of mercy throughout this gospel. The merciful will receive mercy, and this is a way of reading the law that will contrast with the readings of the Pharisees and Sadducees Jesus encounters in Matthew. For example, in Matthew 9: 9-13, Jesus will tell the Pharisees criticizing his practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ’I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11) Jesus’ words and actions will embody this hermeneutic of mercy and Hosea 6:6 (quoted in Matthew 9:11) seems to be a key text that Jesus and his followers are to use to unlock what scripture is to mean for their lives. As Richard B. Hays can state,

Clearly, for Matthew, mercy is a central theme. The important thing to recognize, in all these passages, is that the quality of mercy is not set in opposition to the Torah; rather, Matthew’s Jesus discerns within Scripture itself the hermeneutical principle—expressed epigrammatically in Hosea 6:6—that all the commandments are to be interpreted in such a way as to engender and promote the practice of mercy among God’s people. (Hays, 2016, p. 127)

The pure in heart are those who live in faithfulness to the vision of the kingdom of heaven articulated here and throughout Jesus’ ministry. As Psalm 24 can remind us:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. (Psalm 24: 3-4)

Those of pure hearts and clean hands may approach the place of God in the psalm, and here the pure in heart are prepared to see God. The preparation for God’s approach is not ritual action or sacrifice but a life properly lived. The heart in Hebrew thought is not the instrument of emotion (that would be the gut) but rather the instrument of will and decision. Those who are pure in their will and decision, who live according to the way of righteousness rather than foolishness will see God. Seeing God may be impossible for mortals in several places in the scriptures, but one of the themes of Matthew’s gospel is that in Jesus we encounter ‘God with us.’ Yet, as discussed above this is also the “God with us” who is found with the hungry, thirsty, naked and poor. Those who are not pure in heart may be those who missed the appearance of God because they did not choose a way of righteousness and mercy which sees the need of the community around them, but in the kingdom of heaven the poor in spirit, mourning, meek and the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness have already been granted a place with God.

Peacemaking in the kingdom of heaven is meant to be understood in contrast to the image of peace practiced by Rome which was peace through conquest and military might. When I served in Nebraska, near the former headquarters for Strategic Air Command, I would sometimes see stickers on vehicles with a B-52 Stratocaster bomber replacing the arms of a peace sign with a caption, “Peace the old-fashioned way.” This would fit with the Roman understanding of the Pax Romana which, in the language of the ancient historian Tacitus, “pacem sine dubio…verum cruentam. Peace there was, without question, but a bloody one” (Zanker, 1988, p. 187) The peace of the kingdom of heaven will only be a bloody one because the one who embraces it may be crucified by the emissaries of the kingdoms of the world, not because they respond in violence. The kingdom of heaven will be a place where reconciliation is more important than sacrifice, where enemies are loved, and where cheeks are turned in response to being struck. Those who practice this type of community will be welcomed into a familial relationship with the daughters and sons of God.

Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake as those who are persecuted for living a life that is shaped by this merciful, pure in heart and peaceful version of righteousness that Jesus will articulate. Structurally we are also linked back to the first Beatitude since both the poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness are inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. Ultimately this righteousness that one will be persecuted for involves standing with the poor in spirit, the mourning ones, the meek and the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Disciples will be continually called to take up their cross. It will be a struggle for the kingdom of heaven to enter this world. Rather than responding to violence with violence they will respond with endurance instead.

The final Beatitude switches suddenly to a second person plural (all of you) where those who are gathered around Jesus now are addressed as ones who may be happy in the midst of being persecuted verbally or physically since it bears witness to their faithfulness to this kingdom. Their reward is great in this community because they are like one of the prophets who remained faithful to God in the midst of a faithless time. They are a part of a community, like the prophets, who believed that in a time of injustice the God’s justice would triumph, in a world of bloody peace believed that God’s true peace would come, who believe in mercy more than sacrifice and in a God who stand with the poor in spirit, the mourning ones, the meek and the one hungering and thirsting for a righteousness they’ve yet to see. Yet, they can be happy or blessed because the kingdom of heaven is being embodied in their hearing.          

[1] A hermeneutic is a way of interpretation, a word that is frequent in the world of scholarship but rarely heard outside the worlds of philosophy, scriptural interpretation and theology but I include it because it is a useful word in framing how to read a text.

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3 Responses to Matthew 5: 1-12 The Wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Pingback: Matthew 5: 13-20 A Visible Vocation Connected to Scripture | Sign of the Rose

  2. Alex says:

    Do you think Jesus would have had Moses partially in mind when he blessed the meek (Numbers 12:3)? We don’t often think of Moses as meek but apparently he was the meekest.

    I like the contrast you draw between the passivity of Jesus’ meek followers and the more aggressive Jewish revolutionaries of the time.

    • Neil says:

      There is certainly a Moses typography in the Sermon on the Mount, and Moses is another strong example of how our translation of a concept like meekness often doesn’t translate from one way of thinking to another.

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