Open Matthew 5:7-12.
When I was young, someone told me that Beatitudes were Be-attitudes — attitudes I should be. They’re not. Jesus did not say we should try to be poor, sad, or squashed with injustice. “Try to be persecuted” is patently absurd. No, the Beatitudes describe the people to whom the Father gives the kingdom.
That’s Jesus’ kingdom vision. The kingdom of God is not arriving because powerful people arise to make it so. That’s how the kingdoms of the world operate, but it is not how God’s kingdom comes.
To be human means ruling God’s world on his behalf (as his images). To be inhuman means grasping God’s power over people, using violence to force them into subjection. We destroy our humanity when we act like wild animals, tearing each other apart.
That’s the vision Daniel saw: empires acting like wild beasts, crushing God’s people. But the Ancient of Days stepped in and gave the kingdom to a people who behaved like humans — like a son of man (Daniel 7). This human-like figure did not take the kingdom: the Ancient Ruler gave him dominion. That’s central to Jesus’ theology. The kingdom does not come to those who fight for it: the kingdom comes to those to whom the Ancient Ruler is pleased to give it.
So who are the people to whom God gives his kingdom?
- To the people who’ve missed out, God gives the kingdom (5:3).
- To the people crushed in anguish, the heavenly king brings consolation (5:4).
- Powerless people receive their inheritance when God rules the earth (5:5).
- Those trapped in injustice, yearning for things to be set right under God’s righteous reign, finally have their hunger satisfied (5:6).
The kingdom of heaven (God’s kingship) is not established by humans fighting for it. Jesus is teaching a radically different trajectory from that of Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, David, Josiah, and the Maccabees. The kingdom comes through God’s proclamation, not human achievement.
So what do we do? Sit around and wait? Withdraw from the world’s conflict to save ourselves until God acts?
No, says, Jesus: be the people to whom God will give the kingdom:
- The kingdom will be restored because of the king’s mercy towards his human subjects. So enact his mercy now! Give people an experience of divine mercy. Showing mercy to the Romans in the first century was probably as difficult as showing mercy to the people who abuse you today (5:7).
- Live with pure motives. Using violence against violence only promotes violence. We cannot use evil to overpower evil. It won’t be like that when God is king, so Jesus calls us to live as if God is already king. That’s how we’ll see God, the king of heaven and earth (5:8).
- The usual responses to conflict — fight or flight — won’t do. Jesus does not expect his followers to escape into a life of quietism, disengaged from the troubles of the world. He expects us to engage in making peace. Those who hide away from the conflicts reveal nothing of our heavenly ruler. Those who bring reconciliation reveal the heart of their Father, earth’s peacemaker (5:9).
- Understand how dangerous this is, but don’t quit. Giving mercy in the face of merciless powers is dangerous. Operating without violence in a violent world can get you killed. Making peace between self-interested parties can engender their hatred. Nevertheless, God gives the kingdom to those who face rejection for doing right (5:10).
That’s scary! Neither fight nor flight, but engagement! The powers that claim to run the world don’t just sit by and allow God’s people to have the kingdom. Their spin-doctors disseminate all kind of slander and disinformation against those who live out Jesus’ kingship (5:11). It’s always been like that, Jesus says. It’s what rulers did to God’s spokesmen in Old Testament times (5:12). It’s what the powers did to Jesus and his followers in New Testament times.
On the one hand, Jesus won’t let us fight evil with evil to re-establish God’s kingdom. We don’t regain it: God gives it. On the other hand, Jesus won’t let us sit as recluses behind our church walls waiting for God to take us out of the world. He calls us to engage, to be his kingdom people now.
Trust God to give the kingdom to those who’ve missed out, and be the kind of people to whom he can give it. Can we do that?
What others are saying
Martin Luther King Jnr, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, 1964:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 96:
What must be stressed here, however, is that the kingdom is presupposed as something given by God. The kingdom is declared as a reality apart from any human achievement. Thus the beatitudes are, above all, predicated upon the experience of the grace of God. The recipients are just that, those who receive the good news. Because they are the poor and oppressed, they make no claim upon God for their achievements. … It is true that the beatitudes contain implied ethical exhortations (becoming more explicit in the case of the fifth and seventh beatitudes). Indeed, the traits of those who are proclaimed “happy” could well be taken as a description of the behavior of Jesus himself. Yet this ethical side of the beatitudes remains distinctly subordinate to the indicative aspect that is directly related to the announcement of the kingdom.
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