Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes


July 5, 2012 by jmar198013

MATTHEW 5.1-12

[5.1-2: Setting] Jesus noticed that crowds were flocking to him, so he went up on the mountain. His students came to meet him there, and he took his seat and started teaching them. He told them:

[5.3-12: Welcome] “There are people whose spirits have been crushed because society has shoved them to its margins. Well, good for them! God’s empire welcomes them home.

“There are those who cry themselves to sleep most every night. Good for them! God hears them, and will embrace them and soothe them until they find rest.

“There are those who have been made to feel powerless by others who exploit them, and call them weak and stupid and lazy. Good for them! God will make sure they get their fair share.

“There are those who have been deprived of basic necessities for so long that they crave justice and equality more than food and water. Good for them! God will satisfy their hunger.

“There are people who take time in an unforgiving world to be kind and generous. Well, good for them! God will be kind and generous to them.

“There are those whose hearts’ one true desire is for God. Good for them! God will be present with them.

“There are those who wear themselves out making peace in the midst of this world’s violence and chaos. Good for them! God will call them, ‘My children.’

“There are those who are mistreated because they’re committed to working with God to establish justice. Good for them! They are welcomed home in God’s empire.

“Good for you, when people insult you, when they threaten you, burn your houses, wreck your businesses, and spread all sort of evil gossip about you because you walk with me. Keep your head up and be encouraged, because you’re in good company. The people of good faith who speak God’s truth-to-power have always been treated that way.”

The setting of the Sermon on the Mount [Matt. 5.1-2] provides some clues as to its function. Jesus instructing his disciples from a mountain, while crowds watch on, brings to mind Moses giving Torah to Israel. The Sermon on the Mount is a community-forming document. It describes what sort of people disciples are to be. That the Sermon is given them in front of a crowd spells out the church’s task in the world. The crowds listen in on the Sermon, but it is addressed to the disciples. The words of the Sermon are not given to the world, but to the disciples (the church-in-formation). The task of the church is making those words flesh (embodying the Sermon, “making the text textile”), so the world will be blessed (more on that when I comment on Matt. 5.13-16). This is why Stanley Hauerwas can make the seemingly outrageous claim that the first task of the church is to be itself. The rest of the Sermon is Jesus teaching the church how to be itself.

The Beatitudes [5.3-12] have often been taken as “entrance requirements” for the kingdom of heaven, or as virtues to be attained. The result is that they are read as commands, rather than blessings. Yet Jesus is speaking blessings. The Beatitudes are words of welcome and congratulations to those who already are poor, mourning, meek, hungry, or persecuted. Jesus is describing what he sees when he looks at his disciples, and assuring them of God’s blessing. The point is, Jesus isn’t telling people to go out and attempt to be poor in spirit, or peacemakers, or to get themselves persecuted. He is naming the kind of people who will be present in communities assembled around himself. And he is honoring them by extending God’s welcome to them.

Matt. 5.1-2 is foundational for the task of the church. The task of the church is to be itself, and that means heeding the words of Jesus before a watching world. This begins with the church appropriating the Beatitudes [5.3-12]. Appropriating the Beatitudes means that the church welcomes and honors those whom God welcomes and honors. The challenge for the church is are we capable of recognizing the people named by the Beatitudes when God sends them to us? This has been a crisis of identity for as long as there has been a people called the church.

Bridging this section of the text to what follows, it is the very people that Jesus names in the Beatitudes–the poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, and persecuted–that Jesus also must address as sinners. For he speaks to them as those who would destroy those with whom they are in conflict rather than being reconciled (5.21-26); as adulterers (5.27-32); as deceitful (5.33-37); as vengeful (5.38-42); and as hateful to those who are not like them (5.43-48). This allows us to see that even those named by the Beatitudes are not possessed of special virtue. The gospel accounts of the adventures of the disciples while they accompanied Jesus bears this out. That those honored by God in the Beatitudes are still addressed as sinners as the Sermon progresses means that those in the world the world are not necessarily more perverse than those in the church. Or conversely, that those within the church are not automatically more virtuous than those without the church. Rather, those named by the Beatitudes are blessed because the hope (not the despair) fostered in them by their condition, and the condition of the world they inhabit, gives them the ears capable of hearing the hopefulness Jesus proclaims in the Sermon. They will be able to bear his commands not as burdens, but as blessings. For Jesus is truly speaking transforming grace as he describes what the church looks like.


5 thoughts on “Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes

  1. I tend to see the Beatitudes as a fulfillment of the Ten Commandments. The Beatitudes are what the Ten Commandments lead us to. The two together are the law and the prophets.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Something along those lines goes into my thinking about the Golden Rule (Matt. 7.12) that will appear later in this series. I don’t wish to provide any spoilers just yet, so I’ll simply say that fulfilling the Golden Rule, according to Jesus, FULFILLS the law and prophets–it doesn’t REPLACE them. Thank you for your comment.

  2. […] verb poieó–to make or to do. Its presence in one of the Beatitudes is instructive. I have previously written of my discomfort with performance-based readings of the Beatitudes; that is, of reading them as […]

  3. […] For a more succinct (and probably more immediately practical) evaluation of the Beatitudes, see my Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes. […]

  4. […] For a more succinct (and probably more immediately practical) evaluation of the Beatitudes, see my Brief notes on the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes. […]

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