The Beatitudes: Virtues that Lead to Reconciliation

In our last issue, we looked at Jesus’ parable of the Wicked Tenants. Jesus told his audience they had forfeited their right to remain God’s stewards. God appointed new tenants, a new People of God, comprising primarily Gentiles (Luke 21:24). Jesus tailored much of his teaching to prepare his Jewish audience for this transition. With tensions escalating between Jews and Gentiles, the task of creating a new People of God, that included both, would be a challenge.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43) was specifically designed to prepare the Jewish people for this transition. “Love your enemies” was not some generic proverb, but was a corrective teaching to challenge the Jewish attitude of jingoism of Jesus’ day. I believe that the Beatitudes develop this concept in more depth. Though it might not be apparent at first blush, challenging Jewish hostility, toward their Gentile overlords, was a major theme of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3 -12).

That Matthew wrote to ease this transition becomes more probable, as we consider when his Gospel was written. Many conservative scholars date the writing of the book of Matthew to sometime in the decade prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. With the Jewish revolt against Rome commencing in 66 A.D., Jewish animosity toward Rome would have reached a fever pitch by the mid ‘50s. Since Matthew was written to primarily a Jewish, Christian audience, ethnic tension between Jews and Gentiles would be a chief concern. If Matthew were written after 70 A.D., the destruction of the Temple would serve as a cautionary tale for those who didn’t “love their enemies.” Either way, Roman-Jewish relations would have been a major concern for Matthew’s audience.

The issues Matthew’s readers faced influenced which teachings of Jesus’ he selected to include in his Gospel, and the words he used to tell these stories. When we examine the Beatitudes more closely, we will realize that the virtues Jesus enumerated, and their attendant blessings, addressed the rising feelings of Jewish hostility toward the Romans. Matthew, like Jesus, was encouraging his readers to work toward reconciliation with their Gentile brothers.

The first three Beatitudes are addressed to the “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” and the “meek.” (Matt. 5:3 – 5) These three groups are really one and the same: the oppressed. They were meant to be a foil to the Jewish nationalists. The “poor in spirit” and the “meek” would be terms that referred to the well worn Jewish teaching on the righteous poor, or the anawim. The anawim put their trust solely in God to deliver them from their powerful oppressors (Psalms 9:8, 9; 34:19; 40:17).

The virtues of the anawim stood in direct contrast to the actions of militant Jews, who were fanning the flames of ethnic hatred. When commenting on these verses, Craig Keener rightly observed that the “social conditions in first-century Palestine inclined many people to suppose that revolutionary violence was the appropriate response to the violence of oppression they experienced . . . most Jews expected the final war against the Gentiles to culminate this age.”

If war against the Gentiles would hasten the end of the age, militant Jews were all too willing to accommodate. Venerating the anawim, served as a subtle, but stern rebuke to those who desired to incite the revolt.

As their reward, the meek will “inherit the earth.” The word “earth” would be better translated, “land.” Here, Jesus was quoting Psalms 37:11 “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (ESV) To a Jew “the land” referred to Palestine: their rightful inheritance from the LORD. Unencumbered possession of Palestine was the primary concern of the Jewish nationalists. They wanted their homeland back sans Roman Legions. Matthew reminded his readers that it would not be the Zealots who revolted against Rome that would seize the land. No, it would be the meek, the righteous poor, who patiently wait for God’s deliverance that would inherit the land.

The anawim were also reflected in the group who “mourn.” (Matt 5:4) Seeing that they would be comforted again implies they are those who are patiently awaiting God’s deliverance. They were not seeking personal revenge. Many scholars note that these first three groups echo the groups found in Isaiah 61:1, 2. Jesus read this very passage at his first recorded public sermon (Luke 4:18, 19). The Isaiah passage promised a great reversal when God would deliver the suffering anawim from their oppressors. Just as Jesus had encouraged his original hearers in the synagogue to maintain the posture of the righteous poor, Matthew encouraged his readers, a generation later, to do the same. They were not to get angry toward the Romans. Instead, they are to cry out to God, and yet still “love their enemies.”

Initially “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” does not appear to not have anything in common with the prior verses. We generally think of “righteousness” as referring to personal piety, however, the Greek word here, dikaiosune, actually has the primary meaning of “justice.” Justice would be the better rendering here. Dikaiosune here refers to God’s justice: when God puts all things right.

The poor mourn and patiently wait for God’s eschatological deliverance and justice. The language here reflects Psalms 107:5-9. There, the Psalmist was “hungry and thirsty” and “cried to the LORD” in his trouble. Ultimately, God “satisfies the longing soul.”

The Jewish revolutionaries thirsted for the blood of their enemies. They did not wait for the Lord. They expedited matters with their own version of justice. It would be those who sought God’s justice who would ultimately see God. Those who took vengeance into their own hands experienced their own demise.

Being “merciful” is a posture one has toward others (Matt 5:7). Mercy is a significant Christian ethic for Matthew’s Gospel that appears often (Matt 9:13, 12:7; 23:23). In chapter 9, Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were local Jews whom Rome contracted (to the highest bidder) to collect customs and duties. Nearly all scholars agree that Roman taxation was exorbitant. That tax collectors were made ritually unclean by handling pagan money and interacting with unclean Gentiles, making them even more loathsome.

In both Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” In Matthew 9, Jesus told the Pharisees that if they understood the meaning of “mercy,” they would realize that fellowship with hated “sinners” trumps the importance they put on being segregated from the ritually unclean.

Jesus, on the other hand, practiced inclusion. He looked to include the very people the Pharisees happily excluded: “For I have not came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13). Again, it is the merciful who obtain mercy, which here ultimately means deliverance from oppression. The one standing with an uplifted sword in hand can hardly expect God’s mercy.

When Jesus spoke of the “the pure in heart,” he was not speaking of the sexually pure, but was building on the thoughts developed about the “merciful” (Matt. 5:8). The phase “purity in heart” takes for granted right actions, focusing instead on singleness of purpose in serving God. Although this virtue may not directly correlate with the other verses, the phrase brings to mind Psalms 24:3, 4, where the “pure in heart” were also those with “guiltless hands.”

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directly accused the Pharisees of bloodguilt (Matt. 23:29 -32). The Jews of this time were primarily focused on ending Roman rule. The Jewish Zealots, (and likely the Shammai Pharisees), believed that by launching a war against the Gentiles, they would inaugurate the end of the age and, thus, see God. The history of the Jewish revolt paints a different picture: Jerusalem’s destruction. Jesus inferred that only those who single-mindedly focus on God, and thus, have clean hands, would see God.

“Peacemakers” would be the quintessential term to contrast the attitudes of militant Judaism with a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 5:9). A peacemaker brings reconciliation and healing to inimical people-groups. As Donald Hagner astutely observed, Jesus’, “point would seem to be directed against the Zealots, the Jewish revolutionaries who hoped through violence to bring the kingdom of God.” Jesus modeled peacemaking by selecting both a Zealot, and a tax collector, to be among his twelve disciples.

There must have been interesting conversations between Matthew the tax collector, and Simon the Zealot, around the disciples’ campfire at night. Including both Jews and Gentiles, peacemaking became an important theme in the New Testament church (Romans 12:18; 14:19; Eph. 4:12 – 14; Heb. 12:14; James 3:17,18; I Peter 3:11). According to Colossians 1:20, Jesus’ ultimate mission was peacemaking and the reconciliation of all things – racial hostilities included.

The last Beatitudes are reserved for the persecuted (Matt 5:10-13). Although it is never explicitly stated in the text, it is generally assumed by many that this persecution was for presenting the “Gospel.” I would suggest that those who were being persecuted were the peacekeepers, and those who were willing to cross ethnic boundaries during a time of racial hostility. The Jewish War (66 – 74 AD) encompassed a Jewish civil war comprising many contentious factions, as well as revolt against Rome.

In that type of environment, associating with Romans, or even with Jewish moderates, led to violent reprisals. We don’t have time to develop the idea here, but there is evidence in Acts and in Paul’s letters that Paul faced persecution, at least in part, because he befriended Gentiles. Paul’s association with Gentiles as well as advocating that Gentiles did not need to follow circumcision laws made him persona non grata among the Jerusalem Jews ca. 57 A.D., ultimately resulting in his arrest. (Acts 21:27 – 33)

The selection of virtues, as well as their associated blessings, strongly suggests that in the Beatitudes, Jesus was correcting the rampant nationalism of His day. By Matthew’s time, things had grown much worse. Jesus advocated reconciliation and peacemaking. Ironically, most Jews believed that they were being faithful to God by segregating themselves from “sinners” and violently rejecting Hellenistic culture.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus did not forbid us from protesting injustice. It’s how we make our appeal that matters. We may appeal for justice, but we must also love our oppressor.

That is exactly what the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late John Lewis set out to do in their Civil Rights protests in the ‘60s. Their ultimate goal was always “Beloved Community.”

Beloved Community is based on justice and love of fellow human beings. Dr. King’s second principle of non-violence protest was that, “nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.” In “Beloved Community,” oppression not only ends, but the oppressed and the oppressor learn to love one another.

In Jesus’ Day, the Jews substituted loving their nation for loving God. Their Zionism became an idol that prevented them from loving the Romans. They loved Judaism, but hated non-Jews. Jesus invited them to lay their idol down, but they valued their nation, culture, and freedom more than they valued God, and more than they valued the lives of the Romans.

While Jewish Revolt may seem like an arcane piece of history, we must remember that history often rhymes. Today, Christians often maintain a rigid political distance from secular “sinners.” Christian nationalists figuratively drape the American flag over the cross. The secular world sees our flag, while the cross remains nearly invisible. We have a sense of rage toward those who would kneel during the national anthem.

We take offense to kneeling while ignoring the injustice that generates it.

Instead of building a bridge of understanding by asking questions like, “Why are you so upset?” we build a wall hostility by loudly decrying the affront to our flag – our modern-day idol. Our draped flag over the cross has blinded us to the suffering of others. We focus on our own priorities.

Jesus, on the other hand, brought hostile people together – tax collectors and zealots. Jesus’ band of disciples modeled Beloved Community.

The church today must do the same: we must oppose injustice while still loving those who commit injustice.

Revolution or a cultural war never ends injustice. It merely changes the roles: the oppressed now becomes the oppressor. The only way to overcome injustice is by becoming a peacemaker that builds Beloved Community. Protest? Possibly. Love? Always.

  1. France, R.T, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, p. 109, 110
  2. Hagner, Donald, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, pg 91, 92
  3. Keener, Craig, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p 168.
  4. Meir, John P. Matthew: New Testament Message, p40
  5. France, R.T, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, p 110
  6. France, ibid. Jesus likely had the entire context of this Psalm in mind. Throughout, Psalm 37 contrasts the actions and outcomes of the wicked and the anawim
  7. Keener, p. 170
  8. Osborne, Grant, Matthew: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p 167
  9. Hagner, Donald, Matthew 1- 13; Word Biblical Commentary, p. 93
  10. Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew: Sacra Pagina, p. 79
  11. Hagner, Donald, Matthew 1- 13; Word Biblical Commentary, p. 93.
  12. Hagner, p 94
  13. Keener, p 554
  14. In Jesus’ day, there were two Pharisaic schools: The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Hillel was a popular rabbi who taught in Jerusalem for forty years, and died just 20 years prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Shammai was a contemporaneous with both Hillel and Jesus, dying the very year Jesus was crucified. These two rabbis dealt with Roman occupation very differently. Similar to Jesus, the great virtues of Hillel’s teachings were love and peace. Unfortunately, love and peace were out of fashion in Palestine by 30 A.D. Shammai teachings. which included rigid separation from, including cutting off all communication with Gentiles, was the ascendent school in Jesus’ day.
  15. Hanger, p. 94. (It’s unfortunate that Hagner misses this connection in the rest of the Beatitudes.)
  16. For example, Keener, Craig, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p 171