How to interpret the Beatitudes


Scripture: Matthew 5: 1-12 


It’s hard to interpret the Beatitudes, even though they are so familiar.  Too often they promote a theology of “pi in the sky when you die.”  That can be an excuse not to consider the less fortunate in society.  The Beatitudes challenge those of us who have good fortune in life to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality.  

Jesus teaches the crowds. “Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch (1877)

Today we start a three-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus addressed a crowd from a mountainside. However, it’s unlikely that Jesus gave this “sermon” on a single occasion.

We begin with the Beatitudes. The word means blessedness, happiness, and even divine ecstasy. Matthew’s setting shows Jesus’ authority. Jesus sits; the disciples approach him to hear what he says. Choose your metaphor. Jesus is the teacher at the front of a classroom, a judge presiding in court, a king in his council.


Matthew and Luke interpret the Beatitudes differently

It’s difficult to talk about Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes without contrasting Luke because their tone is so different. For example, Matthew remembered Jesus as having said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Luke wrote instead, “Blessed are you who are [actually] poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” He then added, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Likewise, Matthew wrote about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. His focus was on the world to come.  But Luke wanted to interpret the Beatitudes in terms of people who are actually hungry.  He made this contrast. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry [later].”

Luke’s feet seem firmly planted in the ordinary world of here and now. Luke said, in effect, “Don’t take your good fortune for granted. It may not last.” We see Luke’s greater emphasis on social justice in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke presents it as a morality story.  The rich man was oblivious to Lazarus’ suffering. In the afterlife, Lazarus got eternal bliss, but the rich man got punishment.

What did Matthew mean by “heaven”?

Today’s Scripture ends, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” What do we mean by heaven? What did Matthew mean by heaven? Is it some unknown location that we will reach in the future? That would make us interpret the Beatitudes as “pi in the sky when you die.” In its worst form, that gives the fortunate in this world an excuse not to bother about the less fortunate. You don’t really have to do anything about the poor, the hungry, the oppressed right now. After all, God will give them their just rewards in heaven.

That is the dreadful message of a verse (now no longer sung) of All things bright and beautiful: “The rich man in his castle/the poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/and gave them their estate.” The author, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, was the wife of a well-loved clergyman in 19th century Northern Ireland. One way to look at her message is this.  God planned for you to be born into riches or poverty. So, “suck it up.”  Another way is probably how the rich man thought about Lazarus, if he thought about Lazarus at all.  He’s not one of us, so he doesn’t matter.

Either way, by including these words in its hymnals, the Church shamefully collaborated in oppressing the less fortunate in society. “Rejoice and be glad,” they said, “for your reward will be great in heaven” – the final verse of today’s reading.

Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God?

I need to recall that Jesus began his ministry by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Matthew consistently called the world to come the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke both called it the kingdom of God. My personal interpretation is that Mark and Luke imagined God’s righteous reign coming here on earth. Hence, our task is to bring it closer. But Matthew seems to have imagined a more spiritual kingdom of heaven, one that we must constantly be awake and ready for.

I don’t claim that everything about how Matthew tried to interpret the Beatitudes is bad, and that Luke’s approach is all good. For example, Luke says “Woe to you …” to people who are fortunate in this life.  He seems to exclude them from God’s kingdom.  Matthew does not.  But both Gospel writers  keep the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Matthew and Luke both uphold Hebrew Scripture teaching

We saw this in our first reading.  The prophet Micah gives us a recipe. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”. The Beatitudes tell us that the mourners will find joy, the merciful will receive mercy, and the meek will inherit the earth.

This is the theology of Psalm 146. “The Lord cares for the strangers; he upholds the fatherless and widow; as for the way of the ungodly, he turns it upside down.”  It contradicts our world’s experience that the meek, the timid, the weak, simply inherit what’s left over by the aggressive and the greedy. So both Matthew and Luke agree that God’s Kingdom will be different from what we see around us today.  And that will be true, whether we create it here or wait for God to create it in the next world,

What was Jesus really talking about in the Beatitudes?

Let’s go back and look at the first beatitude again. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew does not exclude the rich, whether materially or spiritually, from the kingdom.

However, people who have been given much material or spiritual wealth in this world are often prone to take it all for granted. For most of us in Canada, those of us in this church today, with warm clothes, a warm church, enough food, and a place to call home, it’s all too easily forget to “count our blessings.” There are plenty of people in our society who do not have warm clothes, who do not have enough to eat, and who have no home. It’s easy for us to forget them, or ignore them.   

The Beatitudes today

Jesus’ message of inclusion fits exactly with contemporary ideas on the divisive influence of excessive inequality in our society. If not explicitly socialist, Jesus’ message is definitely “centre-left.”

The Beatitudes are in a long line that includes the Old Testament prophets and psalmists, as well as modern prophets like Martin Luther King. All these people called for justice on behalf of the poor, the dispossessed, and the less fortunate. For example, King’s famous I have a dream speech offered a message of hope and inclusion to African-Americans suffering from the injustices of racial segregation. His dream included the poignant hope that, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The example of Auschwitz

Memorial at Auschwitz January 27, 2020. Photo Janek Skarzynski/Agence France-Presse

This past week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The emphasis was on the suffering of those murdered there. But I pondered on how that extermination came about. I thought back to Mrs. Alexander, All things bright and beautiful, and the rich man and Lazarus

Ordinary, otherwise decent people looked the other way when their Jewish neighbours were taken away.  Like the gypsies, the criminals, the homosexuals.  The Nazis had shipped them away, too.  They weren’t “us”, so they didn’t really matter. The atrocity was only possible because the majority looked away and let it happen. The few who were brave enough to speak out got themselves sent to the camps. It is incredibly hard to speak up for justice in those circumstances. Which of us would have had the courage?

But could any of us say and believe that all these victims got their reward in heaven?  “pi in the sky when you die.”

To sum up

It isn’t easy to interpret the Beatitudes, even though — perhaps because — they are very familiar.  We have heard them so often that they seem to be warm and cuddly. They provide solace to many mourners at funerals. 

But really, the Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I have a dream” speech, two thousand years before Martin Luther King. They challenge those of us who have good fortune in life to work to make the Kingdom a reality.  Specifically, how can we, personally, and as St. George’s Lowville, become outposts of the kingdom?  No matter whether we call it the kingdom of God or of heaven!