Commentary on Matthew 5:1-20
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
The word translated “peacemakers” in Matthew 5:9 is eirēnopoioi, the plural of eirēnopoios. Literally, this term consists of two common words spliced together: the noun peace (Greek: eirēnē) and the verb to do, make (Greek: poieō). So, the English translation peacemakers is basically spot on. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker?
One way to answer this question is to pay attention to how the term eirēnopoios was used in the ancient world. As a noun, it occurs only once in the New Testament, here in Matthew 5:9. As a verb, the term occurs one additional time, in Colossians 1:20. The author of Colossians states that God made peace through Jesus’ death and thus reconciled the created order to Godself. Outside the New Testament, the noun eirēnopoios is used by Xenophon and Plutarch to refer to those who are committed to peace rather than to war.1 These examples suggest that a peacemaker can be someone who mediates large-scale, even cosmic, conflict.
We can also reflect on the question “what does it mean to be a peacemaker?” by paying attention to what else Jesus says in Matthew 5:1–11. Together, the beatitudes depict people characterized by meekness, mercy, gentleness, and the like. Such characteristics are important for addressing large-scale conflicts, and they also affect interpersonal interactions.
We might take our understanding even further by recalling that Jesus was a devout Jew whose thinking would have been shaped by distinctly Jewish teachings. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. The concept of shalom not only entails the basic sense of peace I have discussed already (being in harmony, not being at war), but it also extends to safety, welfare, prosperity, and completeness, whether these be on an individual or a corporate level.2 To have shalom means to have the fullness of life in all the best senses of the expression. So, if, as is very likely, the concept of shalom is informing Jesus’ statement about peacemakers, we must also understand peacemaking as an active pursuit of wellbeing for all, especially those for whom such wellbeing has been denied.
Jesus pairs his statement about peacemakers with the assertion that “they will be called huioi theou.” Literally, huioi theou means “sons of God,” although the New Revised Standard Version translates the phrase as “children of God.”
For preaching, the translation “children of God” can be an important and appropriate choice. All Christians are called children of God, even if the Greek text is male-centric here. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are often referred to collectively as the sons, sons and daughters, or children of God (for instance, Deuteronomy 32:5–6, 18–19). In commenting on Deuteronomy 14:1 (“You are the sons of the LORD your God,” my translation), the first-century Jewish rabbi Akiva states, “Beloved are the Israelites; for they are called the sons of God. It was declared to them as a special love that they are called God’s sons.”3 This relationship is one of “special love” because, to be called sons of God entailed status, inheritance, protection, and guidance, but the male-centric language applied to all Israel, not just males.
I cannot help but notice, however, that among all the beatitudes, Jesus says it is the peacemakers who will be called, literally, “sons of God.” In other beatitudes, Jesus says things like “theirs in the kingdom of heaven,” “they will see God,” and “they will inherit the earth.” Why this pairing here?
Especially in the context of the first-century Roman Empire, when Matthew was written, the term “son of [a] god” was politically significant. Multiple emperors—not least Rome’s first emperor, Augustus—were granted the title “son of god.” In Augustus’s case, the title referenced the fact that he was the adoptive son of the late Julius Caesar, who had been declared a god by the Roman senate. In texts about Augustus, we find repeated reference to the idea that he was an agent of peace for the whole Roman Empire. For instance, the poet Horace praises him for returning the long-neglected values of good faith, peace, honor, modesty, virtue, and plenty to Rome.4
Augustus was not the only emperor who was referred to as “son of god” or who was celebrated as a source of peace. In an honorific poem, the emperor Nero is praised for bringing peace to the sea in a storm.5 Both Nero and Augustus were celebrated by Roman authors as having the special status “son of god” and as agents of peace for Rome and its provinces.
There is a contrast worth making here. To be true “sons of God”—or, to bring it back to the more inclusive “children of God” as we apply it today—means to be agents of peace in the world. Whereas Roman rhetoric portrayed its rulers as those who had the divine right to rule and establish peace, Jesus tells his followers something different: true peace comes not through Rome but through you. You are agents of peace in the world, agents who bring reconciliation and genuine wellbeing to those who need it. By being thus, you will be rightfully called the heirs of God, those who receive God’s status, inheritance, protection, and guidance.
A word about reading this passage as bringing peace apart from Rome: the point here is not that Christians should work only on the individual level to bring about peace, avoiding systemic or even government-sponsored efforts in seeking wholeness and harmony for individuals and groups. The point is that Christians are called to be agents of peace in the world, and they are emphatically not to do so through a model of domination that conquers and suppresses in the name of “peace.”
- Xenophon, Hellenica 6.3.4; Plutarch, Nicias 11.
- F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1022–23.
- Pirkei Avot 3.14. Quoted in Eduard Lohse, “huios: Palestinian Judaism,” in vol. 8 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 359.
- Horace, Carmen Saeculare 57–60.
- Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogue 4.97–100.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Loving God, your son Jesus taught many things that helped people know how deeply you love humanity. Help us to live in your love, so that we might be beacons of light for others. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
This little light of mine ELW 670/trad.
Here in this place (Gather us in) ELW 532, GG 401
Longing for light, we wait in darkness (Christ, be our light) GG314, ELW715
Blessed are you, William Beckstrand
January 22, 2023