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Beatitudes

Note of the Day – January 10

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In the previous note, I looked at the theme of believers as “sons/children of God” in terms of birth—i.e., of being born—especially in the famous passage of John 3:3-8. Today, I will be surveying the New Testament references where believers are specifically called “sons” (or “children/offspring”) of God.

To begin with, we must look at the Old Testament and Jewish background of the idea. In several key passages, the people of Israel, collectively, are referred to as God’s “son”—Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6. Eventually, largely through the influence of Wisdom traditions, the righteous generally are described, on various occasions, as God’s children—cf. Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5; 16:10, 21, 26; 18:4-5; 19:6; Sirach 4:10; 23:1, 4; Jubilees 1:23-25; Psalms of Solomon 17:30. In Wisdom 2:18 and 18:13 there is a clear parallel between Israel and the righteous person: they are both called the “son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=).

In order to see how this was applied within the New Testament—both in the teaching of Jesus and as a theological/ethical motif in the Letters—let us look briefly at the relevant passages, in context:

1. “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)

Matthew 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35

“Happy the peace-makers, (in) that they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9)

This is the 7th Beatitude from the set in Matthew (5:3-12), part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In some ways it summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon (esp. that of Matt 5:21-48), as indicated by the parallel reference in Matt 5:45. As a conclusion of the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus states:

“…how as [i.e. so that] you might come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of your Father in the heavens”

The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), like the cognate genna/w (“come to be [born]”), can be used in the sense of birth/begetting, as previously indicated with regard to passages such as John 1:12-14; Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4ff, etc. The Lukan version of this saying is found in Lk 6:35:

“…and you will be [e&sesqe] sons of the Highest [ui(oi\ u(yi/stou]”

This expression matches that used of Jesus, by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Mary, in the context of Jesus’ birth:

“…and he will be [e&stai] great and (the) Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]” (Lk 1:32)

In the setting of the Beatitudes, coming to be (born) as sons of God, is effectively synonymous with inheriting/entering the Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Kingdom of the Heavens”)—Matt 5:3, 10, cf. also 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21. I will discuss this particular image in more detail in the next Christmas season note.

Luke 20:36

Like the Beatitudes, which have a strong eschatological emphasis, the reference in Luke 20:36 is to believers (or the righteous), i.e. those considered worthy by God (v. 35), who, in their heavenly existence (in the Kingdom of God/Heaven), will be “equal to the angels”, and, like them, are “sons of God”:

“…for they are equal to (the) Messengers and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection”

It is through the resurrection that believers are ‘born’ as sons of God. For an understanding of the resurrection in terms of birth imagery, cf. also Acts 13:33 (citing Psalm 2:7); Rom 8:18-23, 29; 1 Cor 15:20-23; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5.

Galatians 3:26

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”

In Galatians 3-4, Paul is drawing the Old Testament imagery of the children/descendants of Abraham, which he refers to as children of the promise. Christ is identified as the promised seed of Abraham (v. 16), and believers in Christ are the “sons of the promise” (v. 29). The reference to believers here as the “sons of God” draws upon the Old Testament background of the people Israel (collectively) as the “son of God” in a symbolic or spiritual sense.

Romans 8:14-15, 19, 23 (Gal 4:4-7)

Romans 8:12ff builds upon Paul’s earlier argument in Galatians 4:4-7, using similar language and phrasing at several points. In particular, Rom 8:14-15 is close to Gal 4:5b-6, as can be seen by comparison side by side:

Romans 8:14-15

“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive (the) spirit of slavery again into fear, but (rather) you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry (out) ‘Abba, Father!'”

Galatians 4:5b-7a

“…(so) that we might receive from (God) placement as sons. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God set forth out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ So (too) then, you are no longer a slave, but a son…”

Here sonship is understood properly in terms of our (present) faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit. The future eschatological aspect of sonship (cf. above) comes out in vv. 19ff, with the image of creation itself waiting and groaning (in labor) to give birth. Creation (or the creature, lit. the thing formed), Paul states, is

“…looking to receive from (God) the uncovering [a)poka/luyi$] of the sons of God

The “sons of God” (i.e. believers, with/in Christ) are in the world, but their true nature and identity has not been manifested; this will only happen at the end time. Paul parallels the labor pains of creation with our own inward groaning as believers—we, too, long to see our identity realized in full:

“…and not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking to receive from (God) placement as sons…” (v. 23)

Ultimately this realized in the final resurrection, which Paul describes as “the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies”.

2. “Sons” (ui(oi/)

In several other passages, believers are referred to as “sons” in a context where it seems clear that this is generally synonymous with fuller expression “sons of God” (above).

2 Corinthians 6:18

In 2 Cor 6:16-18, a chain (catena) of Old Testament references are cited: Leviticus 26:12, Isaiah 52:11, and (it would seem) 2 Samuel 7:14. The last of these has been adapted—originally, 2 Sam 7:14 read “I will be for a Father to him, and he will be for a son to me”; however, in 2 Cor 6:18 it has been modified as “I will be unto a Father to you [pl.], and you will be unto sons and daughters to me”. Originally, the reference was to the (Davidic) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic sense; here it now refers to believers—male and female—together, much as faithful Israel and the righteous could be thought of as God’s “son” (cf. above). In 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, sonship is conditional on proper religious and ethical behavior, much as the prophecy of 2 Sam 7:14 is conditional (cf. verses 14bff). See also the connection between sonship and righteousness in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount (above).

Romans 9:26

Here we have another Scripture citation (from Hos 1:10), in the context of Gentiles (those who were “not My people”) coming to faith in Christ—”they will be called sons of the living God“. Sonship is based on acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Christ.

Hebrews 2:10

As part of a litany describing and extolling Christ’s work, the author includes: “leading many sons into glory“. The implication is that believers come to be “sons of God” along with Christ.

Hebrews 12:5-8

Believers are exhorted and disciplined by God as sons are by a father. If we are obedient and attentive, then we prove ourselves to be legitimate sons (vv. 8ff). Once again, we see the ethical basis and context of sonship clearly described.

Revelation 21:7

There is here another allusion to 2 Sam 7:14 (cf. above), within an obvious eschatological setting, with the ethical aspect now understood in terms of faithful endurance and victory in the face of intense persecution and suffering during the end time. It also draws on the traditional idea of inheriting the kingdom of God (above):

“The one being victorious will obtain as (his) lot [i.e. inherit] these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son

3. “Offspring/children of God” (te/kna qeou=)

This expression occurs numerous times in the Gospel and First Letter of John, generally in place of “sons of God” (which neither work uses). It is to be found in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2, 10; 4:4; 5:2. The ‘birth’ of believers as children of God is similar to Paul’s understanding of believers as “sons of God” (cf. above)—it is the result of trust/faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit (see the previous note for more on 1:12-14, along with 3:3-8, in this regard). 1 John 3:1-2 is interesting in the light of how names functioned in ancient thought:

  • 1 Jn 3:1: believers are called children of God (“that we might be called [klhqw=men] offspring/children of God”)—this is tied fundamentally to the idea and act of naming (i.e. naming a child), cf. Luke 1:32, 35; our being called “children of God” is specifically related to the love God showed to us (through the work of his Son, Jn 3:16, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:1-2: believers now are children of God (“now we are [e)smen] offspring/children of God”)—in ancient thought, the name embodied and represented the essential identity of a person, often in a quasi-magical manner; in Old Testament tradition, naming scenes could have a prophetic quality, which carries over into the New Testament (see esp. Luke 1:13ff, 31-33; Matt 1:21, also 16:17-19, etc).
  • 1 Jn 3:2: believers will be sons of God (“…what we will be [e)so/meqa]”)—a person’s identity is fundamentally tied to his/her future destiny; ultimately believers will be something more than “offspring/children of God”—when Jesus appears again at the end time, we will see him in glory, and will be “like him”, i.e. like the Son (ui(o/$). This is perhaps part of the reason why 1 John (and the Gospel of John) does not use the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)—believers may be born as offspring (te/kna) of God, but only Jesus is truly the Son.

Paul seems to use “sons of God” and “offspring/children of God” more or less interchangeably—for example, compare Romans 8:16-17, 21 (and 9:8) with 8:14-15, 19, 23; 9:26 (see above). For other Pauline use of the expression, see Philippians 2:15 and the near parallel in Ephesians 5:1.

Note of the Day – March 5 (Beatitudes)

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By way of conclusion for this series of daily notes on the Beatitudes, I thought it worth examining in summary fashion other Beatitude-sayings in the New Testament and early Christian literature. Besides the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, there are a number of Beatitudes elsewhere in the Gospel tradition:

1. Matthew 11:6 (identical with Luke 7:23)

maka/rio/$ e)stin o^$ e)a\n mh\ skandalisqh=| e)n e)moi/
“happy is the (one) who would not be tripped (up) in me”

The expression skandalisqh=| e)n e)moi/ is foreign to English; typically it is translated something like “would not be offended by me”. A ska/ndalon (skándalon) is a trap or snare, such as would cause one to trip or fall and so be caught; the verb skandali/zw (skandalízœ) in the active voice means “to trap”, with the general sense of “cause (one) to trip, stumble”, while the passive refers to the one who is trapped or tripped up. In the figurative sense, to trip/stumble over a person means to take offense or be led astray, etc by him/her—in English, we might say “find offense in (someone)”. What the person says or does (or what he/she represents) can cause one to be offended or troubled. In both Matthew and Luke, the saying is part of Jesus’ response to messengers from John the Baptist who ask “are you the one coming [i.e. the Messiah/end-time-Prophet] or do we look toward (receiving) another?”

2. Matthew 13:16 (par. Luke 10:23b)

u(mw=n de\ maka/rioi oi( o)fqalmoi\ o%ti ble/pousin kai\ ta\ w@ta u(mw=n o%ti a)kou/ousin
“but happy your eyes (in) that they see (these things), and your ears (in) that they hear…”

The Lukan saying is shorter and simpler: maka/rioi oi( o)fqalmoi\ oi( ble/ponte$ a^ ble/pete (“happy the eyes seeing the [things] which you see”). The context is different, but in both versions the emphasis is upon the disciples who have seen and heard Jesus (something prophets and kings [or righteous persons] wished to see, but did not [Matt 13:17; Lk 10:24]). Contrary to the original setting and main purpose of the Beatitude form, the saying here refers specifically to the present, though the promise of future (eternal) happiness may also be implied. Parts of the body are sometimes singled out for happiness/blessing.

3. Luke 11:28 (cf. verse 27)

maka/rioi oi( a)kou/onte$ to\n lo/gon qeou= kai\ fula/ssonte$
“happy the (ones) hearing the account/word of God and watching/guarding (it)”

This is Jesus’ response to a declaration by a woman in the crowd: “happy the belly th(at) held you (up) and the breasts which you sucked!”—a natural, popular view of sacredness by association. Jesus begins his response with the emphatic particle menou=n(ge), which could be rendered something like “yes, indeed, but…”—he draws attention away from the sign (the biological/familial aspect) of his person to that which the sign signifies (the word of God). A similar point and parallel is made in Mark 3:31-35 par.

4. Matthew 16:17

maka/rio$ ei@ Si/mwn Bariwna=, o%ti sa\rc kai\ ai!ma ou)k a)peka/luye/n soi a)ll’ o( path/r mou o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
“happy are you Shim±ôn Bar-Yôna, (in) that flesh and blood did not take the cover from [i.e. uncover, reveal] (this) for you, but my Father in the Heavens”

This is part of Peter’s famous confession and subsequent commission in Matthew 16. The basis for the Beatitude is that Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed, the Son of the living God”, v. 16) came as the result of special divine revelation.

5. Luke 12:37 (with repetition in v. 38, 43; par. Matthew 24:46)

maka/rioi oi( dou=loi e)kei=noi ou^$ e)lqw\n o( ku/rio$ eu(rh/sei grhgorou=nta$
“happy the slaves who the lord having come should find (stay)ing awake/aroused”

This is part of a parable with an eschatological emphasis, about the importance of disciples staying alert and watchful for the Lord’s return. As such, it is very much in keeping with the original eschatological/judgment setting of the Beatitude form.

6. Luke 14:14 (cf. verse 15)

maka/rio$ e&sh|, o%ti ou)k e&xousin a)ntapodou=nai/ soi, a)ntapodoqh/setai ga/r soi e)n th=| a)nasta/sei tw=n dikai/wn
“happy you will be (in) that they have no (means) to give back (in return) to you, for it will be given back (in return) to you in the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of the just/righteous (ones)”

The context of this saying is Jesus’ teaching that hospitality and expense (of food, etc) should be extended to the poor and sick rather than to one’s well-to-do friends and relatives. This has much in common with the Beatitudes, in particular: (1) the importance of Jesus’ followers identifying with the poor and lowly; (2) the emphasis on (heavenly) repayment in the life to come. In the next, related pericope a man dining with Jesus utters another beatitude: “happy the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”, which prompts Jesus to relate the parable of the ‘Great Banquet’ (for a similar narrative device and parallel, cf. on Luke 11:27-28, above).

7. Luke 23:29

maka/riai ai( stei=rai kai\ ai( koili/ai ai^ ou)k e)ge/nnhsan kai\ mastoi\ oi^ ou)k e&qreyan
“happy the firm [i.e. sterile] ones and the bellies th(at) have not caused (children) to be (born) and breasts which have not thickened (i.e. nourished [children])”

This is an eschatological beatitude of a very different sort. In the narrative setting (on the way to his death), Jesus responds to the lamentation of women in the crowd (v. 27) with a warning of coming (impending) tribulation (v. 28): “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep upon me, (but all the) more weep upon yourselves and upon your offspring, (in) that see—the days are coming…” The blessing of verse 29 is darkly ironic in the face of the terrible travail that is coming, though it is in keeping with the focus of the Beatitudes (esp. in Luke) on the poor and suffering. For Jesus’ foretelling of end-time tribulation (fulfilled, in part at least, during the war of 66-70 A.D.), cf. Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-36 par.

8. John 13:17

ei) tau=ta oi&date, maka/rioi/ e)ste e)a\n poih=te au)ta/
“if you see/know these things, happy are you if/when you should do them”

The immediate context of this (conditional) beatitude is the example (washing the disciples’ feet) and teaching of Jesus in Jn 13:3-16, but it certainly could be said to apply to Jesus’ teaching in general (as recorded in the Gospel of John). In its simple, generic way, this Beatitude summarizes the famous Matthean/Lukan Beatiudes—the disciple will be declared happy/blessed in so far as he/she follows the will of God (in the person and teaching of Jesus). Indeed, there are here a number of parallels to themes in the Sermon on the Mount: (a) the importance of humility and sacrificial service, (b) identifying with the poor and lowly (i.e. the menial task of footwashing), and (c) an emphasis on imitating God (in Christ) by performing such service. For a similar saying, cf. James 1:25.

9. John 20:29

maka/rioi oi( mh\ i)do/nte$ kai\ pisteu/sante$
“happy the (one)s not seeing and (yet) trusting”

This is the conclusion of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples (especially to Thomas) in Jn 20:24-29 (cf. the ‘earlier’ appearance in vv. 19-23). Upon seeing Jesus, his doubt removed, Thomas exclaims “my Lord and my God!”, to which Jesus’ replies: “(In) that you have seen me you have trusted? Happy the ones not seeing and (yet) trusting!” In effect, this simple and beautiful saying concludes the Gospel of John as well.

10. Acts 20:35

maka/rio/n e)stin ma=llon dido/nai h* lamba/nein
“It is more happy (for one) to give than to receive”

Paul cites this saying of Jesus at the close of his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, but it is otherwise unattested in the Gospels.

11. Revelation 22:7, 14

maka/rio$ o( thrw=n tou\$ lo/gou$ th=$ profhtei/a$ tou= bibli/ou tou/tou
“happy the (one) guarding the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll”

maka/rioi oi( plu/nonte$ ta\$ stola\$ au)tw=n, i%na e&stai h( e)cousi/a au)tw=n e)pi\ to\ cu/lon th=$ zwh=$…
“happy the (ones) washing their robes, that their exousia [i.e. right, permission] will be upon the tree of life…”

These sayings are recorded as coming from Jesus (implied) in the final vision of the book of Revelation. They recapture the original context of the Beatitude form—that of declaring the righteous able to pass through the judgment to enter into heavenly bliss—but in other respects the language and sentiment differs considerably from the Beatitudes of Jesus in the Gospels.

Other Beatitudes in the New Testament not spoken by Jesus are: Luke 1:45; Romans 4:7-8 (quoting Psalm 32:1-2); 14:22b; James 1:12, 25; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:14; Revelation 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; cf. also Acts 26:2; 1 Cor 7:40. In the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (late-1st–mid-2nd centuries), Beatitudes also appear; sometimes these are citations from Jesus or the Gospels, in other instances they are original formulations—cf. 1 Clement 44:5; 50:5 (also 35:1); ‘2 Clement’ 16:4; 19:3; Ignatius Philadelphians 10:2; Polycarp Philippians 2:3; Didache 1:5; Barnabas 10:10; 11:8; Hermas Visions 3.8.4; Commandments 8.9; Similitudes 5.3.9; 6.1.1; Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:1.

As for the “Woes” corresponding to the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-23, 24-26), there are similar Woe-sayings of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels (Mark 13:17; 14:21 pars; Matt 11:21; 18:7; 23:13-29 pars; Lk 17:1), as well as several other Woes in the New Testament (1 Cor 9:16; Jude 11; Rev 8:13; 9:12; 11:14; 12:12; 18:10, 16, 19).

Finally, it may be worth mentioning the Beatitudes in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. This document, the date and origins of which still uncertain (it was probably written or compiled sometime between 100 and 150), consists entirely of sayings of Jesus. It is an interesting and, it would seem, unusual mixture of: (1) sayings similar to those recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels; (2) otherwise unknown sayings similar in character and style to those in the Gospels; (3) unknown sayings which seem to have a ‘Gnostic’ sense about them, or are otherwise difficult to interpret. With regard to the sayings with parallels in the Synoptic Gospels, scholars continue debate whether these, on the whole, are dependent on the canonical books or are independent of them. There are a good many sayings similar to those in the Sermon on the Mount, including the following “versions” of the Beatitudes:

#54: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Lk 6:20b; Matt 5:3)

#68a (cf. also #69a): “Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted” (Lk 6:22-23; Matt 5:11-12)

#69b: “Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who desires will be filled” (Lk 6:21a; cf. Matt 5:6)

Translation of Thomas O. Lambdin in James Robinson ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd edition (Brill:1988), pp. 126-138.

Other Beatitudes in the Gospel of Thomas are in sayings #18, 19 , 49, 58, 69a, 79 [Lk 11:27-28; 23:29], along with a lone Woe-saying in #112.

Note of the Day – March 4 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous note, I examined the structure and arrangement of the Beatitudes, including the idea of number symbolism associated with them. Today, I will follow this up with a short discussion of ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted and applied by Christians, focusing on two principal figures in the early Church: Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa.

2. Early Interpretation of the Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on early Christian ethical instruction (see esp. throughout the epistle of James and the “Two Ways” portion of the Didache [chs. 1-6]); and may have been used specifically in catechesis prior to baptism. However, citations of the Beatitudes (whether direct or indirect) are actually somewhat rare in early writings—cf. Polycarp Philippians 2; Ignatius Ephesians 10 [long version]; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.1; IV.9.2, 20.5, 23.9; V.9.4; Tertullian To His Wife II.8; On Modesty 2, 5; On Fasting 15; On Flight in Persecution 7, 12; Origen On First Principles II.3.7, 11.2. The first, sixth and seventh Matthean Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 8, 9), with their more obvious spiritual and theological emphasis, were clearly the most popular and oft-quoted. The mystical (‘gnostic’) sense of the sixth [v. 8], along with the reference to believers as “sons of God” in the seventh [v. 9], appealed especially to the Alexandrians Clement (who cites verse 8  numerous times in his Stromateis) and Origen (On First Principles I.1.9; Against Celsus VI.4; VII.33, 43). Unfortunately the relevant portion of Origen’s massive Commentary on Matthew (Book 2) has not been preserved (except for a fragment [on Matt 5:9] in the Philokalia ch. 6; cf. also the reference in Book 13.7). The Pseudo-Clementine literature provides a commentary of sorts on Matt 5:3, 8-9 (Recognitions I.61; II.22, 29; III.27, 29; Homilies XV.10), including the clarifying point that only the righteous poor will be blessed (not all poor).

One of the earliest and most influential treatments of the Beatitudes is that of Augustine in his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, written c. 395 A.D.). Augustine adopts the eight-fold (7 + 1) structure (of Matt 5:3-10), and uses it as an organizing principle for the exposition (cf. I.3 [§10] and II.25 [§87]), dividing the Sermon into seven sections (inspired by the idea of the “seven gifts” of the Holy Spirit [cf. Isa 11:2-3 and in I.4 §11]). The seven principal beatitudes reflect an “ascent” of the soul and progress in virtue, and serves to divide the commentary into two parts: (1) the first five Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-7) relate primarily to the “active life” (vita activa, with its good works [bona opera]) and govern book 1 (on Matt 5); (2) the last two Beatitudes (Matt 5:8-9) refer to the “contemplative life” (vita contemplativa) and govern book 2 (on Matt 6-7). Augustine connects the vision of God in the sixth Beatitude with the teaching on prayer and worship in Matt 6:1-18 and includes a seven-fold exposition of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13 [II.4-11 §§15-39]). Augustine was probably familiar with the work of his older contemporary Ambrose of Milan (who discusses the Beatitudes in his Commentary on Luke, written c. 390). Ambrose draws a parallel between the eight Matthean Beatitudes (representing the ascent of the soul) and the four Lukan Beatitudes (which represent the four cardinal virtues). In many of his exgetical and homiletical works, Ambrose shows clear influence of Greek ascetic-mystical theology, such as that reflected in his contemporary Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory’s set of eight Orations on the Beatitudes (along with a comparable set of five on the Lord’s Prayer, both written sometime between 385 and 390) represents the earliest extensive treatment on the Sermon on the Mount which has come down to us. Using the mountain setting (Matt 5:1ff) as his reference point, Gregory interprets the eight Beatitudes as steps or stages in the ascent of the soul, devoting one sermon for each Beatitude or “step”. In this, Gregory draws upon a popular concept and viewpoint common to both Greco-Roman ascetic philosophy and early Christian (mystical) theology, whereby the disciple or initiate learns to purify himself (or herself) from the passions and earthy/material or fleshly concerns (the lower aspect of the soul) and rises to experience in greater fullness and clarity the mind or spirit (the higher aspect of the soul, which is a reflection of God). Something of this ascetic-mystical teaching can be found in the New Testament itself (especially in Paul’s ethical dualism and spiritual instruction), but generally in a moderated form. Within the mystical tradition of the Eastern Church, in particular, these points came to have much greater emphasis;  we see this within monasticism especially, in the writings and teachings of the so-called Desert Fathers. It is very much a synergistic spiritual ethic: through the ascetic life-style of self-effacement and self-denial one works to eliminate the passions (apatheia) and cultivate the (Christian) virtues, preparing the ground work for receiving the (gift of) knowledge of God and to be transformed into His likeness (theiosis). The “ladder” motif proved useful and popular as a framing device for spiritual and ethical instruction in this regard, as indicated by works such as the 4th-century Syriac Book of Steps and, most famously, in the 7th century Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. In the Beatitudes, this purification of the soul begins with humility and poverty of spirit (the first Beatitude) and would seem to culminate in the sixth Beatitude, where the pure in heart “see God”—indeed, this is favorite theme of Gregory’s which he expounds elsewhere in his writings (most notably in the second book of his Life of Moses, esp. related to the Sinai revelation and theophany). The arrangement of the Beatitudes in Matthew forces Gregory to go beyond the beatific vision to discuss the seventh and eighth Beatitudes (Matt 5:9-10), which he does with his usual skill, though he admits to some difficulty in approaching the final Beatitude (on persecution).

In general, I would agree with the eight-fold (7 + 1) structure used in analyzing and expounding the Beatitudes. Early commentators such as Gregory, Ambrose and Augustine, in viewing them through the fundamental interpretive lens of the ascent of the soul and progress in virtue, certainly read a bit too much into the text. On the other hand, at their best moments, they display considerable insight and sensitivity to the spiritual dimension of Scripture—something sadly lost and neglected today. But is there a meaningful order to the Beatitudes which might accord with something like the “ascent” viewpoint in early Christian thought? In the previous note, I examined the way in which the Matthean Beatitudes might have expanded from a smaller (four-fold) set such as we find in Luke 6:20-23. Here, I might suggest the following outline:

  • Happy the poor in the spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heaven (#1, Matt 5:3)
    • Happy the ones mourning, that they will be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted] (#2, Matt 5:4)
      • Happy the meek/gentle ones, that they will receive the earth as (their) lot (#3, Matt 5:5)
    • Happy the ones hungering and thirsting for justice/righteousness, that they will be fed full (#4, Matt 5:6)
      • Happy the merciful/compassionate ones, that they will receive mercy/compassion (#5, Matt 5:7)
        • Happy the ones pure/clean in heart, that they will see God (#6, Matt 5:8)
        • Happy the ones making peace, that they will be called sons of God (#7, Matt 5:9)
  • Happy the ones having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens (#8, Matt 5:10)

This outline has the advantage of preserving the basic structure of the Lukan set [the first three + a concluding beatitude regarding persecution]. It also keeps the second and third Lukan sayings in tandem (expounding the basic idea of the poor), intercut with an ‘inner’ pair of sayings involving meekness and compassion (which could be said to expound the idea of poor in spirit). Moreover, it does demonstrate a kind of progression (or “ascent”) from outer (the first beatitude) to inner (the sixth-seventh), before concluding with the final beatitude (parallel to the first) that frames the entire set. As indicated previously, I prefer to treat the ninth (or ninth + tenth) beatitude in Matt 5:11-12 as a transitional verse: it moves from the exordium of the Beatitudes into Jesus’ teaching proper—beginning with the saying on salt and light in vv. 13-16.

For several observations above I am indebted to the critical Commentary by Hans Dieter Betz (The Sermon on the Mount, Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1995]), which I have consulted on a number of occasions throughout these notes on the Beatitudes; here see pp. 105-109.

Note of the Day – March 2 (Beatitudes)

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In bringing this series of daily notes on the Beatitudes to a close, it may be helpful to discuss briefly something of the way the Beatitudes have been interpreted and understood in Church History. I will focus on two areas: (1) the order and arrangement (of the Matthean Beatitudes in particular), and (2) the history of interpretation as prefigured in the treatments by Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine.

1. The Order and Arrangement of the Beatitudes

The question of the number, order, and arrangement of the Beatitudes is connected with the more difficult question of the relationship between the Matthean and Lukan sets of Beatitudes (addressed in my introduction to this series of daily notes). I tend to accept the general scholarly premise that the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain both stem from a common tradition—a collection of sayings of Jesus already arranged in a particular order which may (or may not) reflect a unified oral discourse. The Matthean Beatitudes (along with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole) is longer and more extensive than the corresponding version in Luke. In all likelihood, the Gospel writer in Matthew has expanded the collection with additional material from other sources—this applies primarily to the material in chapter 6 (some of which is attested elsewhere in Luke), but also to other portions: notably 5:17-42, and expansions in 7:21-23, as well as in the Beatitudes. I think it quite possible that we have something like the original ‘core’ (of four Beatitudes) in Luke; at any event, it is easy to see how this structure might have been filled out with other sayings (additional Beatitudes of Jesus are attested in the Gospels). Note the following outline, with the elements unique to Matthew offset and italicized and the Beatitude number (Matthean/Lukan) indicated in parentheses:

  • Happy the poor in the spirit (1)
  • Happy the ones weeping/mourning (2/3)
    • Happy the meek/gentle ones (3)
  • Happy the ones hungering and thirsting for justice/righteousness (4/2)
    • Happy the compassionate/merciful ones (5)
    • Happy the ones pure in heart (6)
    • Happy the ones making peace (7)
    • Happy the ones pursued/persecuted because of justice/righteousness (8)
  • Happy are you when men… because of me. Be joyful and leap for joy, that your payment is great in Heaven…they did the same to the Prophets (9/4) [because of the length and complexity of the last Beatitude, there is greater variation between the two versions].

One can point to three areas of ‘expansion’:

  1. The addition of qualifying/explanatory phrases in Matthean 1 & 4 (“poor in the spirit“, “hunger [and thirst] for justice/righteousness“)
  2. A series of four beatitudes (Matthean 3, 5-7), which roughly form two thematic groups:
    Happy the meek / Happy the merciful
    Happy the pure in heart (…will see God) / Happy the peace-makers (…will be called sons of God)
  3. A concluding beatitude (Matthean 8) which precedes the final compound saying and shares with it the common theme of persecution (“for the sake of…”)

Of course, it is also possible that in Luke a larger collection of Beatitudes has been reduced, though I think this is somewhat less likely. Occasionally, scholars have sought to reconstruction an original collection (in Aramaic) of Beatitudes from which both the Matthean and Lukan sets are derived (cf. M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd edition, Oxford:1967, pp. 156-158), but this is highly speculative at best.

The structure of the Lukan set is extremely simple and compact:

  • Happy the Poor
    • Happy the ones hungering now
    • Happy the ones weeping now
  • Happy are you when men… because of me. Be joyful and leap for joy, that your payment is great in Heaven…they did the same to the Prophets

It follows a clear 3 + 1 formula, with the second and third beatitudes expounding the first (illustrating the present condition of the “poor”), and with the first and fourth beatitudes in dynamic parallelism. This parallelism is brought out more precisely when comparing the first and eighth beatitudes in Matthew:

  • Happy the ones poor in the spirit, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens
  • Happy the ones having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens

As to the number of Beatitudes in Matthew, there is some debate as to how this should be understood. Did the Gospel writer (or Jesus himself) have any particular number (symbolism) in mind? Several possibilities have been suggested by commentators:

  • By including Matt 5:11-12, there are nine beatitudes, or ten, if one counts the last (compound) saying as two (“Happy… Rejoice…”). Ten is well-known in the ancient world as symbolic of completion, perfection, etc; within Jewish tradition, 9 + 1 = 10 serves as a significant formula (see Sirach 25:7ff; Philo Questions on Genesis 4.110 [cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 105-106]).
  • By separating out Matt 5:11-12 as an appendix or transitional saying, there are eight beatitudes. Matt 5:10 frames the collection, forming an inclusio with the parallel in the first beatitude; following this structure results in (the sacred number) 7 + 1 = 8.
  • Some scholars have questioned the originality Matt 5:5 (the third beatitude); if it were removed, the same first three beatitudes would be grouped together as in Luke, and yield a total of seven (or, including Matt 5:11-12, eight: 7 + 1). However, there is no real textual basis for omitting the verse, though some manuscripts include it in a different position (as the second beatitude, ahead of verse 4).

The eightfold structure (7 + 1) of verses 3-10 is to be preferred as an interpretive base, treating the ninth (or ninth + tenth) beatitude of vv. 11-12 as a kind of appendix. This arrangement, with its (possible) number symbolism will be discussed in the next day’s note, in relation to early interpretation of the Beatitudes.

Note of the Day – March 1 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous day’s note, I examined the Lukan Beatitudes and Woes (Lk 6:20-26), with their stark juxtaposition of poor vs. rich, specifically in light of: (1) Jesus teaching regarding riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition), and (2) the thematic emphasis of rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke. With this study as background, I will proceed today with some fundamental points of interpretation. The very difficulty of the passage necessitates that these be taken as helpful observations (to facilitate additional study) rather than definitive rules.

1. “Poor” and “Rich” in the Beatitudes are, in fact, to be understood broadly in terms of socio-economic status.

Unlike the situation in the Matthean Beatitudes, which qualify poverty and hunger (“poor in the spirit”, “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”), in Luke we are certainly dealing with poverty in the customary sense (as physical/material need and want). In this regard, there are two aspects which are important to bear in mind:

(a) By comparison with much of modern (Western) society, life in the ancient world tended to be harsher and more precarious. Disease and natural disaster could wreak far greater havoc on a predominantly agricultural and pastoral society, one without our modern-day amenities. The finest social ideals in our civilization today are the product of centuries and millennia of thought and struggle; the earliest law codes (even that of the Mosaic Law [Torah]) had only just begun to address issues of equality and social justice. In ancient Palestine, for example, the poor and most vulnerable in society (the landless, the sick, the widows and orphans, etc), with less-developed institutional “safety nets” in place for protection, were especially prey to the powerful and unscrupulous (rulers, land-owners, etc [and their representatives]). The Old Testament Prophets thundered this theme of condemnation for the neglect and oppression of the poor repeatedly throughout the oracles and messages which have come down to us in Scripture. The traditional topos of (good)-poor vs. (wicked)-rich was not simply an artificial invention: it reflects the socio-economic situation for countless people over many generations. We should not be misled by the apparent naïvité of this juxtaposition; it may seem overly simplistic on the surface (painting with a very broad brush), but the dualism powerfully expresses an underlying and deep-seated conflict at the heart of ancient society.

(b) Jesus’ audience appears to have been drawn largely from the poorer classes; as indicated by the quotation from Isa 61 in Luke 4:16-19; 7:18-23 par, Jesus came (as the Anointed One) to proclaim “good news” to the poor. In the (Synoptic) Gospel tradition, he is repeatedly depicted associating with the lowly (including many who would have, in socio-religious terms, have been considered “sinners”). Numerous parables and teachings stem from the current economic situation in Palestine: of persons forced, more frequently, to work as tenant farmers for rich (absentee) landowners and their managers. Women, Gentiles, Samaritans and other foreigners would have faced prejudice and oppression as well—occasionally these are given special attention by Jesus (especially in the Gospel of Luke). Jesus appears to have demanded of his follows that they identify themselves, in various ways, with the poor and lowly in society (see below). To this we must add the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus faced estrangement and persecution from their own countrymen, which certainly added to the poverty and hardship of early Palestinian (Jewish) Christians. Nearly a generation after the Gospel had spread out into the Roman Empire, Paul continued to recognize a special need for the Christians in Jerusalem (sometimes identified as “the poor”, Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10; on this, see below). Poverty, then—voluntary or otherwise—was effectively the reality for many, if not most, of Jesus’ first followers (the first generation of Christians).

2. Jesus demanded of his followers that they identify themselves with the poor and lowly.

This is reflected by the two sides of his injunction to the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:21 par):

  • “sell whatever you have…”
  • “and give to the poor…”

“…and (come) here—follow me!” References to abandoning possessions and family ties occur frequently enough in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:16-20; 10:28-30; Luke 9:57-62; 14:26-33 etc & pars), disappearing soon after in the early Church, so that we can be certain (on objective grounds) that this reflects the authentic teaching and practice of the historical Jesus. The two sides of this command—the initial process of becoming Jesus’ disciple—are: (a) to give up one’s possessions and attachments (i.e. become poor), and (b) give to those others who are poor. In both practice and symbol, followers of Jesus identify themselves with the poor and unfortunate in society—a frequent theme illustrated by Jesus in his parables (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37). This habit of self-sacrifice and voluntary poverty continued on in the first congregations of believers in Jerusalem, who (according to the account in Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37ff) chose to share all their possessions in common, selling property and donating the proceeds for use by the Church as a whole. As Christianity spread into the cities across the Roman Empire, this practice was not maintained; indeed, there is little evidence of any emphasis on voluntary poverty in Paul’s letters. He presents a very different ideal of mutual cooperation and concern which did not, apparently, involve giving up property or possessions. Rather than abandoning family ties, the expectation was that whole families and households would together consist of believers, serving to build up a wider Christian Community. It is this model which continues today; though, on occasion, groups such as the Hutterites have attempted to live out the communalistic organization envisioned in the early Jerusalem Church (and, similarly, the Jewish Community of the Qumran scrolls). The ideal of (voluntary) poverty retains an important place within the monastic traditions as well.

Most of Paul’s references to riches and poverty are soteriological, related to the (spiritual) gifts and blessings bestowed by God in Christ (Rom 9:23; 10:12; 11:12, 33 etc). Explicit references to the poor are rare, largely limited to discussion of Paul’s collection project for the Christians in Jerusalem, see esp. Rom 15:26ff; 2 Cor 8-9—the latter passage draws upon the soteriological language of rich/poor, using the example of Christ (his incarnation, 2 Cor 8:9). Only in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 6:9-10, 17-18) are riches as such addressed, with the customary warning. This theme is much more prominent in the epistle of James (Jas 1:9-10; 2:1-7; 4:1ff; 5:1-6), which is not so much a letter as a sermon or collection of teaching, with many points of contact with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain—this may indicate that James is earlier than the letters of Paul, and it almost certainly reflects a Palestinian (Jewish Christian) background.

3. “Poor” and “Rich” are not limited to socio-economic status, but connect with the experience of following Jesus.

Here I would point out several important, related aspects:

(a) “Poor” is not limited to material or economic poverty: it extends to include, in the words of the first Matthean Beatitude, “the poor in spirit”—this means that the follower of Jesus will embrace lowliness, meekness and humility, both in relationship to God and in service to others. This occurs as a specific point of emphasis throughout Jesus’ teaching; of many examples, see Matt 18:3-4; 23:12; Mark 9:33-37; 10:42-45; Luke 14:7-11; 17:7-10; 18:9-14 and pars (cf. also Lk 1:48, 52). Note especially the importance in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18) of doing acts of justice and charity in secret, receiving recognition and reward from no one else but God.

(b) “Poor” is not limited to poverty per se, experienced for any reason: it extends specifically to those who experience hardship and suffering on account of Jesus, or for his sake—that is, because of following him. This, too, is stressed in a number of passages (e.g., Mark 8:34-37; 10:21, 29-30; 13:9-13; Matt 10:16-25 and pars).

(c) A life and attitude of poverty imitates the example of Christ (and of God the Father in Christ), in terms of: (i) the incarnation (his self-emptying, cf. Phil 2:5-11; 2 Cor 8:9), (ii) his sacrificial service for others (even unto death, Mark 10:45 par; Phil 2:8, etc). This is also an important theme in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. the keynote verse Matt 5:48 / Lk 6:36).

4. The Beatitudes (and Woes) are intended as consolation for those who experience hardship in following Jesus.

There is some debate as to whether the Beatitudes (and Woes) represent descriptive or performative language—that is, whether Jesus’ sayings merely describe the situation and condition of people or serve to actualize it. The ancient dynamic-magical view of language, as well as the original context of the Beatitude form (a divine declaration at the Judgment after death), would suggest the latter; whereas the paraenetic (teaching and exhortation) purpose given to it would tend to frame the Beatitude as an exemplary description (or promise). There are two dimensions to the ethical/paraenetic purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe):

The first is to offer consolation and encouragement for those seeking to pursue the ethical path of justice/righteousness (in this case, following the teaching of Jesus). There may be no obvious and immediate material reward—indeed, it may require considerable deprivation, and result in mocking and mistreatment by others—but there is the promise of future (heavenly) repayment for all that one may endure in this life. The declarative form of the Beatitude has the interesting effect of announcing now that which will only be realized in the life to come. The question is whether the believer and faithful follower actually experiences the blessing now, or simply holds it as a promise/pledge for the future. The former situation is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology” and represents an important component of New Testament teaching, with a two-fold aspect: (i) we do not have to wait for the next life to experience the reality of God’s truth and presence at work in our hearts and lives (for it is our identity now already); and (ii) the realization of what we already possess should lead us to think and act accordingly (in Paul’s language, “if we live in the Spirit, we should also go in order [i.e. walk] in the Spirit”, Gal 5:25).

5. The Woes serve both as a warning of Judgment to the world and as an ethical warning to believers.

This brings us to the second ethical/exhortational purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe): it serves as warning. But are the Woes addressed to the world at large (that is, primarily to the wicked [unbelievers]) or to the followers of Jesus (the righteous [believers])? An examination of other Woe-sayings of Jesus (Mark 13:17; Matt 11:21; 18:7 and pars) would suggest that it is the world at large he is addressing, occasionally pointed as a condemnation to would-be followers and supposedly righteous persons who act wickedly (Matt 23:13-29; Lk 11:42-46 [scribes and Pharisees]; Mark 14:21 par [Judas Iscariot]). The role of the Messiah in God’s Judgment of the nations (according to traditional Jewish thought) is sometimes overlooked; this very role is associated with Jesus in the Gospels, especially through the heavenly/eschatological figure of the “Son of Man” (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Matt 13:37-41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27-39; Lk 21:36 and pars). Psalm 1, which is in many ways paradigmatic for the Beatitudes, stresses that the wicked will not stand along with the righteous in the Judgment (v. 5f); the “Woe” reflects (or presages) this declaration of judgment on the wicked (or unfaithful follower), those who, in terms of the Lukan Woes (Lk 6:24-26) are wrapped up in the material things of this life.

However, the Woes (as part of the Lukan Beatitudes) are ultimately addressed to Jesus’ own disciples, and serve fundamentally as a warning not to be associated (that is, be identified) with the faithless and wicked of the world (Ps 1:1; and, for a similar instruction against following the ways of the world, repeated in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, cf. Matt 5:46-47; 6:1, 5, 7, 16, 19, 25, 32, etc). In Matt 7:21-23, Jesus demonstrates the reality of false disciples claiming to act and work in his name, but who do not follow the will of God (as expressed through Jesus’ teaching). Specifically, the Woes emphasize the danger of believers becoming caught up with the manner and thinking of the rich, powerful, and haughty in the world—where there is indulgence and empty entertainment, derision and mockery, accumulation of wealth and luxury—there it is no place for the righteous. Paul frames the ethical instruction differently (see Gal 5:16-24, etc), but the basic point is the same: “walk about in the Spirit, and you will not complete the impulse of the flesh” (v. 16).

Note of the Day – February 28 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous day’s note, I looked at the structure and arrangement of four Lukan “Woes” (Luke 6:24-26), both as collection, and in relation to the four Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23). Today, I will discuss some basic difficulties of interpretation involved in these verses—their meaning and significance in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Plain” (and elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke). In such matters, one must be careful not to rush to “explain away” the difficulties—such as facile attempts to harmonize the Matthean-Lukan Beatitudes, or to “soften” the rich-vs-poor dualism in Luke. As always, careful and sensitive exegesis (often requiring great patience) will yield more fruitful results and will end up being far more faithful to text in the long run.

At first, it should be noted that the Lukan “Woes” are far from unique: many collections of Beatitudes in the ancient world included corresponding warnings or “woes”. From the standpoint of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition, one finds series of Woes at places within Apocalyptic and Wisdom literature (e.g., Isa 5:8-22; Eccl 10:16-17; Tob 13:12ff; 1 Enoch 94-100; 2 Baruch 10:6-7); note especially the alternation of blessing and woe (curse) in 2 Enoch 52. The person who receives the woe reflects the opposite characteristics of the person declared happy/blessed. Highly influential in this regard for Judaism and early Christianity was the macarism and “Two Ways” structure of Psalm 1 (on this subject, see my earlier note). By the time of the New Testament, this dualism between righteous and wicked was well-established and familiar; as was the specific association of the righteous with the poor and oppressed. (cf. my earlier note on the first Beatitude).

Taking the text at face value would lead one effectively to identify the faithful followers of Jesus with the poor as a socio-economic class or type. But surely the poor will not all be happy and blessed in the life to come, simply for being poor, will they? Must one be destitute in this life in order to follow Jesus and receive heavenly reward? It will be helpful to examine briefly two areas: (1) Jesus’ other teaching on riches and poverty, in relation to following him; and (2) the specific emphasis on rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke.

(1) Jesus teaching on riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition)

  • In the parable of the Sower, riches are among the “thorns” which choke the growth of the seed and prevent it from bearing fruit (Matt 13:22 / Mark 4:19 / Luke 8:14)
  • Jesus warns against storing up treasure on earth, rather than focusing upon treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19-21; Luke 12:33-34); the version in Luke follows a command to sell one’s possessions and give to the poor (v. 33), and is illustrated by the parable of the “Rich Fool” (see below).
  • In response to messengers from John the Baptist (“are you the one coming [that is, the Messiah and/or end-time Prophet]?”), Jesus draws upon the language of Isa 61:1ff (Matt 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23). Among the actions associated with the Anointed is the proclamation of “good news” to the poor (see also in Lk 4:16-19). Isaiah 61 proved to be a key Messianic passage, reflecting a growing concern in the Prophets about the fate of the poor and oppressed (what today we would call social justice). Especially harsh condemnation is leveled at those who mistreat or neglect the needy, and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual, as though nothing were wrong (e.g., Isa 1:10-17; Jer 7, etc). The eschatological restoration/redemption of Israel would be centered on the righteous and faithful “poor” (cf. Luke 2:25-28).
  • In the encounter with the so-called Rich Young Ruler (“what should I do that I may have the life of the ages as [my] lot [i.e. inherit ‘eternal life’]?”), Jesus commands him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor before becoming a disciple (Mark 10:17ff / Matt 19:16ff / Luke 18:18ff). There is a tendency to limit Jesus’ injunction to the case at hand; however, the discussion which follows points to a wider application: (a) the statement that it is difficult (almost impossible) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23ff par), (b) the indication that his followers have left their possessions (Mark 10:28 par), and (c) Jesus’ declaration of future reward for those leave their family and possessions to follow him (Mark 10:29f par). For more on leaving all to follow Jesus, see Mark 8:34-37 par; Matt 8:19-22 / Luke 9:57-62.
  • The episode of the poor widow’s offering in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44 par). There are two aspects to Jesus’ response: (1) he contrasts the widow’s offering (positively) with the gifts of the wealthy; (2) the episode follows directly upon his (negative) condemnation of the unscrupulous behavior of the (wealthy) religious authorities (which includes the “devouring” of widow’s houses), Mark 12:38-40 par—this echoes a familiar prophetic theme (see above), and makes the plight of the widow (in the Temple precincts) all the more poignant.
  • The Judgment illustration of the “Sheep and Goats” in Matt 25:31-46 emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (note the eschatological two-way/two-group formulation [blessing vs. woe]). This is probably the main thrust of the prior parable of the “Talents” as well (Matt 25:14-30 [cf. also Lk 19:12-27]).
  • The curious episode of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume, along with the disciples’ rebuke that the perfume could have rather been sold and money given to the poor. This is recorded, with some variation, in Mark 14:3-9 / Matt 26:6-13, and Jn 12:1-8; cf. also Lk 7:37-39. John adds the detail that Judas Iscariot made the rebuke, with the aside that he was a thief and really did not care about the poor (Jn 12:4-6). The point is that, however necessary care for the poor may be, focus on the person of Jesus (that is, following him) is ultimately more important (cf. Lk 10:38-42 for a similar message).

(2) Rich and Poor in the Gospel of Luke

The juxtaposition between rich and poor that we see in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes serves as a special point of emphasis throughout the Gospel of Luke. There are a number of important passages (in addition to the Beatitudes & Woes) which are occur only in this Gospel:

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (esp. vv. 33-35).
  • The parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21), which serves as a dire warning against the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions: “…thus is the one storing treasure for himself and (who) is not rich unto God!” (v. 21)
  • Prior to Jesus’ parable of the (eschatological) Great Banquet (Lk 14:16-24), he offers instruction that such expense and hospitality should be extended especially to the poor and sick, rather than well-to-do friends and relatives (Lk 14:12-14, also v. 21ff). This, in turn, is preceded by a teaching (also using a Feast illustration) on the importance of humility and self-effacement (Lk 14:7-11). One finds throughout this chapter numerous echoes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. also vv. 34-35 [Matt 5:13]).
  • The parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Lk 16:1-9) remains somewhat obscure, but the exemplary behavior of the manager may consist in reducing the bill of the debtors by eliminating his own commission (that is, giving up money which would have come to him, for the sake of future [job] security). If so, then the parable would be illustrative of the same theme (as in the Beatitudes, etc) of temporary deprivation which results in future reward. There is here, too, a connection to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain in the discussion which follows (Lk 16:10-13, cf. verse 13 [= Matt 6:24]).
  • Zaccheus is the rare example of a positive rich character in the Gospels (Lk 19:1-10), but it is important to note that emphasis is given to the specific point that he gives away half of his goods to the poor (v. 8). It is not clear whether this means he only now (upon encountering Jesus) begins to do this, or whether this reflects his regular (just/righteous) behavior. His description as a (rich) toll-collector (v. 2) would itself seem to imply the former—such a designation, from the traditional Jewish religious viewpoint, would be enough to mark him as a lost “sinner” (v. 10). Interestingly, the parable of the Minas follows directly (Lk 19:11-27), creating an implicit interpretive connection between that parable and giving away one’s possessions to care for the poor (there is a similar association of themes in Matt 25:14-46).

Two passages are deserving of special note:

  • The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55)—this canticle, attributed to Mary (though a few witnesses read “Elizabeth”), draws upon the language and imagery of the Old Testament and related Jewish literature (see my earlier Advent season note). Verses 51-53, in particular, contrast God’s action toward the rich and mighty with that toward the poor and humble, in a manner very similar to that of Jesus’ teaching in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. Note especially verse 53, which is connected syntactically with the clause in v. 52
    52He has taken down the powerful (ones) from their seats and lifted high the lowly (ones);
    53the (ones) hungering he has filled up with good (things) and the rich (ones) he has set out (away) from (him) empty.
    —this is close in wording and thought with the second Beatitude and Woe (Lk 6:21a, 25a).
  • The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Here we find the nearest approximation to the teaching and conceptual formulation in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. The parable contrasts Lazarus (poor, sick and destitute) with the Rich Man (wealthy and well-fed), along with a reversal of their situations in the afterlife (vv. 22-23ff). Lazarus ends up in “Abraham’s bosom” (a paradisial ‘intermediate state’), for no other reason (apparently) than that he was poor and had suffered; similarly, the Rich Man is in Hades for just the opposite reason (see v. 25). There is no indication that Lazarus had lived a particularly righteous life, other than the misery which he had endured. It is just this unqualified identification of poverty and righteousness (with the related association of wealth and wickedness) which, as in the case of the Beatitudes, proves so difficult for interpreters today.

I will continue on with several interpretative guidepoints in the next day’s note.

Note of the Day – February 27 (Beatitudes)

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As discussed in prior notes on the Beatitudes, only the collection in Luke contains a corresponding set of “Woes” (Lk 6:25-26). Since, in many other respects, both the Matthean “Sermon on the Mount” and the Lukan “Sermon on the Plain” clearly draw from the same tradition (identified by many scholars as a source document “Q”), there have been a number of attempts to explain this difference, most commonly:

  • The Woes were originally part of the inherited tradition, but have been omitted (by the Gospel writer) in Matthew
  • The Woes were not part of the tradition, but were added (by the Gospel writer) in Luke, either from a separate source or by invention of the author
  • The Woes were in the version of the tradition inherited by Luke (QL) but not in the version inherited by Matthew (QM)

Strong arguments can be (and have been) made for each of these theories. A comparison of Matthew 7:21-24 and Luke 6:46-49 is perhaps instructive in this regard. Both passages deal with persons (followers or would-be followers) who hear Jesus’ words but do not obey them. However, whereas Lk 6:46 is couched as a simple lament for his followers (“and [for] what do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the [things] that I say?”), in Matt 7:21-23 Jesus is describing a specific group of people (“not every one saying to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will come into the kingdom of the Heavens…”)—false or would-be followers who perform (or claim to perform) great works in Jesus’ name but fail (or refuse) to do the will of God. This last point is implied by way of verse 21b: the false disciples are the opposite of “the one doing the will/wish of my Father in the Heavens”. Verses 22-23 provide an eschatological setting of Judgment which corresponds to that of the Woes in Lk 6:24-26—there, too, the “wicked” for whom “woe” is declared, represent the opposite of the very things which characterize the “righteous” (Lk 6:20-23). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, especially, those who fail to do the will of the Father, in fact, fail to keep the Law (as understood and interpreted in Jesus’ teaching)—they are “the ones working lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). In light of this special emphasis in Matt 7:21-24, it is certainly possible that (in Matthew) the Gospel writer has omitted any Woes associated with the Beatitudes inherited from the Tradition.

I touched upon each of the Lukan Woes briefly in my earlier notes on the first, second, fourth and ninth (Matthean) Beatitudes. It is worth recounting several fundamentally difficult points of interpretation. To begin with, here are the four Woes, each of which corresponds (almost precisely) with a Beatitude:

Plh\n ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, o%ti a)pe/xete th\n para/klhsin u(mw=n.
“(All the) more, woe to you the rich (one)s!—that you have your help/comfort (from riches)!” (v. 24)
Beatitude: “Happy (you) the poor (one)s, (in) that yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20b)

Ou)ai\ u(mi=n oi( e)mpeplhsme/noi, o%ti peina/sate
“Woe to you the (ones) having been filled up now, (in) that (later) you will hunger!” (v. 25a)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) hungering now, (in) that (later) you will be fed (full)” (v. 21a)

Ou)ai\ oi( gelw=nte$ nu=n, o%ti penqh/sete kai\ klau/sete
“Woe to (you) the (ones) laughing now, (in) that (later) you will mourn and weep (aloud)!” (v. 25b)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) weeping (aloud) now, (in) that (later) you will laugh” (v. 21b)

Ouai\ o%tan u(ma=$ kalw=$ ei&pwsin pa/nte$ oi( a&nqrwpoi:
kata\ ta\ au)ta\ ga\r e)poi/oun toi=$ yeudoprofh/tai$ oi( pate/re$ au)tw=n
“Woe (to you) when all men should say (things) beautifully [i.e. speak well] of you;
for accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the false-Foretellers [i.e. false prophets]!” (v. 26)
Beatitude: “Happy are you when men should hate you…on account of the Son of Man!
Be joyful and leap (with joy), for see—your payment (is) much in Heaven;
For accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]” (vv. 22-23)

The first three Beatitudes/Woes can be grouped together as follows:

  • Principal dualism of Poor vs. Rich (v. 20b, 24) with ultimate inheritance of each (Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches)
    • Eschatological reversal (= reversal of values):
      • hunger vs. being well-fed (v. 21a, 25a)
      • weeping/mourning vs. laughing (v. 21b, 25b)

The fourth Beatitude/Woe concludes the Beatitudes (and the exordium) and transitions into the subsequent teaching—i.e., how the righteous (follower/believer) should live out the characteristics that (will) declare him/her “happy/blessed”. The ninth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:11-12) serves the same rhetorical and instructional purpose, but in a slightly more complex arrangement. The Lukan Beatitude/Woe, however, is unique in the way it repeats and emphasizes the principal dualism of Lk 6:20b, 24:

  • Poor vs. Rich
    • Inheritance: Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches
  • People do/speak evil to you vs. speak well of you (example of Prophets vs. False Prophets)
    • Reward: Much in Heaven vs. worldly favor (implied)

It is this stark dualism (with its reversal of values) that has caused so much difficulty for thoughtful interpreters. The apparently harsh, almost simplistic, juxtaposition of poor vs. rich has led to the Lukan Beatitudes being thoroughly ignored (in comparison with the far more popular set of Beatitudes in Matthew). One is unlikely to hear them preached today, and the Woes hardly ever (especially in the reasonably well-off and well-to-do churches of the modern West)! Sadly, they suffer neglect even from many serious and distinguished commentators. The reasons are not hard to find; and yet, it is important to examine these difficult verses to see just what it is that Jesus (and the Gospel writer) wish to communicate, and why this particular form of instruction was used. This I will attempt to do in the next day’s note.

Note of the Day – February 24 (Beatitudes)

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In the previous day’s note, I looked at the first portion of the two-fold Beatitude in Matt 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23, which declares that those who experience persecution, hatred, insults and mistreatment on account of Jesus are “happy/blessed”. The result (o%ti) clause giving the reason for happiness does not appear until the second portion (Matt 5:12/Lk 6:23):

Matthew 5:12

Xai/rete kai\ a)gallia=sqe, o%ti o( misqo\$ u(mw=n polu\$ e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$:
ou%tw$ ga\r e)di/wcan tou\$ profh/ta$ tou\$ pro\ u(mw=n
“Be joyful and leap (for joy), (in) that your payment (is) much in the Heavens;
for thus they pursued the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] before you.”

Luke 6:23

Xa/rhte e)n e)kei/nh| th=| h(me/ra| kai\ skirth/sate, i)dou ga\r o( misqo\$ u(mw=n polu\$ e)n tw=| ou)ranw=|:
kata\ ta\ au)ta\ ga\r e)poi/oun toi=$ profh/tai$ oi( pate/re$ au)tw=n
“Be joyful in that day and spring up (with joy), for see—your payment (is) much in Heaven;
for accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets].”

There are some differences in vocabulary, but clearly these are two versions of the same saying. Three elements should be highlighted and discussed in turn:

  1. “Be joyful and leap (for joy)”
  2. “Your payment (is) much in Heaven”
  3. “For so (they did)…to the Prophets”

1. “Be joyful and leap (for joy)”

Both versions begin with a second person plural imperative of the verb xai/rw (chaírœ, “be joyful, glad, happy”, i.e. “rejoice”); in Matthew it is in the active voice, in Luke the passive, but the sense is the same—”Be joyful, rejoice!” The second verb may reflect a variant translation of the original Aramaic—a)gallia/w (agalliáœ, “leap, jump [for joy]”) in Matthew, and skirta/w (skirtáœ, “spring [up], leap”) in Luke. The dynamic parallelism of the two verbs doubly emphasizes the command to be joyful when one experiences mistreatment and persecution. Even more than the prior Beatitudes, this injunction by Jesus runs counter to one’s natural human instinct—the normal response is to see persecution as a bad thing and to regret having to experience it. Jesus does not merely say one should accept and endure persecution, he commands us (emphatically) to rejoice when it occurs. Bear in mind, this mistreatment is qualified in the previous verse as being suffered on account of Jesus; nevertheless, this does not make it any less difficult for the natural mind and flesh to respond to it with joy. Occasionally we see Paul and other early Christians rejoicing in suffering (Acts 5:41; Rom 5:3ff; 2 Cor 6:10; 7:4; 8:2; Phil 2:17-18; Col 1:24; James 1:2; 1 Pet 1:6; 4:11, cf. also Jn 16:20-24), but even in the New Testament this is somewhat rare. How appropriate that this most difficult teaching concludes the Beatitudes and leads into the equally challenging instruction of the Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47, which conclude with the command to love one’s enemies [Matt 5:43-47; Lk 6:27-35]).

2. “Your payment (is) much in Heaven”

The word misqo/$ (misthós) is typically translated here as “reward”, but more properly means “payment” (for services rendered, i.e. “wages”). However, one may emphasize the aspect of “compensation, recompense”, which comes close to the idea of “reward”. It is no doubt due to subsequent Christian (esp. Pauline) theology that misqo/$ is especially colored by the sense of the grace or “gift”of God, and, therefore, as “reward” (see Rom 4:4, etc). Jesus uses the term on a number of other occasions (Matt 10:41-42; Mark 9:41), including several more times in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5:46; 6:1, 2, 5, 16; Lk 6:35); the motif of Christians as workers who receive their wages (from God) was a natural one, and would have been readily understood within the socio-economic status of Jesus’ followers (cf. Matt 20:1-16 [v. 8]; Lk 10:7; Jn 4:36). As for the idea of payment/reward “in Heaven” (Matt. “in the Heavens”), it is a common refrain in the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes phrased as payment from God the (heavenly) Father, treasure in Heaven, etc (Matt 5:46; 6:1-2, 4-5, 16-21), and elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 10:41-42; 19:21; Mark 9:41; 10:21, 30 par; Lk 12:21, 33-34; 18:22; cf. also the parables in Matt 20:1-16; 25:14-30 par; Lk 16:1-17). The Kingdom of God/Heaven is itself said to be a treasure hidden away for the disciple who finds it (Matt 13:44). Subsequently in the New Testament, the heavenly payment/reward becomes contained within the wider soteriological concept of inheriting the Kingdom (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; 5:21; Eph 5:5; Col 3:24; Heb 1:14; 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4, also Heb 12:28), but the motif remains, associated with the end-time Judgment before God (1 Cor 3:8-14; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 11:8, etc). The heavenly reward as extremely/excessively “great” or “much” (polu/$, polús) is a traditional eschatological motif, which Jesus uses to contrast with (and present as compensatory with) the persecution and mistreatment his followers receive in this life. That there may be “degrees of reward” related to suffering endured by the disciple for Jesus sake is perhaps suggested by Mark 10:29-31 par, but see also the parable in Matt 20:1-16 (where all workers receive equal payment).

3. “For so (they did)…to the Prophets”

The reference to the Prophets (lit. “Foretellers”, pl. of profh/th$ proph¢¡t¢s) is an interesting addition by Jesus to the principal result-clause , in that it further qualifies the persecution faced by the righteous (believer) (cf. the prior note on the eighth Beatitude, Matt 5:10). In Matthew it reads “for thus they pursued [i.e. persecuted] the Foretellers before you” (“they” being unspecified or implied); in Luke it states “accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the Foretellers” (referring to the four verbs and expressions of mistreatment in Lk 6:22, committed by the Israelite/Jewish contemporaries of the Prophets). It is difficult to say which might more accurately reflect the putative ‘original’ saying (in Aramaic); in either version, however, the meaning is essentially the same. Persecution of the Prophets of Israel was a common ethical and polemical motif in Judaism (1 Esdr 1:41; 2 Esdr 1:32; 2:1; 7:130, etc; cf. 1 Kings 19:10; Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11; 26:20-24) and the New Testament (Matt 5:12; 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52)—indeed, the Prophets in this respect serve as sympathetic exemplars for believers to follow (Heb 11:32-12:1). Saints and Prophets are mentioned in tandem in the heavenly vision of the book of Revelation (Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24), in a similar eschatological context (reward for their suffering and martyrdom) as we find here in the Beatitudes.

After reading Luke 6:22-23, the corresponding “Woe” in verse 26 is surprisingly brief, almost perfunctory, by comparison—

Ou)ai\ o%tan u(ma=$ kalw=$ ei&pwsin pa/nte$ oi( a&nqrwpoi: kata\ ta\ au)ta\ ga\r e)poi/oun toi=$ pseudoprofh/tai$ oi( pate/re$ au)tw=n
“Woe when all men say (things) beautifully [i.e. speak well] of you, for accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the false-Foretellers [i.e. false Prophets]”

including one corresponding phrase from 6:22b and presenting the contrast (opposite) of 6:23b. Jesus may not have wished to conclude the Beatitudes with on an overly negative tone by emphasizing the opposite (for the wicked) of everything relating to the righteous in vv. 22-23; or, perhaps the Gospel writer shortened Jesus’ saying for the same purpose. I will be discussing the four Lukan Woes specifically in the next day’s note, but here in passing it is worth examining the term “false prophet” (yeudoprofh/th$), which I will do in a supplemental note.

Note of the Day – February 22 (Beatitudes)

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The so-called ninth (or ninth + tenth) Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:11-12) holds a special position and should be considered separately from the collection of eight in Matt 5:3-10. It is also significant in that there is a Lukan parallel (Lk 6:22-23, with a corresponding “woe” in v. 26) for this two-fold Beatitude. It may be helpful here to compare the two sets of Beatitudes (Matthean and Lukan), using Matthew as the point of reference:

  • 1st: Matt 5:3 (= 1st in Luke [Lk 6:20b with “woe”, v. 24])—”Happy the poor…”
  • 2nd: Matt 5:4 (= 3rd in Luke [Lk 6:21b with “woe”, v. 25b])—”Happy the (ones) mourning/weeping…”
  • 3rd: Matt 5:5 (not in Luke)—”Happy the meek/gentle…”
  • 4th: Matt 5:6 (= 2nd in Luke [Lk 6:21a with “woe”, v. 25a])—”Happy the (ones) hungering [and thirsting]…”
  • 5th: Matt 5:7 (not in Luke, but see Lk 6:36)—”Happy the merciful…”
  • 6th: Matt 5:8 (not in Luke)—”Happy the pure in heart…”
  • 7th: Matt 5:9 (not in Luke)—”Happy the peace-makers…”
  • 8th: Matt 5:10 (not in Luke)—”Happy the (ones) having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness…”
  • [9th]: Matt 5:11-12 (= [4th] in Luke [Lk 6:22-23 with “woe”, v. 26])

One can consider Matt 5:11-12 as a single saying or two—I prefer to treat it as a twofold (single) Beatitude, which picks up where the eighth Beatitude leaves off (see the previous day’s note), with the theme of enduring persecution:

Maka/rioi e)ste o%tan o)neidi/swsin u(ma=$ kai\ diw/cwsin kai\ ei&pwsin pa=n ponhro\n kaq’ u(mw=n [yeudo/menoi] e%neken e)mou=
“Happy are you when they should revile you and should pursue (you) and should say all evil down on [i.e. against] you [acting falsely] on my account.”

Xai/rete kai\ a)gallia=sqe, o%ti o( misqo\$ u(mw=n polu\$ e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$:
ou%tw$ ga\r e)di/wcan tou\$ profh/ta$ tou\$ pro\ u(mw=n
“Be joyful and leap (for joy), (in) that your payment will be much in the Heavens;
for thus they pursued the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] before you.”

There are three verbs used in verse 11, all in the aorist subjunctive form:

  • o)neidi/zw (oneidízœ, “revile, reproach, disgrace”). This verb is relatively rare in the New Testament, used in reference to Jesus’ suffering in Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32; Rom 15:3 (quoting Psalm 69:9); and for the suffering of believers in 1 Pet 4:14, a sense similar to that in the Beatitude here (see below). Related nouns o&neido$ and o)neidismo/$ (“reviling, reproach, disgrace, shame”) also appear on occasion (Lk 1:25; Rom 15:3; 1 Tim 3:7; Heb 10:33; 11:26; 13:13).
  • diw/kw (diœ¡kœ, “pursue, chase [after]”). In the negative sense (as here and in v. 10), this verb is usually translated “persecute”. Cf. my discussion on the eighth Beatitude in the prior note.
  • e&pw (épœ [used only in past tense], “say, speak”)—here it is the specific idiom “speak evil”, which is relatively frequent in Scripture (see esp. Psalm 109:20; Matt 12:34; Mark 9:39; Lk 6:45; Acts 19:9; James 4:11; Tit 3:2; 1 Pet 4:11). The qualifying participle yeudo/menoi (pseudómenoi, “acting/doing falsely”) is present in nearly all Greek MSS, but is absent from a number of witnesses (primarily ‘Western’: D b c d h k syrs geo Tert al), and is otherwise suspect on internal grounds (it is the sort of clarifying addition one might expect a well-intentioned scribe to make). If original, it may have been removed to harmonize with Luke 6:22.

The closing phrase e%neken e)mou (“on my account”) echoes a similar expression in v. 10 (e%neken dikaiosu/nh$, “on account of justice/righteousness”), which qualifies the persecution: it is done on account of (following) Jesus. In Luke 6:22, the expression is “on account of the Son of Man” (in the Synoptic Jesus traditions, “Son of Man” often appears as circumlocution by which Jesus effectively refers to himself). Here is the first portion of the Lukan Beatitude, set side-by-side with that of Matthew for comparison (nearly identical or common elements are italicized):

Matthew 6:11

Maka/rioi e)ste o%tan o)neidi/swsin u(ma=$ kai\ diw/cwsin kai\ ei&pwsin pa=n ponhro\n kaq’ u(mw=n [yeudo/menoi] e%neken e)mou=
Happy are you when they should revile you and should pursue (you) and should say all evil down on [i.e. against] you [acting falsely] on my account.”

Luke 6:22

Maka/rioi/ e)ste o%tan mish/swsin u(ma=$ oi( a&nqrwpoi kai\ o%tan a)fori/swsin u(ma=$ kai\ o)neidi/swsin u(ma=$ kai\ e)kbalwsin to\ o&noma u(mw=n w($ ponhro\n e%neka tou= ui(ou= tou= a)nqrw/pou
Happy are you when men should hate you and when they should mark you (apart) from (others) and should revile you and should cast out your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.”

The Lukan version fits more naturally as part of the collection of four (3 + 1), all addressed in the 2nd person plural. The version in Matthew is the more striking in its shift to the 2nd person plural (all of the prior Beatitudes are in the 3rd person)—Jesus is now addressing his followers directly. The message regarding one’s response to persecution follows through in the subsequent teaching of Matt 5:43-47; Lk 6:27-35:

Matthew 5:43-44

43“You have heard that it has been uttered: ‘You shall love the (one who is) near you [i.e. your neighbor], and you shall hate the (one who is) hostile (to) you [i.e. your enemy]’; 44but I say to you: ‘Love the (ones) hostile (to) you, and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the (ones) pursuing you…'”

Luke 6:27-28

27“But I say to you the (ones) hearing: ‘Love the (ones) hostile (to) you [i.e. your enemies], do/act beautifully to the (ones) hating you, 28give good account (of) [i.e. bless] the (ones) wishing (evil) down on you, speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] about the (ones) bringing threats/insults upon you…'”

Paul echoes the same teaching in Romans 12:14:

eu)logei=te tou\$ diw/konta$ [u(ma=$], eu)logei=te kai\ mh\ katara=sqe
“Give good account of [i.e. bless] the (ones) pursuing [you], give good account and do not wish (evil) down (on them)”

In Luke, this instruction on loving and doing good to one’s enemies follows directly after the Beatitudes, whereas in Matthew there is intervening teaching (including the first five “Antitheses”, Matt 5:21-42—vv. 43-47 is the sixth). In both versions, the teaching concludes with a similar summarizing saying by Jesus:

Matthew 5:48

“Therefore you shall be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete.”

Luke 6:36

“Become merciful/compassionate, even as [also] your Father is merciful/compassionate.”

This response toward one’s enemies and persecutors is one of the most challenging and striking of all Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps even more difficult to realize is the response indicated in the second part of the Beatitude—”Be joyful and leap (for joy)…!”—which I will discuss in the next day’s note.

Note of the Day – February 21 (Beatitudes)

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The eighth Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:10) brings the collection of Beatitudes to a close:

Maka/rioi oi( dediwgme/noi e%neken dikaiosu/nh$, o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Happy the (ones) having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens”

The Greek verb diw/kw (diœ¡kœ) has the primary meaning “pursue, chase after”, and can be used in either a positive/neutral or negative sense. For the instances of the latter, it is typically translated “persecute”—that is, to pursue with hostile intent, or for the purpose of doing harm. Occasionally, we see the verb used in the positive sense (of pursuing righteousness, peace, etc.) in the New Testament (see Rom 9:30-31; 12:13; 14:19; 1 Cor 14:1; Phil 3:12, 14; 1 Thess 5:15), but more often it is used in the negative sense, as here in the Beatitude (cf. Matt 5:44; 10:23; 23:34; Lk 21:12, et al.). Already in the early Church the verb, with its related nouns diwgmo/$ and diw/kth$, came to have the technical meaning of the persecution of believers (because of their faith in Christ)—cf. Jn 15:20; Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 15:9; 2 Cor 4:9; Gal 1:13, 23; 2 Tim 3:12; Rev 12:13, etc. The compound/prefixed verbs e)kdiw/kw (ekdiœ¡kœ) and katadiw/kw (katadiœ¡kœ) are intensive forms (lit. “pursue out” and “pursue down”) which occasionally appear in the New Testament as well (Mk 1:36; Lk 11:49; 1 Thess 2:15). The verb diw/kw (along with its compound/prefixed forms) is relatively infrequent in the Septuagint (LXX), and translates a range of Hebrew words (cf. Lev 26:17; Deut 6:19; Judg 7:25; Psalm 7:1, 5; 31:15; 35:3; 44:16; 71:11; 109:16, 31; 119:84, 86, 157; Prov 13:21 [LXX 12:26]; Eccl 3:15; Isa 30:28; Jer 20:1-11; Nah 1:8; Joel 2:20; Dan 4:22). The theme of the persecution of the righteous became more common in the Psalms (cf. Ps 7; 31:15; 69:26; 119:84-88, 150, 153-158, 161ff, etc) and subsequent Apocalyptic and Wisdom Literature—see especially Wisdom 1:16-2:24; also 1 Enoch 95:7; 103:9ff. The prophets, as righteous messengers of truth, were seen as the target of persecution (Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), a theme continued on into the New Testament: the suffering of the prophets was a model and parallel for the suffering of believers (Matt 5:12; 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24). Similarly, the so-called “Teacher of Righteousness”, as (idealized) head and representative of the Qumran sect, was depicted as enduring persecution. Indeed, even in the Greco-Roman world, it was a philosophical topos that the wise and virtuous person was likely to suffer in this way (the ideal figure and example being Socrates, cf. Plato’s Apology and Phaedo, also Republic 361e-362a, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.1-2, etc). For additional references, with some bibliography, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 143-145.

The Greek particle e%neken (héneken) is difficult to translate into English—it is necessary to use cumbersome expressions such as “on account of”, “for the sake of”, to capture the genitive relationship. It is specifically because of (or on account of) justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) that the faithful follower of Jesus will be persecuted. What precisely does this mean? Several related aspects have to be considered:

  • When the wicked act unjustly against the “righteous”, this violation of “justice” can be said to be “on account of” justice/righteousness.
  • “Righteousness” in the specifically Jewish sense (used by Jesus) relates to upholding the Law of God (in both thought and action). Those who violate and transgress the Law are, by definition, unjust, and (in their wickedness) tend to oppose the righteous.
  • The righteous came to be identified largely with the poor and needy—persons who tend to be victimized and oppressed by the (unscrupulous) wealthy and powerful in the world. This aspect is what today we would call social justice.
  • The justice/righteousness of the Kingdom of God (Matt 5:33) is connected with the idea of being like God Himself (Matt 5:48). The wicked who act as enemies of God will also oppose those who are like Him.
  • Justice is interconnected with judgment—by way of eschatological “reversal”, the “righteous” who are poor and suffer now will, in the end, be rewarded by God.

All of these themes are emphasized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, and continue to be important elements in any proper Christian ethic. However, eventually, the ethical standards of Jesus’ teaching here would be subsumed under the general concept of believing and following him, and expressed in a new way as (to use Paul’s expression) “walking in/by the Spirit” (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16, 25). Jesus himself uses older expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, closer to what we find in Jewish writings of the period—see especially the way the wicked and righteous are juxtaposed in Wisdom 1:16-2:20. This has caused Christian interpreters no end of difficulty in attempting to harmonize and reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with later Pauline theology. Paul uses the word dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in rather a different way than Jesus does here.

The intimate connection between poverty and righteousness (see Wisd 2:10) is made especially clear in the Beatitudes, as the eighth concludes with the same phrase as the first: “(in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens” (o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n). This forms an inclusio which frames the collection of eight Beatitudes, and creates a kind of equivalence (synonymous parallelism) between those who are “poor in the spirit” (oi( ptwxoi\ tw=| pneu/mati) and those who “have been pursued on account of justice/righteousness” (oi( dediwgme/noi e%neken dikaiosu/nh$). Many interpreters have seen a progression of sorts from first to eighth Beatitude: one begins with humility and lowliness (the extreme inward condition) and ends with enduring persecution (the extreme outward manifestation). That there is an artistry of this sort involved is almost certain (I will discuss the order and arrangement of the Beatitudes in an upcoming note). The eighth Beatitude, with its emphasis on persecution, both concludes the set of eight sayings (in 3rd person plural address) and leads into the summarizing “ninth” Beatitude (in 2nd person plural address) of Matt 5:11f, which I will be exploring in the next day’s note.