Open Matthew 5:3-6.
Imagine sitting on the northern slope of Galilee, listening in as the king instructs his followers. Different people hear his message in different ways.
A Pharisee on the edge of the crowd looks agitated, unsure what to expect from this Nazarene prophet. He relaxes as he hears Jesus’ first word, “Blessed.” This is good. Today we’re hearing wisdom teaching. It’s a well-worn popular path, like the teachings of Ben Sirach, like the proverbs of Solomon. When Moses asked Israel to commit to the covenant, he promised blessings on those who obeyed Torah and cursings on those who disobeyed (Deuteronomy 28). In the centuries that followed, prophets reinforced this message: trouble when the people disobeyed, and restored blessing when they turned back to God.
The first Psalm expressed the wisdom tradition so well that it was given pride of place:
Psalm 1 (my translation)
1 Blessed is the person who does not follow the way advocated by wicked people, … 2 but who delights in YHWH’s Torah …6 For YHWH knows the way the righteous take, while the way of the wicked implodes.
This wisdom teaching sat well with the Pharisees’ agenda. They constantly called Israel back to Torah obedience. People needed to be more compliant with God’s Law, so he would restore them from their exile under foreign rulers. The Pharisee is pleased to hear Jesus taking this path.
Then it starts to go wrong. Instead of announcing blessing on those who obey Torah, Jesus blesses those who have a spirit of poverty (5:3). This can’t be right. The poor are missing God’s blessing. They’re suffering for their disobedience, so they must have gone astray somewhere. The poor don’t have the blessing, and it’s self-evident that the poor don’t have the kingdom. Someone needs to explain to this teacher from Nazareth how wisdom teaching works. He’s got it wrong.
It gets worse. “Happy are the sad,” says Jesus (5:4). Now that’s patently absurd! This Nazarene is completely clueless. Get him out of here before he leads people astray!
Jesus continues, “Blessed are the powerless; they will be given the Land” (5:5). Oh, no! This is really bad. If he continues like this, it will lead to revolution! We don’t want powerless people revolting and taking over the land! (The word γῆ can be translated earth or land.)
The Pharisee collects his robes disdainfully, and makes a visible exit. He needs to warn his friends how dangerous and misguided this popular teacher is.
Now he’s gone, you notice a rustic farmer. His clothes are dusty and ragged. Josephus described how many of these Galilean farmers struggled with taxes and debt. Some of them even walked off their land. This chap borrowed money to plant his crop in hope of a good harvest, but it didn’t work. Again. He has no idea how he can ever pay it all back. He’s losing the will to try.
He hears the same words, but they mean something different. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; heaven will give the kingdom to them” (5:3). Jesus has his attention, even if he doesn’t believe this is possible. “Blessed are those who grieve; they will be comforted” (5:4). He no longer grieves; his tears have dried up. He doubts he could find comfort. “Who is this guy?” he wonders, “and how does he know my struggles?”
“Blessed are the powerless; they will inherit the Land” (5:5). What? I’m so ashamed. I can’t face my family; I’m losing the land passed down from my father and my grandfather. God gave this Land to the tribes of Israel, but we’ve lost it. Generation after generation, the Land has belonged to foreign powers, and we’ve been powerless to do anything about it. How could God ever give us back our Land now?
“Blessed are those who are desperate for justice, starving and parched; they will receive satisfaction” (5:6). How can he know? The money-lenders keep changing the terms of my loan, charging more and more, but I have no way to get justice. I can’t afford a lawyer. It’s only a matter of time before they take it all. I don’t dare to hope for what’s right anymore; there is no justice.
There were many others in the crowd like this Galilean farmer. They knew Jesus was addressing them. If you’ve known how unfair life is, you understand.
The Beatitudes are not telling us to take on these attitudes. Jesus was not telling us to be impoverished, sad, powerless and persecuted. No, these are honest words — our king acknowledging that life is not fair. He’s announcing a great reversal under God’s kingship. Those of us who are crushed, impoverished, sad, and powerless are the ones who will appreciate it most.
The restoration of God’s kingship — the kingdom of God — that’s the hope of the world.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 36:
Jesus is not suggesting that these are simply timeless truths about the way the world is, about human behaviour. If he was saying that, he was wrong. Mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don’t inherit the earth, those who long for justice frequently take that longing to the grave. This is an upside-down world, or perhaps a right-way-up world; and Jesus is saying that with his work it’s starting to come true. This is an announcement, not a philosophical analysis of the world. It’s about something that’s starting to happen, not about a general truth of life. It is gospel: good news, not good advice.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 159:
The sharply paradoxical character of most of its recommendations reverses the conventional values of society — it commends those whom the world in general would dismiss as losers and wimps … While the promises in vv. 4–9 do not specifically mention God as subject, the implication of the passive verbs is that it is God who will comfort, give the inheritance, satisfy, show mercy and call them his children.
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