The mystery of Jesus’ fame begins to lift when we first come across the opening of his core message, a series of statements that begin “blessed are,” known as the beatitudes.
They are part of a larger discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, which in the Gospel According to Matthew runs from chapter 5 to 7, and is an attempt to present the essential teaching of Jesus in one fell swoop. The discourse touches on a variety of issues that I will deal with in the next few posts: evangelism, or spreading the message; Jesus attitudes toward Jewish Law; several moral or behavior questions.
The beatitudes alone cover only a few verses, Matthew 5:3-11. They also appear in the shorter Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). Their original Aramaic text was likely translated by both evangelists/authors and adapted by each to his own purpose.
Matthew has Jesus taking select disciples up the mountain to offer the kerygma (Greek for “preaching” or, theologically, the essential proclamation of the good news); the evangelist has in mind as his audience the core Jewish leadership of the early Jesus Movement.
Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus coming down to the plain to speak to the broader group of all Jesus’ followers, with special reference to Gentiles, even though as a matter of historical fact the audience, whether movement leadership or just plain folks, was unlikely to have included Gentiles.
In each case, the text points to the beatitudes as a unit, crafted with internal rhymes that would make them easy to remember. This was not a literate society, so any preacher had, above all, to be memorable.
There are eight blessings in Matthew and in Luke four, with four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus states that the poor and people who mourn, are meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted or reviled on Jesus’ account are blessed. In Luke (6:20–26), the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those reviled are blessed, while Jesus issues warning “woes to you” at the rich, people who now laugh, who now are full and of whom men speak highly.
Matthew’s version is almost certainly the more complete, even though he spiritualizes poverty (“poor in spirit”) the first beatitude.
This is often misunderstood as meaning that “poor” includes wealthy people who spiritually detach from what they possess (or members of religious orders who take a vow of “poverty,” but ratchet up frequent flyer miles nonetheless). Such a reading does violence to the text, which refers to those whose dispossession has put them in a position of servility, as the people mentioned in Isaiah 61:1.
Most importantly, the beatitudes are not imperatives. No demand is made that anyone become poor, hungry, justice-seeking and thus hated, even though the consequences of being blessed or cursed are clear.
Rather, the blessings and woes describe the world under the basileia theou (the Greek often translated as “Kingdom of God,” but it more likely meant “rule [or reign] of God”). The beatitudes are God’s “constitution,” if you will, of the divine kingdom.
The striking and, to my mind, appealing character of the blessings is that they describe nothing less than a total subversion, or up-ending, a revolution in the human order.
Put yourself among those who first heard such words. To them, the world was ruled by an Emperor who was worshiped as a son of the gods, whose power over the known world was near-absolute and terrifying.
Within the land of the Jews, the Emperor imposed his power and might through either a procurator (Judea) or a vassal king (Galilee). Under them were tax collectors, who were essentially ruthless thugs who grabbed what they liked. The tax collectors were allowed to keep a part of what they collected, pass on an allotted quota to the local rulers, who in turn paid off Rome. The Roman Empire was nothing less than a ruthless Mafia protection system.
Our world is somewhat gentler, but not by much, as any day’s newspaper will show.
Yet in a few masterful and kindly phrases, Jesus announces that this society we humans have built is not at all what God has in mind. No wonder the tidings of Jesus’ teachings caught on as a wildfire that the Romans tried to put out!
Jesus offered revolution.
The revolutionary rule of God is not what Christians over the course of history have worked particularly hard to bring about. The churches have become the servants of money while attempting to make “sacred” the human order, instead of become the epicenters of struggle and dissent to usher in the rule of God.
Churches postpone change to the afterlife. But that’s not what the gospel says!
In the gospels, we read “blessed are,” not “blessed will be.” The order is supposed to have started then and there; it was merely announced at the mount or the plain.
The German theologian Romano Guardini spoke for me when he wrote, “Our natural reaction to the Sermon on the Mount is distaste.” He counsels, nevertheless, “it is much better to try and overcome it, than to unthinkingly accept Jesus’ words as pious platitudes ... they shake, palpably, the foundations of the earth.”
Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet.