From Bringing The Gospel of Matthew to Life by George Martin
(available through Amazon)
Copyright © 2008 George Martin. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms, copyright © 1991, 1986, 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5
Orientation: In chapters 5 through 7 Jesus teaches how to live under the reign of God now in order to be part of the kingdom of God when it is established in its fullness. This collection of teachings is popularly known as The Sermon on the Mount.
1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 He began to teach them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Gospel parallels: Luke 6:20–23
OT: Psalm 37:11; Isaiah 61:1–2, 7
1 When he saw the crowds: Matthew has told of great crowds coming to Jesus to be healed (4:24–25). Seeing these crowds, Jesus went up the mountain. God’s revelation to Moses took place on a mountain (Exod 19:3; 24:18; 34:4), and God’s revelation through Jesus will also take place on a mountain (possibly one of the high hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee but its location is not important for Matthew). Jesus sat down: Jewish teachers normally taught while seated. Jesus’ disciples came to him. Matthew has described the call of four disciples (4:18–22), but his account reads as if Jesus had also invited others to follow him (see also 10:1).
2 He began to teach them. Jesus instructs his disciples, but his teachings are not addressed exclusively to them: the crowds (verse 1) overhear what Jesus teaches (see 7:28–29). Matthew has told his readers that Jesus went about “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23), but Matthew has quoted only two utterances of Jesus since he began his public ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17) and “Come after me…” (4:19). Now Matthew presents teachings that are part of the “gospel of the kingdom,” teachings that spell out what it means to “repent” and to “come after” Jesus. Jesus speaks to his disciples and describes the life they are called to live, but allows the crowd to listen as an invitation for them to join the disciples in living under God’s reign. Matthew intends his readers to likewise listen to Jesus’ words as an instruction to them.
3 Jesus begins by proclaiming, Blessed are the poor in spirit, / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Pronouncing someone blessed or happy was an established pattern of speech in the biblical world, a way of congratulating or praising someone (see Luke 11:27–28). Today we label these pronouncements “beatitudes.”
Background: Beatitudes. A beatitude praises or congratulates someone for being fortunate, telling why or how they are fortunate. “A woman from the crowd called out and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ He replied, ‘Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it'” (Luke 11:27–28). There are about 60 beatitudes in the Old Testament and (by one count) 28 beatitudes in the New Testament. Psalm 1 is an extended beatitude. It begins with an exclamation, “Happy the man,” or “the person,” and then lays out the basis of the person’s happiness: he or she avoids bad company and spends time meditating on Scripture (Psalm 1:1–2). By explaining why the person is fortunate, the beatitude usually encourages the behavior that is the basis of the person’s happiness. Beatitudes may also describe the nature of the person’s happiness; Psalm 1, for example, speaks of flourishing even in difficult circumstances (Psalm 1:3). Beatitudes are sometimes translated, “Blessed is so and so,” but a beatitude does not call down God’s blessing on a person; it declares that the person is already fortunate in the eyes of God because of what the beatitude praises him or her for being or doing.
Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit are very fortunate and blessed. There are different Hebrew and Greek words for different classes of poor people. The word used here for poor is not the word for the working poor, who made up the bulk of the population of Galilee. The word poor here means those with no means of support, beggars at the bottom of the social order. Such poor had to depend on others to survive, and this engendered an attitude of dependence. In the Psalms, the poor and afflicted cry out to God for help (Psalms 70:6; 86:1). The expression poor in spirit highlights the attitude of helplessness and dependence that comes from being destitute—or from recognizing one’s fundamental and absolute dependence on God—an attitude that is the opposite of self-assuredness and arrogance. The poor in spirit realize their own fragility and emptiness and turn to God.
Jesus pronounces the poor in spirit to be in a blessed and happy condition; they are fortunate because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The word theirs can have the connotation of theirs alone. Jesus’ listeners would generally have understood the kingdom of heaven to be God ruling over everyone and everything at the end of this age. Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit are blessed because they will be part of God’s reign when it is established. But Jesus says more than that: he says that the poor in spirit are in a blessed condition now because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit already participate in God’s reign because their recognition that they are fragile and empty allows God to have unimpeded reign in their lives.
Jesus’ pronouncement is a shocking reversal of our usual way of thinking. We do not enter into God’s reign by what we have or do, but by realizing what we do not have and cannot do, and by our turning to God in our emptiness.
For reflection: When have I turned to God in my emptiness?
4 Blessed are they who mourn, / for they will be comforted. Jesus does not specify what those who mourn are mourning about, but a key to understanding their mourning may be found in the other beatitudes. The eight beatitudes do not refer to eight different groups of people but to eight characteristics shared by those who enter the reign of God. Those who mourn are poor in spirit (verse 3). Their mourning, then, is because of their deprivation and emptiness—and they may mourn as well God’s seeming slowness in rescuing them. Despite their mourning, Jesus proclaims them to be fortunate, for they will be comforted. The grammatical construction used here (and in later beatitudes) implies that they will be comforted by God. Jesus is not saying that unhappy people are really happy even if they don’t realize it; he knew sorrow himself (26:37–38). Jesus proclaims that when God establishes his reign, God will comfort those who grieve (see Rev 21:1–4).
For reflection: What has been my greatest grieving? What comforted me, or could comfort me?
5 Blessed are the meek, / for they will inherit the land. Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers would have heard a clear echo of Psalm 37: “The poor will possess the land” (Psalm 37:11). Some translations of Psalm 37 read, “The meek will possess the land.” In the context of Psalm 37, the land they will possess is the land promised to the descendants of Abraham (Gen 12:7). All too often this land was seized by the powerful and greedy, leaving others landless and in need. Psalm 37 promises a reversal: the wicked will vanish, allowing the poor to take possession of the land and enjoy prosperity (Psalm 37:10–11).
Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more;
look for them and they will not be there.
But the poor will possess the land,
will delight in great prosperity.
Jesus’ beatitude also promises a reversal. The meek are not mild-mannered or shy people; the meek are those who recognize their powerlessness—the poor in spirit. The land they will inherit is not a geographical territory but, in the context of the beatitudes, the kingdom of heaven (verses 3, 10). The meek will inherit it, as a bequest or gift. It is not something that they can earn: the poor in spirit have no earning power, materially or spiritually.
For reflection: In what ways am I meek? In what ways am I not meek?
Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers would likely have heard echoes of a prophecy of Isaiah in the first three beatitudes. Isaiah spoke of someone being anointed with the spirit of God to proclaim glad tidings to the lowly and to comfort those who mourn. The prophecy goes on to promise a double inheritance of the land to those who had known shame and disgrace. Jesus, upon whom the Spirit descended (3:16), fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy by proclaiming good news to those who are meek and mourning and poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly,
to heal the brokenhearted . . .
to comfort all who morn . . .
Since their shame was double
and disgrace and spittle were their portion,
They shall have a double inheritance in their land,
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Isaiah 61:1, 2, 7
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, / for they will be satisfied. To hunger and thirst for something means to yearn intensely for it, as a starving person longs for food and someone dying of thirst craves water. Righteousness has different shades of meaning. It can be God’s saving activity or humans doing God’s will in response to God’s saving activity. If those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the poor in spirit, the meek and mourning, what are they hungering and thirsting for? They may long for God to set things right, vanquishing all that oppresses them. They may long to be set right themselves, so that they can live out God’s will for them. Perhaps we cannot decide whether the accent in this beatitude falls on God’s righteousness or on human righteousness; perhaps the hunger and thirst is for God to make all things right, including the one who hungers and thirsts. Their yearning is ultimately for God’s kingdom to come.
For reflection: What are my most heartfelt longings?
Jesus promises that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied; the implication is, satisfied by God. Satisfaction comes through being included in God’s plan of salvation. Being part of God’s reign is the fulfillment of the deepest human longings.
7 Blessed are the merciful, / for they will be shown mercy. The poor in spirit realize their own affliction and fragility and can have sympathy and compassion for others who are afflicted and fragile. Being merciful includes helping those in need and forgiving those who harm us. The merciful are blessed, for they will be shown mercy by God. The beatitude does not imply that our mercy to others is the cause of God’s mercy to us: God is merciful by nature (Exod 34:6). Our being unmerciful can, however, block God’s mercy (6:12, 14–15). In the context of the beatitudes, the merciful will receive mercy when God establishes his reign. This will involve a judgment that sorts out good from evil; the merciful will be judged mercifully (25:31–40).
For reflection: What is the measure of my mercy?
8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. In the biblical view, the heart was the inner self, the seat of thinking, willing, and feeling. To be clean of heart means to be a person of integrity, wholeheartedly and single-mindedly devoted to God, without self-deception and mixed motives. Those who are clean of heart, who love God with their whole heart and soul and mind (22:37), will see God. To see God is an idiom for being united with God (see also 1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Rev 22:4). In the context of the beatitudes, the clean of heart will see God when God fully establishes his reign at the end of this age. (In traditional Catholic theology, being united with God in eternity is called the “beatific vision.”) Jesus announces that the reign of God is at hand (4:17), and those who seek God wholeheartedly can glimpse God revealed in and through Jesus (11:27; 12:28).
For reflection: How completely is my heart set on seeing God?
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Being peacemakers is not simply a matter of living peacefully; peacemakers strive to bring about reconciliation and peace. The biblical notion of peace encompasses well-being and wholeness as well as an absence of strife. Peacemakers work to establish justice and harmony. They do not respond to violence with violence (5:38–48); by absorbing violence peacemakers can act as circuit breakers in the spiral of revenge. There is no guarantee that their peacemaking will succeed: only when God’s kingdom is fully established will violence be vanquished and complete peace reign. Jesus pronounces peacemakers to be blessed, even if they suffer violence, for they will be called children of God. As in other beatitudes, God’s action is implied: peacemakers will be called children of God by God (see 5:44–45). Children of God (literally, sons of God) is an Old Testament expression with different shades of meaning. Here it conveys that when God establishes his reign, God will claim as his own and have special affection for those who are peacemakers. Just as God proclaimed Jesus to be his beloved Son (3:17), so too God looks upon those who sacrifice themselves for peace as beloved sons and daughters. (Other New Testament writings also speak of what it means to be children of God: Rom 8:14–17; Gal 4:4–7; 1 John 3:1–2.)
For reflection: Have I been a peacemaker? How could I be a peacemaker?
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Here righteousness means doing God’s will and playing one’s role in God’s plan of salvation. Experiencing some form of persecution is a real possibility for those whose allegiance is to God. Jesus proclaims them blessed and fortunate even if they are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The promise that the persecuted will be welcomed into the reign of God is the same promise made to the poor in spirit (verse 3) and is the implicit promise of all the beatitudes.
For reflection: What have I done out of faithfulness to God that has aroused the greatest opposition?
11 Jesus continues with a ninth beatitude that is an expansion and application of the eighth. He switches from speaking of “they” to explicitly addressing his disciples as “you.” Jesus tells them, Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. The accent falls on verbal abuse in Jesus’ expanded version of the eighth beatitude. Some will insult the disciples of Jesus and utter every kind of evil against them. (By printing falsely in brackets, the New American Bible indicates that this word is not found in all ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel.) Jesus says that insult and slander and even persecution will befall the disciples because of me: life has some hard knocks for everyone, but Jesus addresses what his disciples endure because of their allegiance to him. He tells them that they are blessed and fortunate despite whatever abuse comes to them because they are his disciples. Matthew probably intends his readers to include themselves among the “you” who are addressed by this beatitude: suffering for the sake of Jesus will not be limited to his first disciples.
12 Jesus explains why his disciples should consider themselves blessed to suffer for him: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. While the beatitudes implicitly invite us to imitate what they praise, they contain only two direct commands: rejoice and be glad. Jesus tells his disciples to be joyful even when they are abused and slandered because of him, for your reward will be great in heaven. Matthew literally writes in the heavens; the upper part of the heavens (or sky) were thought of as the abode of God (see 3:16–17). To receive a reward in heaven means that one has been brought into the presence of God; there those who endure suffering for the sake of Jesus will receive a great reward from God.
Jesus adds, Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. The abuse heaped on disciples of Jesus will be nothing new. Most of the prophets sent by God had a tough time (Jeremiah was quite vocal about what he suffered for God: Jer 15:10–18; 20:7–18). Late Old Testament writings characterize prophets as being rejected and even killed (2 Chron 36:16; Neh 9:26). What happens to Jesus’ disciples will be in line with what happened in the past to those who served God.
Three general observations on the beatitudes as a whole: First, the beatitudes can be a mirror in which we see Jesus. They portray what one is like who lives under the reign of God, and Jesus is the perfect example of living one’s life completely for God. We can meditate on each of the beatitudes for what it tells us about Jesus.
Second, the beatitudes proclaim a profound reversal of values. If the beatitudes reflected conventional thinking they would read “Happy are the wealthy, the powerful, the good looking, the physically fit.” Jesus proclaims, happy are those who realize their fragility and emptiness and wholeheartedly turn to God. Jesus’ call to repent (4:17) is a call to change our attitudes and values.
Third, the beatitudes are like an overture to an opera, sounding the themes that will be developed in the course of Jesus’ teachings. Some of these teachings make high demands on those who want to follow Jesus. The beatitudes proclaim from the very beginning: Blessed and happy and truly fortunate are those who hear Jesus’ words and act on the them (7:24).