Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12
The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel occur within the literary context of inauguration of the new community.
Jesus has just announced that the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17) and invited people to repent. The Greek word metanoia has the connotation of “changing one’s course of action” and “transformation.” Jesus has also invited the first group of disciples to partake in the new movement (4:18-22).
Within this literary context, the Beatitudes should be read as Jesus’ manifesto for transformation in the community he has just inaugurated. They reveal what the new community will look like. The Beatitudes address those who experience various kinds of oppression as well as those who have been targeted because of their pursuit of righteousness. They promise blessings to each of these oppressed groups.
The Greek word makarios that is often translated as “blessed” should be explicated within the larger canonical context. The term occurs in several parts of the Septuagint, especially in Psalm 1 where blessings belong to those who refuse to be wicked and find delight in following the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1:1-2). The blessings will manifest themselves in the form of God’s protection for the righteous (Psalm 1:3-6).
The Beatitudes also build upon motifs from the wisdom literature that promise God’s favor and deliverance for the righteous and the afflicted (1 Enoch 1:8, 58:2-3; Psalms of Solomon 17:44). In particular, 1 Enoch 58 promises a bright future and a long life for the righteous. There is a promise of reversal of fortunes in these texts. Similarly, within their literary context, the Beatitudes do not glorify situations of suffering but announce reversal of fortunes for the oppressed.
After announcing the new kingdom and recruiting disciples, Jesus has been healing every disease, sickness and demon-possession among the people (Matthew 4:23-25) and has, consequently, gained immense popularity. The Beatitudes that come immediately after these accounts reveal how the afflicted and the oppressed will be blessed just as others in similar situations have been blessed thus far. While the promise of deliverance and reversal of fortunes spelled out in the Beatitudes point to the future, they are built on what Jesus has already accomplished. It is a promise built upon his successful track record.
The Beatitudes are a deeply subversive text in the American context where the word “blessed” is often associated with and hijacked by the wealthy, the healthy and the most powerful. Jesus clarifies that it is precisely the poor, the sick and the meek that are entitled to the blessings of the new kingdom.
But how will the afflicted and the oppressed be blessed? How will their deliverance come about?
Verse 4 offers an insight. The most common translation of verse 4—Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted—does not fully capture the force of the Greek verb at the end—parakleytheysontai. Parakleytheysontai is derived from the Greek word paraclete, which was used in courtroom settings in the first century Greco-Roman context. It referred to lawyers and advocates and has the connotation of interceding on behalf of those who need assistance.
The verb parakleytheysontai suggests that those who mourn will receive advocacy, not just comfort and consolation. Comfort and consolation are helpful and even essential but not nearly sufficient. Merely comforting individuals and communities who are mourning due to hunger, violence and injustice might address the symptoms of their situation but does little to change the roots of their suffering. As followers of Jesus, we are called to advocate on behalf of the oppressed and do everything in our capacity to reverse their current situation. When we see people weeping because of hunger, police brutality or gun violence, our response cannot be limited to thoughts and prayers. As important as thoughts and prayers are, they must be followed by concrete actions.
Parakleytheysontai is in the passive voice. A literal translation of verse reads like this: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be advocated on behalf. The passive voice makes it a bit awkward in English, but it needs to be explored further. In fact, in several of the Beatitudes, the agency of the verb in the second half is in the passive voice: they will be advocated on behalf of (verse 4), they will be filled (verse 6), they will be shown mercy (verse 7), they will be called children of God (verse 9). So, who is the agent of these actions? Who will advocate on behalf of those who mourn? Who will fill the hungry? Who will show mercy to the merciful? Who will call the peacemakers “the children of God?”
The passive voice leaves the agency open-ended. One can suggest that it is the divine passive making God the agent. However, the open-ended nature of the verb allows, even calls, for human agency—the church as well as the larger community—in addition to the divine agency.
The human agency takes on additional significance when one reads the Beatitudes within the literary context of the disciples having just been invited to help advance the new kingdom and its manifesto. Such an emphasis on the human agency suggests that, when we see oppressed people, the question need not, and should not, be: Where is God when people are mourning, hungry, treated brutally by the police and denied mercy in the courtrooms? Instead, the question should be: Where is God’s community and what is it doing to reverse the situation?
The Beatitudes offer a promise of liberation to those at the margins of our society. They also invite and require anyone and everyone with privilege and power to participate in the process of making the promised liberation a reality.
But the afflicted themselves have an agency as well. Many of the Beatitudes place the second part in the active voice—theirs is the kingdom of God (verses 2, 10); they will inherit the kingdom of God (verse 5); they will see God (verse 8)—suggesting that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation. Rather than turn the afflicted and the oppressed into objects of our compassion and advocacy, the Church must acknowledge their own agency and actively work with them to facilitate the reversal of fortunes Jesus has promised them.