Welcoming the marginalized, shaping disciples, forming the church: the function of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3-12)


May 30, 2013 by jmar198013

In his reflection on the Beatitudes, John Meier warns that “[t]he most dangerous passages in the Bible are the most familiar ones because we do not really listen to them” (281). On the other hand, the more sensitive hearer may not be able to encounter the Beatitudes “without being left with a sense of guilt or inadequacy” (Guelich 109). It should be obvious that neither of these outcomes were intended by Jesus when he first presented the Beatitudes of Matt. 5.3-12. The Beatitudes were meant, rather, for community forming and reforming in light of the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed (Matt. 4.17; cf. Matt. 5.3, 10; 6.33). They reflect the new values of the community under the rule of God.

The Beatitudes all begin with Μακάριοι (“happy”; “blessed”), a state which is associated with favorable circumstances. In Matt. 5.3-12, μακάριος is often coupled with a verb in the passive voice (5.4, 6-7, 9), a divine passive indicating that the state of blessedness originates with God (Louw and Nida § 25.119). Behind μακάριος is the Hebrew אַשְׁרֵי; the Beatitude form is amply represented in the Old Testament (Hagner 91; Moulton and Milligan 386). For instance, this form is found in Psalm 1.1 (“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”), and elsewhere (i.e., Ps. 32.1-2; 89.15; Prov. 8.34; Jer. 17.7).

Guelich asks whether we ought to view the Beatitudes as entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven, or as eschatological blessings (109-18). It is helpful first to draw to mind the recipients of the Beatitudes within the broader structure of Matthew’s narrative. Jesus was speaking to the four disciples who had already responded to his call (4.18-22; 5.1-2). Furthermore, Matthew’s intended readership was comprised of those who had already entered the church community. By the time we come to the final Beatitude (5.11-12), Matthew has switched the form of the saying from the third-person plural (“Blessed are the. . . ”) to the second-person plural (“Blessed are you . . . ”). As 5.11‑12 have to do with the persecution of disciples, Hill observes that this material was applied to those already in the community (Greek 128). Thus, to construe the Beatitudes as entrance requirements (as does Strecker 33) is problematic. “The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus” (Bonhoeffer, Cost 119).

Guelich’s argument that Matthew’s Beatitudes are shaped by Isa. 61 is quite helpful in clarifying the function of the Beatitudes in Matt. 5-7 as a whole. Luke 4.16-20 uses Isa. 61 in a very similar manner, for Jesus uses the text of Isa. 61.1-2 to define his Messianic agenda. Isa. 61.1‑2 reads as follows: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed [עֲנָוִ֗ים], to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners . . . [and] to comfort all who mourn” (NRSV).[i] The “poor in spirit” (πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι) of the first Beatitude, and the “meek” (πραεῖς) of the third (Matt. 5.3, 5) correspond to the עֲנָוִ֗ים of Isa. 61.1. Furthermore, while Matt. 3.5 is essentially a recapitulation of Ps. 37.11, it also agrees verbatim with the LXX of Isa. 61.7. Again, the second Beatitude (Matt. 5.4) which promises comfort to the mourners, corresponds to Isa. 61.2: “to comfort all who mourn.” Finally, by forming an inclusio with ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (“because the kingdom of heaven is theirs”) at 5.3, 10, Matthew connects the πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι with the δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης (“ones persecuted on account of righteousness”), and thereby “interprets and applies Isa. 61 . . . with reference to his own community” (Guelich 116-17). Hence, the Beatitudes embody the Messianic agenda set by Isa. 61, and are thus materially related to the person of Jesus and the community of disciples he has called around himself. “The implicit attitudes and conduct of the Beatitudes . . . are only intelligible in the light of that new eschatological moment between God and humanity established by Jesus’ person and ministry” (Guelich 111).

Neyrey offers another illuminating perspective on the function of Matt. 5.3-12 by his proposal that the Beatitudes speak of ascribed honor. The Beatitudes state that honor is “being bestowed on people who are not acting according to accepted wisdom and who are not acknowledged as favored by their neighbors” (Neyrey 167). By counting blessed the poor, hungry, and persecuted, Jesus is re-valuing them, and thus re-shaping the values system of his community. This becomes especially apparent when we read the Beatitudes as a whole in relation to the final two:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted on account of righteous conduct, because to them belongs the kingdom of heaven. You are blessed whenever they ridicule you and persecute you and [lying][ii] say all sorts of wicked things against you on my account. Rejoice and leap for joy, because your reward in heaven is great, for they also persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. (Matthew 5.10-12)

What we see in the Beatitudes is Jesus guiding his disciples through the movements of discipleship. He is forming and reforming a community around himself which will continue his mission of offering God’s transforming initiatives to the world (Matt. 5.13-16). The function of the Beatitudes is therefore to reorient the disciples’ priorities, and prepare them to follow his lead, even to rejection, ridicule, and violent death. As such, the Beatitudes contain a shocking amount of paradox: the poor, the mourners, the hungry, and the persecuted are counted as honored. Timothy Light gives us a sense of this paradox:

First, this alienation is caused by, not remedied by, the introduction of received Christianity . . . into the lives and communities of these faithful Christians. Their expressed disjunctive living and cognitive dissonance are a result of their attempting to remain Christian, not the result of their lives outside of Christianity. Second, this alienation is epistemological as well as existential in the sense that what these faithful Christians have been taught to “know” about the world and creation is not in alignment with what they know through their experience about their lives and their hopes. (188)

Hauerwas’ evaluation of the material in Matt. 5.3-12 falls in line with what we have observed above:

[T]he Beatitudes . . . are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom, we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn, and some will be meek. (Matthew 61)

The Beatitudes, therefore necessarily require an ecclesial context. They are words for community formation, meant to reshape the values of their recipients. The Beatitudes attend to this function by pronouncing an often paradoxical esteem: on the poor in spirit (5.3); mourners (5.4); those tamed by circumstance (5.5); the hungry (5.6); and those who are being persecuted (5.10-12). By pairing these characteristics with a bestowal of divine blessing, the Beatitudes serve to disorient, and then reorient, the disciples’ perception of what is to be valued. Furthermore, by implicating God in these reorienting blessings, Jesus both reshapes the disciples’ apprehension of their own destinies (i.e., the reign of God is theirs; they will be comforted; they will inherit the land), and promises that God will enable the disciples to fulfill the imperatives which follow in Matt. 5.21-7.12 (Talbert 58).

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.

[i] The conclusion that Isa. 61 provides the same organizing function for Matthew as it does so explicitly for Luke is supported by the fact that Matt. 11.5-6 = Luke 7.22-23. In these passages, Jesus uses the language of Isa. 61.1-2 to address John the Baptist’s disciples. After referencing this passage, Jesus offers a Beatitude: καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί (Black 158).

[ii] The inclusion of the participle ψευδόμενοι  is uncertain. Its absence in the Western tradition may be explained by an attempt to harmonize the saying to its correlate in Luke 6.22. On the other hand, scribes may have felt compelled to add it in order to avoid overgeneralization (cf. 1 Pet. 4.15) (Metzger 10-11). We have followed the lead of NA27 and UBS4 by including it in brackets.


Works Cited

Black, Matthew. An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Guelich, Robert. The Sermon on the Mount: a Foundation for Understanding. Waco: Word, 1982.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 33a. Dallas: Word, 1993.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006.

Hill, David. Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1967.

Light, Timothy. “Systemic Theology: Preliminary Principles.” Surviving Terror: Hope and Justice in a World of Violence. Ed. Victoria Lee Erickson and Michelle Lim Jones. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002. 184-205.

Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. Second ed. New York: UBS, 1989.

Meier, John P. “Matthew 5:3-12.” Interpretation 44.3 (1990): 281-86.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. New York: UBS, 1994.

Moulton, J. H., and G. Milligan. Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

Neyrey, Jerome H. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Knox, 1998.

Strecker, Georg. The Sermon on the Mount: An Exegetical Commentary.  O. C. Dean, Jr., trans. Nashville: Abingdon, 1988.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Ethical Decision Making in Matthew 5-7. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.


2 thoughts on “Welcoming the marginalized, shaping disciples, forming the church: the function of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3-12)

  1. connordefehr says:

    Excellent! I’ve encountered many who misinterpret this passage and I had originally skipped over it unsure of its purpose. Thank you for the great interpretation. Indeed, it further supports and spurs the disciples on to seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).


  2. […] to the captives, and release to the prisoners . . . [and] to comfort all who mourn” (NRSV).[i] The “poor in spirit” (πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι) of the first Beatitude, and the […]

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