I was introduced to the Beatitudes very early in life—in my Protestant Sunday School class, we were given memory work (yep; I’m that old), and one of the things we had to memorize was the Beatitudes. For successfully reciting them, I was given a red star on my memorization certificate—better than the green star for memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, but not as good as the gold star for memorizing the names of all the Books of the Bible. The Beatitudes therefore shine forth from the pages of the New Testament, and form a liturgical staple, at least in the Orthodox Church. In the Slavic tradition they are sung as the Third Antiphon in the Divine Liturgy, and are also sung at the funeral office and in the Matins for Holy Friday.
There are two versions of the Beatitudes in the New Testament: the one found in Matthew 5 and another one found in Luke 6. One needs them both to fully understand their significance. In the Lukan version (found in Luke 6:20f) we see that they are addressed to His disciples: for example, here Christ does not say, “Blessed are the poor”, but “blessed are you poor”—i.e. the poor He was addressing, namely, His disciples, the ones listening to His word. This is clear from the last of the Beatitudes, which refers to men hating His listeners and reviling them on account of their faith in the Son of Man. The Beatitudes in either version were not intended as moralistic maxims addressed to everyone, but as encouragement to His disciples. They were not aimed tous exo, but at those who had committed themselves to live under His authority.
In the Lukan version, we see that they form one half of a series of comparisons: blessings are pronounced on the poor, the persecuted, and the grieving who formed the bulk of His disciples, and woes are heaped on the haughty rich who disdained the preacher from Nazareth who had nowhere to lay His head. Thus Christ not only says, “Blessed are you poor”, but also “woe to you that are rich” (Luke 6:24). Like His Mother who foresaw that the coming Kingdom would overturn the oppressive realities of this age and put down the mighty from their thrones while exalting those of low degree (Luke 1:52), so her Son also declared that a mighty reversal was coming. The arrogant rich had already received all that they were ever going to have (compare Luke 16:25, where Abraham says to the rich man, “You in your lifetime received your good things”); those that were now full would one day hunger, those that laugh now would one day weep. The coming Kingdom would bring terrible judgment on the high and mighty.
But it would also bring blessing and vindication for the poor and oppressed, for those who laboured and were heavy laden (Matthew 11:28). Coming to Jesus, they would find rest. They might weep now, but in the coming Kingdom, they would laugh (Luke 6:21). The Beatitudes presuppose this coming eschatological reversal. The first will be last, and the last first.
St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, though shorn of the contrasting woes upon the haughty rich, are still longer than St. Luke’s version, and perhaps for this reason it is the version usually referred to when one refers to “the Beatitudes”. It is from this version that we will work in our commentary here.
In Matthew’s version, the Beatitudes form the opening of what is usually called “the Sermon on the Mount”, which is a compendium of much of Christ’s ethical teaching, a collection of disparate sayings He doubtless gave repeatedly throughout His ministry. St. Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, and is consciously modelled on the Torah, so that it constitutes a kind of Torah for the Church. Thus it contains five substantial blocks of teaching (in chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), of which the Sermon on the Mount is the first.
This first block of teaching is itself consciously modelled on the Law given from Sinai: just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Law, so Christ ascended a mountain (of unstated location) to give the Gospel. Matthew 5:1 therefore reads, “Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and when He sat down His disciples came to Him.”
Note that He sat, for sitting was the ancient posture when giving authoritative teaching. Kings would sit on their thrones to speak to their courtiers, and teachers would also sit to teach, since sitting represented a more dignified posture than standing. We see this even today—we stand in the presence of important people, and only sit down when invited. That is why bishops would sit on their kathedras (or chairs) while they taught (a “cathedral” is the building where the bishop has his kathedra, regardless of the magnificence of the building or the lack of it). Christ sat down to teach, because He was not simply giving an opinion, but teaching with authority.
The Beatitudes form the prolegomena and introduction to the Sermon on the Mount in the same way that the Ten Commandments formed the prolegomena to the entirety of the Law. The contrast between Beatitude and Law is intentional: the Ten Commandments gave instructions for regulating the life of the theocratic community, but Christ bestows blessing for the coming Kingdom. The former found its context in the historical existence of a nation in this age, whereas the latter finds its context in the eschatological reversal coming with the Kingdom of God. The former demands obedience; the latter assures reward for those who have served Christ. The difference here is the difference between the Law and the Gospel.
The reward promised in the Beatitudes consists of blessing in the age to come. The word usually rendered “blessed” is the Greek makarios, a word used in classical Greek to denote the happiness of the gods. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew asher (thus, for example, Psalm 1:1), and it means “fortunate, happy”. (The Hebrew asher is cognate with the word used by Leah in Genesis 30:31 when she bore a son: “How happy I am! For women will call me happy!”, and so named the boy “Asher”). In Christ’s day the world looked at those poor, bedraggled souls who followed Him, and thought them to be deluded, pitiable, and pathetic, a bunch of fools rightly to be met with disdain and a sorry shake of the head. This what the Pharisees thought of Jesus’ disciples, writing them off and saying, “This rabble which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:49).
In response to such denunciation, Christ assured His followers that they were not accursed, but blessed. A tremendous reward awaited them in the coming Kingdom. The rich who despised them and who rejected Jesus will one day hunger and howl, but not His disciples. They will be filled and will laugh. In that blessed day of vindication, anyone might envy their fate. Let His disciples therefore persevere in their faith despite the persecution their faith brought upon them. Their reward would be great.
Next: Blessed are the poor in spirit.