Thought for the day
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As St Augustine writes, “all persons want to be happy; and no persons are happy who do not have what they want.” (De beata vita 2.10) Augustine knows that is is not so simple: having what and how do we keep it so that we don’t lose it? The question really becomes what do I desire? In the final analysis, there is a hunger of the human heart for God, often recognised only slowly, and a hunger for goodness and virtue, also a slow conversion. In God, we find a source of happiness which nothing can take away; in virtuous living, chiefly seeking the good of others, we come to our true fulfilment and contentment.
God our our true happiness, help us recognise our need of you that we may blessed in your kingdom. Amen.
Matt. 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
Matt. 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matt. 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Matt. 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Matt. 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Matt. 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Matt. 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Matt. 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Matt. 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matt. 5:11 “Blessed 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.
(i) There are many Beatitudes in the New Testament. The first is in Matthew 5:1 and the last is in Rev 22:14. Happiness is offered from beginning to end!
(ii) The Beatitudes in Matthew (invitation texts) are to be interpreted within the Sermon on the Mount and alongside the corresponding narrative section, chs. 8-9. Matthew leaves out the corresponding woes of Luke, but he has his own dire warnings!
Kind of writing
(i) In rhetorical terms, this text is an introduction, designed to get the attention, good will and “docility” or receptivity of the hearers. It achieves these aims (a) by awakening a desire for happiness, (b) by naming the present situation and (c) by proposing attitudes and actions that lead to happiness and final salvation.
(ii) Matthew’s Beatitudes are chiefly apocalyptic, promising reversal. They thus reveal a difficult situation in his community, perhaps a result of the probably recent break with the mother faith of Judaism.
(iii) Here in Matthew’s gospel, there are nine beatitudes, in a significant order:
1-4 passive attitudes
5-8 active attitudes (with 8 as a bridge to 9)
9 beatitude on persecution
Beatitude 8 is from Matthew’s own source or perhaps his pen. Cf. 1Pet 3:14: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (1Pet 3:14-15)
Old Testament background
There are very many “blessing” sayings in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms. In fact, the Psalter opens with one such “happy” saying. In general, the sayings occur in two settings: (a) in the Wisdom literature and (b) in the Apocalyptic literature. The wisdom beatitude is a desire for practical advice, which will lead to a peaceful life; the apocalyptic beatitude encourages endurance until God acts and reverses the present calamity.
New Testament foreground
(i) The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great discourses in Matthew’s Gospel. It is sometimes given the title “Blessings: entering the Kingdom” and could be read in light of the fifth discourse (23-25), “Woes: the coming of the Kingdom” at the end.
(ii) Within that overall pattern, the Sermon on the Mount (“On the Plain” in Luke) has several possible outlines. The one overleaf may be helpful.
This leads us to see that the opening beatitudes may helpfully be read in conjunction with the corresponding exhortation in 7:13-27.
(iii) The Beatitudes are found also in Luke 6:20-26, where four beatitudes are matched by corresponding four woes. It is possible to compare both traditions to see if there is a more original form behind the texts we have now in our hands. It is probably that the Q (Saying Source) beatitudes originally read as follows:
Blessed the poor
for of them is the kingdom of God
Blessed the mourners
for they shall be consoled
Blessed the hungry
for they shall be satisfied
With that in mind, we can notice the editorial changes and additions in Matthew 5, which reveal his own theology and reception of the Beatitudes.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:4–7)
Verse 1 The motivation for the Beatitudes is the compassion of Jesus as he looks on the crowds (even though the Beatitudes are offered to the disciples only). In Matthew, the location is more symbolism than geography. Moses went up the mountain of God and brought back the Ten Commandments. Thus, rather than looking for a Mount of the Beatitudes (however inspiring), it is the Moses symbolism which bears most meaning. Like Moses, Jesus sits, that is, he takes up his role as authoritative teacher. Although inspired by the crowds, the message is delivered to the disciples only, who come to Jesus.
Verse 2 A solemn opening intended to create anticipation and interest: lit., “he opened his mouth and was teaching them, saying.”
Verse 3 Matthew has “spiritualised” this beatitude somewhat. Certainly for the Lucan community, poor meant “without money” (as in the Acts). In the Old Testament, the poor in spirit are the pious, who enjoy God’s special care (Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29.) A good interpretation of Matthew’s version was proposed in the original New English Bible: Happy are those who know their need of God (NEB). The REB reverted to the more traditional translation. Matthew’s speaks of the kingdom of heaven, so as to avoid naming God, thus respecting Jewish tradition. Notice the present tense, meaning now.
Verse 4 To mourn is a signal of suffering in the Old Testament, where the kings insist on “joy” when grief is appropriate. This is the first of the reversals, capturing the Apocalyptic flavour of the teaching.
Verse 5 Linguistically, both “poor” and “meek” go back to the anawim Yahweh (the poor of Yahweh) of the Hebrew Bible. The meaning is substantially the same as in v. 3, conveying another reversal.
Verse 6 Matthew has added “and thirst for righteousness”. Writing for a mixed comment from Gentile and Jewish backgrounds, he is especially interested in justification/righteousness before God. Hunger is used in relation to the poor in the OT: Isa 32:6–7; 58:6–7, 9–10; Ezek 18:7, 16.
Verse 7 Compare with Matt 7:2 and, perhaps, with 6:14: For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matt 7:2)
Verse 8 The sentiment is also found also in Ps 71:3. The Greek has “sons” here but clearly sons and daughters are intended and so “children” is faithful to the original.
Verse 9 Peace is a gift of the proclamation according to Matt 10:13, but see also for contrast Matt 10:34. Matthew has in mind shalom, pointing to a rich range of meanings such as physical wellbeing, good relationships, fertility etc.
Verse 10 Outside of the Sermon: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matt. 10:23). Cf. Matt 23:34. There was no persecution of disciples during the ministry of Jesus, so we are hearing the concerns and issues of the time of the later church.
Verse 11 While not so evident in the Sermon on the Mount, the relationship with the Lord is explored later in the Gospel: Matt 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:5, 29.
Verse 12 Cf. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
Pointers for prayer
The blessings in the Beatitudes are primarily future blessings, but there can be an anticipation of the blessings in the present. At first reading some Beatitudes may seem to describe circumstances that you would like to avoid at all costs. Read them slowly. Stay with each one for a while.
Let yourself get a sense of the paradox involved in each one. Perhaps you have had an experience of a deeper and more authentic life, a blessing, when…
1. You were poor - you knew your need of God.
2. You mourned – could feel for others.
3. You were meek – not emotionally out of control.
4. You hungered and thirsted for some cause.
5. You were merciful rather than vengeful.
6. You you were pure in heart – a person of integrity, whose actions and intentions correspond.
7. You were a peacemaker.
8. You were persecuted because you stood for something.
O God, teach us the hidden wisdom of the gospel, so that we may hunger and thirst for holiness, work tirelessly for peace, and be counted among those who seek first the blessedness of your kingdom. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen