Beatitudes: mourn and meek

Great-CommissionThose who mourn. This is not necessarily the bereaved, or even the penitent. Boring (178-9) notes that at one level Matthew here taps into the deep biblical tradition that one of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God’s people and God’s program in the world (see Lamentations; the lament Psalms; etc.). In Isa 61:1-11, on which the beatitudes are based, the community laments the desolation of the holy city. Those who mourn do not resign themselves to the present condition of the world as final, but lament the fact that God’s kingdom has not yet come and that God’s will is not yet done (6:10) ).

At another level, those who mourn are the suffering, those whose life is, from a worldly point of view, an unhappy one, and particularly those who suffer for their loyalty to God (see on v. 3). This meaning too echoes Isaiah 61:2, which promises consolation as a part of the Messiah’s work. In God’s salvation they will find a happiness which transcends their worldly condition. Powell (135) writes: “If the poor in spirit are those who find no reason for hope in this life, then the ones who mourn are those who find no cause for joy. They are blessed because ‘they will be comforted,’ a divine passive that implies God will act, so they need mourn no more.”

The meek. Meekness as a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry is stressed by Matthew (11:29; 12:15–21; 21:5). The meek echoes the same Old Testament idea as the ‘poor in spirit’. The Greek praus is a term also used in the LXX for the ʿănāwîm. It can have a positive sense of “humble” or “gentle,” but it can also have the negative sense “humiliated.” The language here clearly alludes to Ps 37:11, where the context stresses the oppression of the poor by the wicked. It is likely that this beatitude speaks of those who have been humbled, bent over by the injustice of an oppressor. They “inherit” their blessing. It is not a reward that one earns, but a gift for which one must wait.

“Meekness” is a key Mat­thean word that characterizes the reversal of this-worldly ideas of kingship (11:29; 12:18-21; 21:5); “Meekness” is here a synonym for “poor in spirit” (v. 3); it is not a matter of a particular attitude one is urged to adopt, but characterizes those who are aware of their identity as the oppressed people of God in the world, those who have renounced the violent methods of this-worldly power.

In Ps 37 the concern is primarily with the land of Palestine. Jesus applies it not territorially, but in terms of the ultimate vindication of the meek. God will give them the high place they would not seize for themselves. In Matthew, the gift of “earth” or “land” (ges) indicates what the praus are lacking: “The praus are ones who have not been given their share of the earth. They have been denied access to the world’s resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people” (Powell, 126).

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The images of “hunger” and “thirst” not only depict desire, but also deprivation – the people who do not experience justice – the people who know that God’s will is not being done on earth. Righteousness is a key Matthean concept, which retains both its primary meaning of actively doing the will of God (as in 6:1-18) and, like its Old Testament counterpart (sedada), the eschatological activity of God (6:33; cf. Isa 51:1, 5). Thus persons who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not those who merely long to be personally pious or idealistic dreamers or do-gooders, but, like those of 5:4, they are persons who long for the coming of God’s kingdom and the vindication of right, which will come with it, and who on the basis of this hope actively do God’s will now. This longing is no empty hope, but God will satisfy it.

Summarizing the First Stanza. In short, the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Paradoxically, these are conditions that characterize no one at all when God’s will is done.

A summary about the first four:

Theologically, then, the point of these first four beatitudes is not to offer “entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven” but to describe the nature of God’s rule, which characterizes the kingdom of heaven …. The people who benefit when God rules, Jesus declares, are those who otherwise have no reason for hope or cause for joy, who have been denied their share of God’s blessings in this world and deprived of justice – in short, people for whom things have not been the way they ought to be. For such people, the coming of God’s kingdom is a blessing, because when God rules, all this will change and things will be set right. (Powell, 129-130)

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 171-81
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 128-37
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 153-72
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 160-72
  • Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) 39-51
  • Press, 1996) 28-30
  • Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995) 122-38
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