|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
For All Saints Day, you may also want to check on Proper 27
which could also be used to talk about saints.
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During the "green" seasons with its sequential Gospel readings, portions of the Sermon on the Mount are assigned throughout the Epiphany Season. Unfortunately, with an early Easter this year, we have only these opening words and skip most of the "sermon" (except for 6:1-6, 16-21, which is assigned for Ash Wednesday). We will hear the conclusion (7:21-29), but not until May 29. One might consider a mid-week series on the other texts from Jesus' discorse.
Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has these introductory comments about the entire sermon:
The focus of Jesus' teaching concerns the "good news of God's empire/reign" (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The sermon is not, though, a comprehensive manual or rule book not a step-by-step "how to" book. Rather it offers a series of illustrations, or "for examples," or "case studies" of life in God's empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God's present and future reign. [p. 128]
For those who belong to the minority and marginal community of disciples of Jesus, the sermon continues the gospel's formational and envisioning work. It shapes and strengthens the community's identity and lifestyle as a small community in a dominant culture that does not share that culture's fundamental convictions. The community is reminded that the interactions with God, with one another, and with the surrounding society are important aspects of their existence which embraces all of life, present and future. Mission to, love for, and tension with the surrounding society mark their participation in this society. Integrity or wholeness defines their relationships with one another. Prayer, accountability, and the active doing of God's will are features of their relationship with God and experience of God's empire. [p. 129]
Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) notes that there are more than thirty-six discrete views about the sermon's message. He summarizes 8 of them:
The predominant medieval view, reserving a higher ethic for clergy, especially in monastic orders;
Luther's view that the sermon represents an impossible demand like the law;
the Anabaptist view, which applies the teachings literally for the civil sphere;
the traditional liberal social gospel position;
existentialist interpreters' application of the sermon's specific moral demands as a more general challenge to decision;
Schweitzer's view that the sermon embodies an interim ethic rooted in the mistaken expectation of imminent eschatology;
the traditional dispensational application to a future millennial kingdom; and
Blomberg's and others' view of an "inaugurated eschatology," "in which the sermon's ethic remains the ideal or goal ... but which will never be fully realized until the consummation of the kingdom. ..." [p. 160]
As a Lutheran, I tend to take Luther's view of impossible demands designed to reveal the depth of our sinfulness and our great need for God's grace given in Christ.
All of the materials below marked "Powell" come from God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, by Mark Allan Powell (Fortress, 1995). In his chapter on "Social Justice," he has a section on the "Beatitudes," which I think is quite good.
Our text can be outlined in the following way:
A. Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-2)
B. The Blessed Ones (5:3-12)
1. Third person blessings ("blessed are they") (5:3-10)
a. Promises of eschatological reversals to the unfortunate (5:3-6)
b. Promises of eschatological rewards to the virtuous (5:7-10)
2. Second person blessing ("blessed are you") (5:11-12)
Although Jesus' teaching in these three chapters seems to be addressed only to the disciples (vv. 1b-2), there are also indications that it was also for the "crowds". There are double sets of "bookends" (inclusio) within and without the Sermon. The Sermon begins with Jesus seeing the crowds (5:1). It ends with the statement, "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, ...." (7:28). The word "crowd" (ochlos) does not occur anywhere else in the sermon. In the verse just before our text, we are told, "Great crowds followed (akoloutheo) him ...." (4:25). In the verse just after the Sermon, we are told, "... great crowds followed (akoloutheo) him (8:1). Prior to this, the only ones who had followed (akoloutheo) Jesus, were the four fishermen he had called (4:20, 22). I think that this suggests that the Sermon was not just for the 12 "disciples" (the first time the word is used in Matthew), but intended for all who "follow" Jesus.
I'm also intrigued by the posture of Jesus as teacher -- he sits -- a common practice in those days -- something I have difficulties doing. Perhaps he could stay seated because there weren't any blackboards for him to write on. I wonder what effect it would have if we preached from a chair, rather than a pulpit?
The indication that Jesus "went up the mountain" is another connection between Jesus and Moses, who brought the Word of God and the Law down from a mountain. For Matthew, Jesus is the new (and better) Moses. Christianity is more than obeying the Ten Commandments.
Powell critiques those who would (1) try to fit all the beatitudes into the scheme of either eschatological reversal or eschatological reward and (2) interpret each beatitude on its own terms without any thought to the whole. He suggests that the structure can provide a third alternative. It is clear that the beatitude in 11-12 is different from the other eight by its second person reference, its length, and its imperative mood (v. 12). In addition, there are the "bookends" of "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" [an alternative translation will be offered below] in vv. 3 & 10, which seem to separate these first 8 beatitudes from the last one.
It has also been suggested (as I did in the outline above) that these 8 beatitudes can be separated into two groups of four. In the Greek, there are 36 words in vv. 3-6 and 36 words in vv. 7-10. The subjects of the first four beatitudes all begin with the letter "p" -- "poor" (ptochoi), "mourn" (penthountes), "meek" (praeis), and "hunger" (peinontes). (A similar pattern doesn't exist in the last four.) The protasis of both vv. 6 & 10 ends with "righteousness" (dikaiosyne). In Hebrew poetry, there are examples of four-line parallels, but not eight-line ones.
It is difficult to know how to translate makarios. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes: "Beatitudes concern not just emotions (the misleading 'happy are'), not just personal qualities, but primarily God's favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) [p. 130].
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) suggest: "Within an honor-shame setting, perhaps the best translation for 'blessed is/are' would be 'How honorable ...,' 'How full of honor ...,' 'How honor bringing ...,' and the like. The counter to 'beatitudes' are the 'woes' or reproaches in Matt. 23:13-35; there the formula: 'Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ...' ought be translated: 'How shameless you are....'" [p. 47]
Powell states: "All four of the beatitudes in the first stanza may reasonably be interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate, and some of the beatitudes in this stanza can be reasonably interpreted only in this way" [p. 122]. With this approach, these are not virtues that one should aspire to -- but they are circumstances in which people find themselves. Although Powell presents some background interpretations of the subjects of the blessedness, I will concentrate on his concluding interpretations of the terms.
ptochoi (poor) is used to translate anawim in the LXX -- the dispossessed and abandoned ones in Israel. However, it is likely that Matthew extends the image beyond Israel to the "dispossessed and abandoned people of the world in general" [Powell, p. 123]
The anawim were often "noted as much for their piety as for their poverty. The general thought seems to be that they trust in God more profoundly than most because they have no hope in this world" [Powell, p. 123]. However, Matthew's inclusion of "in spirit" indicates something more than just financial poverty, but also spiritual poverty -- the loss of hope.
Thus, in Matthew's Gospel the poor in spirit are not people who trust in God because they have no reason for hope in this world. They are people who have no reason for hope in this world, period. The presence or strength of their trust in God remains unaddressed in this beatitude, although, if anything, the implication of the Matthean phrase would be that it is slight. [Powell, p. 124]
Boring (Matthew, NIB] says it a little differently:
From the time of the composition of the Psalms, "The poor" had been understood as a characterization of the true people of God, those who know their lives are not in their own control and that they are dependent on God. ... What is at stake in the phrase for both Qumran and Matthew is neither economics nor spirituality, but the identity of the people of God -- a Matthean theme (1:21). [p. 178]
Being "poor in spirit" is not a characteristic one would seek, but it is a characteristic of the people of God.
Powell suggests that in the apodosis of this beatitude, rather than taking the genitive "of them" as possessive -- "theirs", it might be understood as the object of the "kingdom of heaven" or "heaven's rule" -- "heaven's rule is over them" -- or Powell's translation: "heaven rules them". This can help us understand basileia as the authority or power to rule, rather than the place where one rules.
"Most recent scholars recognize that 'those who mourn' refers simply to people who are miserable or unhappy" [Powell, p. 135]. It is not a characteristic one would seek.
"If the poor in spirit are those who find no reason for hope in this life, then the ones who mourn are those who find no cause for joy. They are blessed because 'they will be comforted,' a divine passive that implies God will act, so they need mourn no more" [Powell, p. 135].
Boring (Matthew, NIB] expands on this theme:
Matthew here taps into the deep biblical tradition that one of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world. ... This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final, but laments the fact that God's kingdom has not yet come and that God's will is not yet done (6:10). [pp. 178-9]
praus is the Greek term most often used in the LXX for the anawim. It can have a positive sense of "humble" or "gentle," but it can also have the negative sense "humiliated" or we might say, "the walked on," "the doormats," "the powerless." They "inherit" their blessing. It is not a reward that one earns, but a gift for which one must wait. The gift of "earth" or "land" (ges) can help indicate what the praus are lacking: "The praus are ones who have not been given their share of the earth. They have been denied access to the world's resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people" [Powell, 126].
Note that "hunger" and "thirst" are present participles -- "continually hungering and thirsting" In this verse, does dikaiosyne refer to the human conduct expected by God -- thus a reference to people who continually long to live according to God's plan? Or does it refer to God's activity -- thus a reference to people who continually long for God to make things right, longing for vindication and justice? The images of "hunger" and "thirst" not only depict desire, but also deprivation -- the people who do not experience justice -- the people who know that God's will is not being done on earth.
The best argument, however, for taking Matthew's fourth beatitude as a promise of reversal rather than reward is our recognition that it is parallel to the three beatitudes that precede it. As such, it functions as the concluding line of a stanza and sums up the thought of the entire unit thus far. Those who hunger and thirst for a justice that has been denied them include people who have no reason for hope, no cause for joy, and no access to the resources of this world. Such needs will be satisfied by the eschatological reversals that God's rule brings.
In short, the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God's favor. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God's will is done. [Powell, p. 128]
A summary about the first four:
Theologically, then, the point of these first four beatitudes is not to offer "entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven" but to describe the nature of God's rule, which characterizes the kingdom of heaven .... The people who benefit when God rules, Jesus declares, are those who otherwise have no reason for hope or cause for joy, who have been denied their share of God's blessings in this world and deprived of justice -- in short, people for whom things have not been the way they ought to be. For such people, the coming of God's kingdom is a blessing, because when God rules, all this will change and things will be set right. [Powell, pp. 129-130]
All the beatitudes in Matthew 5:7-10 are best interpreted as promising eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. The second stanza does not, however, represent a logical departure from the thought that undergirds the first, for the virtues that earn blessings are ones exercised on behalf of the people mentioned in Stanza One. In other words the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6. [Powell, p.130].
"Mercy" (eleos) can have quite a broad range of meanings -- which all involve concrete acts rather than just an attitude. It can mean "to forgive sins." A related word (eleemosyne) refers to the giving of money to the poor (6:2, 3, 4). "Showing mercy" (eleeo) can mean "to heal those who are sick" (9:27; 20:30, 31) or "those possessed by demons" (15:22; 17:17). Twice in Matthew, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." In the first of these (9:13), he metaphorically illustrates mercy as being a physician to those who are sick (9:12). It is spoken in the context of eating with sinners and tax collectors (9:10-13). In the second instance (12:7), the context is feeding those who are hungry.
In a basic sense, then, "the merciful" are healers, people who seek to put right that which has gone wrong. They favor the removal of everything that prevents life from being as God intends: poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons, debt. [Powell, p.131]
The blessing pronounced on the merciful is that they will receive mercy. Surely this means that they themselves will be treated with mercy on the final day of judgment, but in a broader sense it may mean simply that they will see mercy prevail. They will receive mercy not only for themselves but also for those on whose behalf they have sought it. The advent of God's kingdom is a blessing to those who value mercy, because God also values mercy and, when God rules, what God values will become reality. [Powell, p. 131-132].
Here and elsewhere in the bible kardia seems simply to represent "the true self," what one really is, apart from pretense. Thus, to "understand with the heart" (13:15) means to understand truly; to "forgive from the heart" (18:35) means to forgive truly; and so on. [Powell, p. 132].
... we may surmise that the pure in heart are those who are truly pure as opposed to those who are only apparently so (23:25-28). Just as people may worship God with their lips when their hearts are far from God (15:8), so also may they appear katharos ["pure" / "clean"] to others when they are actually full of akatharsia ("uncleanness," 23:28). Thus, many commentators believe the real accent in Matthew's sixth beatitude is on integrity" [Powell, p. 133].
Concerning the blessing that they will see God, Powell writes: "Such a blessing is especially appropriate for the pure in heart because, as people who are truly pleasing to God, they have offered the world a vision of what is godly. Those who will see God are those in whom something of God has been seen." [p. 134]
Boring (Matthew, NIB] relates this phrase to problem that I see increasing in our society.
"Purity of heart" is not merely the avoidance of "impure thoughts" (e.g., sexual fantasies), but refers to the single-minded devotion to God appropriate to a monotheistic faith. Having an "undivided heart" (Ps 86:11) is the corollary of monotheism, and requires that there be something big enough and good enough to merit one's whole devotion, rather than the functional polytheism of parceling oneself out to a number of loyalties. [p. 179]
Phrased differently, it is a single-hearted passion for God. Many of our people have no passion for anything; or they have divided passions.
The peacemakers whom Jesus pronounces blessed in 5:9 are best regarded as agents of God who are actively establishing shalom. Or, as Jack Kingsbury says, they are "those who work for the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world."
In Matthew's Gospel, people are identified as God's children when their conduct is similar to God's own (5:48), in the same way that people are identified as members of Jesus' family when they do God's will (12:50). The assumption seems to be that for those involved in bringing about what God wants, the acknowledgment that they have behaved as God's children and done as God wished will be reward enough. [Powell, p. 135].
Or, more specifically, "peacemaking" is not a passive attitude, but exerting positive actions for reconciliation. In general, "peace" in the NT refers to the relationship between people.
Carter (Matthew and the Margins):
Rome's peace (Pax Romana) consisted of Rome's "gift" of order, security, and prosperity, guaranteed by the emperor as commander of Rome's military. G. Zampaglione notes that "almost all the Roman writers agreed that spreading peace ... meant subjecting other peoples to Roman dominion," an expression of the "proud conviction" that Rome had been "vested with the mission of imposing [its] laws and way of life on the rest of the world". [p. 135]
How is YHWH's shalom different from Pax Romana or Pax Americana? What is our role in making it happen on earth?
Although dikaiosyne was discussed briefly in the fourth beatitudes, it has a different meaning in here. In the fourth beatitude, it was God's activity to bring about a just world. Here, it is our human activity to participate in what God is doing. The virtue being promoted is not persecution, but commitment. The virtuous are not like those who "hear the word and immediately receives it with joy; ... but ... when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, they immediately fall away" (13:20-21).
This eighth beatitude serves as a fitting conclusion to the second stanza of four and summarizes the basic thought of the unit. Those who show mercy and those who work to establish God's shalom are examples of people committed to dikaiosyne, and if these people are pure in heart, then their commitment will not falter in the face of persecution. In every case, the people described by these beatitudes are virtuous. They display qualities that, ideally, all people should display. In one sense, then, the thought of the second set of beatitudes is quite different from that of the first. When God's kingdom comes and God's will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God's will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness/justice. [Powell, p. 136]
The people described in the first stanza are those who lack dikaiosyne. The people described in the second stanza are those dedicated to bringing dikaiosyne. Thus the people in the second part provide what the people are lacking in the first part.
Ironically, by seeking to provide dikaiosyne, the virtuous may find themselves in the position of lacking dikaiosyne. With Jesus as an example: he proclaimed justice to those deprived of justice, and he became one who was unjustly executed.
Whether the coming of God's kingdom is perceived as bringing reversal or reward depends only on the position that one occupies prior to its advent. God's rule sets things right. Those for whom things have not been right are blessed by the changes it brings and those who have been seeking to set things right are blessed by the accomplishment of what they have sought. [Powell, p. 138].
The sudden shift to "you" could be shocking to the disciples and other followers. Up until now in the gospel, the disciples have neither been the unfortunate in need of the eschatological reversal nor the virtuous waiting for the eschatological reward. They just followed Jesus, but sort of standing on the sidelines, watching the activities. Listening to Jesus. They have been hearing about those other poor and virtuous souls and the blessings pronounced on them. Suddenly the word you involves the hearers. Suddenly Jesus' words aren't about those other people any more but me. Why would you be reviled and persecuted and lied about? Because you are committed to dikaiosyne and because of this commitment, you will end up in the position of those lacking dikaiosyne -- being unjustly persecuted. However, you have already heard the blessings God has in store for such people. Will we believe those promises for ourselves or not? Will we believe that God will make all things right for us -- whether reversal or rewards? If so, we can rejoice and be glad, knowing we have a great reward in heaven.
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