The Beatitudes in Matthew

When I was a Catholic elementary school student I had to memorize the eight Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12). It was not as difficult a task as I had imagined. They are elegantly arranged and repetitious. I was a bit surprised later, however, as a young adult reading the Bible (we used a catechism, not a Bible!), to find out that there are actually nine Beatitudes. We never memorized the last one:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (5:11-12).

This little vignette is telling. While memorizing the Beatitudes is a fine exercise for children, it fails to put the Matthean Beatitudes in context and to impart a real understanding of why they have been so prominent in the Christian tradition.

The Beatitudes in Church History

It is not difficult to understand the attraction of the Beatitudes and why they have been influential throughout Church history. They constitute a well-known teaching of Jesus, they are highly poetic, and they evoke a system of higher values that reflect “the kingdom of heaven,” Matthew’s favorite expression for God’s reign.

In addition, the Beatitudes are the opening section of a three-chapter discourse of Jesus called “the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5:1–7:29), which contains many of Jesus’ ethical teachings that became influential already in New Testament times.

Allusions to this Sermon can be found in other writings of the New Testament. Some examples include Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mt 31-32; 1 Cor 7:10-11), the warning on suffering for the sake of the Kingdom (Mt 5:11-12; 1 Pt 4:13-14), and the need to store up heavenly “treasure” rather than earthly ones (Mt 6:19-20; Jas 5:1-3). These references probably demonstrate the widespread influence of the teaching of Jesus among the early Christians rather than any direct contact between the New Testament letters and the Gospel.

Throughout the Church’s history numerous saintly figures interpreted the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes specifically, as values to be put into practice. Perhaps the most famous example is Francis of Assisi, who lived the life of poverty, humility and meekness enshrined in the Beatitudes.

The present Catechism of the Catholic Church places the Beatitudes alongside the Decalogue of the Old Testament (the Ten Commandments) and the apostolic catechesis of the earliest disciples of Jesus as the three main guides along the path to God’s kingdom (No. 1724). The Catechism explains:

The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfill the promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven… (No. 1717).

Values for the Future or for Now?

One of the ongoing debates about the Beatitudes is whether they represent values that are supposed to be implemented in this world or, rather, that reflect the world to come, the ideals of the Kingdom. From one perspective, the Church has tended to prefer the latter viewpoint. For example, the passage on the Beatitudes is one of the Gospel readings that can be read, and often is, at funerals.

The Beatitudes provide a comforting vision. There is a place where all the wrongs will be righted. The poor in spirit will inherit God’s Kingdom. Those who mourn will be comforted. The meek will inherit the land. Those who suffer for righteousness will be vindicated. The merciful will be shown mercy. Peacemakers will find peace as God’s children.

This is indeed a powerful vision. It can be understood as future-oriented. As is well known, this reversal seldom happens in this world. The successful are those who “seize the day” or who act aggressively. The meek, lowly and humble often get left behind or, worse, trampled on. From this vantage point, the Beatitudes express what will come in God’s Kingdom, not what can be expected here below.

Yet another viewpoint is possible. In conjunction with the basic ethical teaching of the Bible and the Church, the values of the Beatitudes are not merely pious wishes for the future. They constitute an ethical demand for the present. The clearest indication of that is the ninth and final Beatitude, the one that is usually left off the list. Suffering insult and persecution because of Jesus (5:11), in fact, is simply living out the demands of discipleship as Jesus explained them to His disciples in His great sermon on discipleship (10:16-33).

His followers are sent like sheep in the midst of wolves. They will be betrayed and handed over to authorities. They will suffer calumnies and false charges, just as Jesus did. But Jesus also exhorts them not to be afraid, for their suffering will be rewarded in the Kingdom to come (10:26-32). In essence, the “Be-attitudes” are exactly the posture we need in order to fulfill Jesus’ demand to take up our cross and follow Him (10:38).

In this sense, they sound a clarion call to do our best to put them into action today. Whether one thinks this is realistic or totally idealistic seems to depend on the perspective of faith. As the adage goes, for those who believe, no explanation is needed; for those who don’t believe, no explanation will suffice.

The Beatitudes in Context

Clearly the history of interpretation has usually emphasized the Beatitudes as some form of ethical teaching directed at disciples of Jesus. (But note the crowds in 5:1.) But for Matthew and his community, they were not merely values of the Kingdom of God but also qualities exhibited in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, there is a Christological dimension to the Beatitudes that should not go unnoticed.

Several observations bear this out. First, some of the vocabulary used in the Beatitudes alludes to aspects of Jesus’ messianic identity and public ministry. He incarnates the values expressed in the Beatitudes. His teaching is entirely focused on the “Kingdom of heaven” (e.g., 13:31-50). He enters Jerusalem as the “meek” and humble king (21:5), ready to embrace His fate in suffering and persecution (27:15-54). His entire life and ministry is devoted to the “greater righteousness” to which He calls His disciples (5:6, 10, 20). He is baptized for the sake of righteousness (3:15) and for that reason he suffers the fate experienced by righteous prophets and sages (Mt 5:12; 23:34-35; 26:56).

This Christological perspective permeates the Gospel of Matthew and culminates in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus (Ch. 26–28). Only Jesus truly knows and accomplishes His heavenly Father’s will (26:54-56). Only Jesus understands and fulfills the true meaning of the Law and the prophets (5:17). And only Jesus comprehends the depth of the Scriptures and what it means to be merciful (9:13; 12:7).

The point is to keep our attention focused on Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes ultimately express His ability to be the obedient and faithful Son of His heavenly Father. But by keeping our eyes fixed on Him, we also learn how to implement these heavenly values. Indeed, that is that what disciples really do. The very word, whether in Greek (mathetes) or Latin (discipulus), means “learner.” Matthew’s intense Christological perspective leads us back to our call as disciples to follow the Master himself.

Preaching the Beatitudes

There is one more interesting aspect to this topic that might be of use to preachers. Most people never give a thought to the fact that Luke’s Gospel has a different version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26). His setting is on a plain rather than a mountain (the place of revelation). There Jesus speaks only four Beatitudes but adds to them the contrast of four Woes.

This version is far more concrete and less spiritualized than Matthew’s. The focus is on the (literally) poor, the now hungry, the now weeping, and those persecuted for the sake of “the Son of Man.” The promise of reward, however, is the same. Undergoing these deprivations will lead to a heavenly reversal in God’s Kingdom. But there is the concomitant warning of the woes. The rich, the well fed, the happy ones, and the honored in this world all will find a reversal when God’s Kingdom finally arrives.

So what is a preacher to do? It is easy to see why Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes became so influential in the course of history. Their spiritualized, poetic, idealistic, forward-looking orientation served well to direct disciples of Jesus toward the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of God. But in preaching about them one need not take and either/or approach. Perhaps the both/and approach is best, for the Beatitudes serve to call us to ethical righteousness now while sustaining our vision of the victorious Kingdom of God.

FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. He recently served as New Testament editor for The Little Rock Catholic Study Bible (Liturgical Press, 2011).

The Matthean Beatitudes
Sermon on the Mount
The Lukan Beatitudes
Sermon on the Plain