Beatitudes: structure & stanza

Great-CommissionAltogether there are nine beatitudes in 5:3–12, the ninth (5:11–12) is really an expansion of the eighth (5:10). Some scholars opt for a structure with three sets of three, the first eight exhibit such a tightly knit parallel structure that it is more likely that we should understand them as two sets of four. This is most consistent with Hebraic poetry forms which seem to be the literary background of the Beatitudes. Still there is an internal consistency within each “stanza/verse” as seen in the form of each pronouncement:

 

Blessed are they who…         (a quality/activity in the present tense)
for they will be….                    (a verb in the future; except vv. 3 and 10)

This form is repeated each time with minor variations. The first and last beatitude have the same ending: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some see an internal chiastic structure of the poetic based on the grammar of the text:

Matthew5-outline2

However interesting, this perhaps is a bit over analyzed. It would seem a simpler model (vv. 3 and 10 in the present with the intervening verses in the future) is adequate to point to a “realized eschatology” and the “two-groups of four” is adequate to retain the underlying poetic.

Mark Allen Powell (119-38) suggests that the text can be outlined in the following way:

Matthew5-outline3

This outline is simpler and retains a central idea that the kingdom has begun to break into the world but will only be complete (fulfilled) in a future time.

The First Stanza – Promises of Reversals to the Unfortunate.

Powell states: “All four of the beatitudes in the first stanza may reasonably be interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate, and some of the beatitudes in this stanza can be reasonably interpreted only in this way” (122). With this approach, these are not virtues that one should aspire to, but they are circumstances in which people find themselves.

Poor in spirit. The word ptochoi (poor) is used to translate Hebrew ʿănāwîm in the LXX, the dispossessed and abandoned ones in Israel. The phrase alludes to an Old Testament theme which underlies all the beatitudes, that of the ‘poor’ or ‘meek’ (‘ānî or ‘ānāw) who occur frequently in the Psalms and elsewhere (Isa. 61:1–2, alluded to in v. 4, and Ps. 37, alluded to in v. 5), those who humbly trust God, even though their loyalty results in oppression and material disadvantage, in contrast with the ‘wicked’ who arrogantly set themselves up against God and persecute his people. The emphasis is on piety and suffering, and on dependence on God, not on material poverty as such.

It is likely that Matthew extends the image beyond Israel to the dispossessed and abandoned people of the world in general. The ʿănāwîm were often noted as much for their piety as for their poverty. The general thought seems to be that they trust in God more profoundly than most because they have no hope in this world. However, Matthew’s inclusion of “in spirit” indicates something more than just financial poverty, but also spiritual poverty: the loss of hope.

Powell (124) notes that in Matthew’s Gospel the poor in spirit are not people who trust in God because they have no reason for hope in this world. They are people who have no reason for hope in this world, period. Boring (178) says it a little differently:

From the time of the composition of the Psalms, “The poor” had been understood as a characterization of the true people of God, those who know their lives are not in their own control and that they are dependent on God. … What is at stake in the phrase … is neither economics nor spirituality, but the identity of the people of God – a Matthean theme (1:21).

Being “poor in spirit” is not a characteristic one would seek, but it is a characteristic of the people of God.

Remembering the earlier point that the Beatitudes are unconditional performance language that those who are x will be y, Powell suggests that in the main clause of this beatitude

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

The Greek hoti autōn estin hē basileia tōn ouranōn (lit. because they are the kingdom of heaven) can also validly be translated as

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for of them is the kingdom of heaven”

It is in this translation that one sees the honor bestowed upon them by God – they are no longer the ptochoi but have become the kingdom themselves by placing themselves under heaven’s rule. It is in this that they possess dikaiosynē. This further emphasizes the idea of the formation of a messianic community.

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