Tag Archives: mercy

Matthew 20: 29-34 Opening Eyes on the Way to Jerusalem

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

Matthew 20: 29-34

Parallel Mark 10: 46-52; Luke 18: 35-43

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Matthew is a careful narrator bringing together the pieces of Jesus’ story in a way that illustrates connections across the gospel and bringing enhanced meaning to each individual scene. The first disciples called to follow Jesus are two sets of brothers, (4:18-22) and the last who follow are two blind men enabled to see. Just as the request of the demons possessing two men make a request of Jesus (8: 28-34) is closely followed by the previous healing of two blind men (­9:27-31) so this healing of the two blind men is preceded by the formal request of the mother of James and John (see previous section). This pattern of twos provide clues to the oral structure underlying Matthew’s narration and provide signposts that allow the hearer to pay attention to commonalities in the stories. This narration of healing the two blind men outside of Jericho closes the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. Its use of the Son of David title for Jesus recalls the previous usages of this title in the gospel[1] and prepares us for the crowds proclamation of this title as Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Jesus begins his final approach to Jerusalem making his way up from Jericho and a great crowd is with him. The crowds, like the disciples with the children, are a barrier for these two blind men to be in the presence of Jesus, but the use of both ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’ in their address to Jesus prepare us for Jesus’ eventual granting of their request. Previously when Jesus healed two blind men he ordered them to be silent, but instead they go and spread news about Jesus to the surrounding district. Here, the great crowds attempt to silence the two blind men only results in the blind men shouting greatly for mercy from the Lord, the Son of David. Matthew uses Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” as a key to understanding a merciful interpretation of scripture,[2] and just as the merciful are blessed and will receive mercy, Jesus responds with healing to numerous requests for mercy.[3] Jesus responds to this request for mercy with compassion.[4]

In contrast to the previous scene where the audacious request of the mother of James and John for a position of honor for her sons is met with a paradoxical partial fulfillment which points to James and John suffering, in this scene the request for mercy is met with healing. The response of Jesus to both the mother of James and John and the two blind men is and identical “What do you will (Greek theleo). There is irony in these two stories placed next to one another where disciples are unable to see what they ask, where these blind men are aware of their blindness and ask to be able to see. Despite the attempts to silence them by the crowds, they are invited into the presence of Jesus, touched by him, and have their eyes opened. Unlike the previous healing of blind men where faith was a primary portion of the story, the question of faith is unaddressed but assumed by both the titles used and the persistence of these blind men who become followers on the road to Jerusalem. Ironically, the words that the crowds attempt to silence from these two blind men becomes their shout as they surround Jesus to enter Jerusalem.

[1] The two blind men in 9:27 and the Canaanite woman in 15:22 use this title asking for healing and the crowd wonders could this be the Son of David in 12:23. For a fuller discussion of the use of the Son of David title see Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man Titles in Matthew’s Gospel.

[2] See 9:13 and 12:7

[3] 5:7 in the Sermon on the Mount; healings after requests for mercy: 2 Blind men (9:27-31), Canaanite woman (15: 21-28), Father of the moonstruck son (17:14-21) see also the request for mercy in the parable of the unforgiving slave (18:30-32)

[4] Previously Jesus has had compassion for the crowds (9:36, 14:18, and 15:32) but not for individuals. Compassion also is the expected action of the unforgiving slave in the parable (18:27)

Matthew 12: 1-14 One Greater than David, Temple or Sabbath

Close up view of Wheat, shared by user Bluemoose on Wiki Commons under Creative Commons 2.0

Matthew 12: 1-14

Parallel Mark 2: 23-3: 6; Luke 6: 1-11

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

These stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that make up most of chapter twelve of Matthew point to two intertwining questions of the identity and authority of Jesus and what the nature of righteousness in this kingdom Jesus proclaims will look like. Matthew has used titles, quotations and allusions to scripture, narrative and now comparison to highlight aspects of the identity of Jesus and no single title or idea seems to completely capture the identity of Jesus in his gospel. A large part of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees we meet in the gospel center around how his identity and interpretation of the practice of the law come into conflict with their own practices and their restriction of certain authority to the God of Israel. Jesus’ actions to this group of Pharisees represent a violation of their understanding of their covenant with the God of Israel and jeopardize, in their view, their vocation to be a priestly people.

Before we examine the identity that Matthew’s gospel wants to highlight for Jesus and understand why he would argue for ‘mercy and not sacrifice’ it is important to understand the worldview of the Pharisees as they are presented here. Many scholars would argue that the picture of the Pharisees in the gospels is a polemic characterization, which is true, and the views expressed by the Pharisees as represented in the gospels probably may not accurately depict the understanding of that entire group. Yet, I do think that within these conflict stories we do see two distinct understandings of righteousness and the covenant expectations of the people emerging which I think highlight why the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders in Galilee and Judah emerged.  Unfortunately, the way of thinking which most people in the West for the last several centuries have been trained in obscures the important communal portion of identity which is central to understanding why these controversies exist.

Most modern people think of decisions of faith as an individual decision made by a rational (or sometimes irrational) person in a world where spirituality is a part of our private life. This is not the world of the gospels for either Jesus or his opponents. The nations of Israel considered itself set apart to be ‘a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19: 6) Its identity depended upon its maintaining the laws, practices, commandments and statutes of their God. Its history of prosperity and famine, independence, exile and renewal is tied to a theological reading of history which is dependent on the covenant faithfulness of their kings and by extension the people. Their protection from the forces at work in the world: the demonic forces of oppression, the uncontrollable (but divine or demonically impacted) forces of nature like storms and earthquakes and the rise and fall of empires (and the destruction of war, the gift of peace or the occupation of a foreign invader) all depend upon God’s favor. In a worldview where the community’s collective practice of being a priestly nation and a holy people are the only way of accessing the security their God promised to provide, the type of changes to practice that Jesus was doing are not minor unless he has the authority to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. Charles Taylor’s description of a ‘heretic’ in pre-Reformation Europe is far closer to the experience of people in Jesus’ time than our own modern understanding:

Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of these rites in danger, and hence pose a menace to everyone. (Taylor, 2007, p. 42)

If you want to understand why Jesus’ actions of allowing his disciples to eat on the Sabbath or healing on the Sabbath would provoke, to a modern mind, the disproportionate response of conspiring how to destroy Jesus you need to examine the threat he posed, in the eyes of this group of Pharisees, to the identity of the people of the villages he passed through as a holy people and a priestly nation. These practices, which may seem rigid and legalistic to us, provided for these Pharisees an important part of their connection to their God.

One of the dangers that people of faith face is placing their trust in the wrong things, constructing their identity around practices which lose their connection to the broader understanding of why those practices exist. The Hebrew prophets had often called the people of Israel back to a focus on the God of Israel and the justice that was the intention of the law with its commandments, practices and statutes. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, like the Hebrew prophets, shows little interest in a piety that is disconnected from a merciful interpretation of righteousness. For Matthew, not only have the Pharisees that Jesus encounters lost the connection between their practices and righteousness (understood through the lens of mercy) but they also fail to perceive that Jesus has the authority to declare what the proper practice of sabbath looks like.

In the first controversy occurs as Jesus and his disciples go out into the waiting harvest and are ironically passing through a wheat field at harvest time. The disciples of Jesus pick grain to eat from a field which they are passing through causing the controversy. At stake is an understanding of the commandment on sabbath:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave; or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-14)

Within this understanding of sabbath going out to harvest your field on the sabbath would of course be forbidden because it would involve work. We might quickly think that the little bit of labor the disciples do to address their hunger a small thing but for these Pharisees it is not, for them the sanctity of sabbath is at risk. Jesus’ response takes us back to three pieces of scripture, the first is from 1 Samuel 21:

David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place.  Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.”  The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread — provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.”  David answered the priest, “Indeed women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. 1 Samuel 21: 1-6

David is fleeing King Saul, who intends to kill him, and in departing is allowed by the priest to eat the bread of the presence set out each day for the LORD which only the priests were supposed to eat. There is a narrative precedence in the person of David for violating holiness so that he may do what is necessary in his predicament. The second piece of scripture references the practices of the priest in setting out the bread (that David and his companions ate) as well as incense on sabbath:

Every sabbath day Aaron shall set them in order before the LORD regularly as a commitment of the people of Israel, as a covenant forever. They (the bread) shall be for Aaron and his descendants, who shall eat them in a holy place, for they are most holy portions for him from the offerings by fire to the LORD, a perpetual due. Leviticus 24: 8-9

The final piece of scripture is the second time Matthew has quoted Hosea 6:6 (previously quoted in Matthew 9: 13 in the context of eating with sinners and tax collectors after the call of Matthew) which points to the central idea of mercy in Jesus’ conception of righteousness. Jesus in his dialogue with these Pharisees uses scripture to highlight a different understanding of righteous practice but he also in two stunning statements points to his own authority to make these declarations. By implication of the David story he is greater than David, but then he says plainly he is greater than the temple and lord of the sabbath. His identity as the Son of Man gives him precedence over the sabbath, just as David’s flight allowed him and his companions to eat the bread of the presence, but one greater than the temple is standing before these Pharisees who probably believe that two of their central pillars of religious identity are being violated. If Jesus is not lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple then he is a danger to the people who needs to be eliminated, but those hearing this narrative are invited to ponder the identity of one who is master of sabbath and greater than the temple.

Christ Heals the Man with Paralyzed Hand, Byzantine Mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale

The second controversy involves healing on the sabbath and whether that involves work. The question of whether it is permitted to heal on sabbath is asked to categorize Jesus’ actions as no longer remaining within the bounds of righteousness as they practice it. Jesus replies with a situation which implies an understanding of scripture where competing practices are to be answered in an interpretation shaped by practices of mercy. The command of scripture is now placed next to the command on acting on behalf of the neighbor’s fallen animal:

You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall lift it up and help it. (Deuteronomy 22: 4)

Simply because the animal is now the individuals who sees it does not indicate that the seeing one is required to let the animal suffer because it is sabbath and it is their animal rather than their neighbor’s. Jesus’ answer implies that the hearer will know that the proper response is to act on behalf of the animal and by moving from an animal of lesser importance to a human being of greater importance that one is expected to help on the sabbath when one sees another suffering. In Jesus’ merciful understanding of righteousness, it is not only permitted to do good to one in need of healing on the sabbath it is expected. Jesus claims the authority to properly interpret what sabbath is about, but we have already heard him claim to be lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple. His work of mercy is what the God of Israel desires instead of sacrifice and his ability to relieve the suffering of this man on the sabbath is another sign of the kingdom of heaven’s approach in his ministry. These claims appear blasphemous to the Pharisees he is in conflict with and they feel he is a danger to the people’s relationship with their God and so they conspire to destroy him. In Jesus’ view they have aligned themselves against the approach of the kingdom of heaven, in their view he is a menace to everyone.

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.