The Beatitudes are part of the larger “Sermon on the Mount” delivered by Jesus and recorded in chapters 5 through 7 of the book of Matthew. The Sermon is one of the most analyzed portions of the New Testament, and it has been broken apart, bit by bit, for the last 2000 years. We do not have time to study the relationship between Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” and Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (see Luke 6.17-49). Nor will I take the time to study whether or not the Sermon was a collection of various teachings of Jesus or a single sermon delivered at a single setting. There is hardly enough time to list all of the possible issues to study for they are legion, to say the least.
One of the classic discussions about the Sermon is whether or not the Sermon describes “entrance requirements for the Kingdom” or “eschatological rewards.” Some see the words of Jesus describing a new ethic for His followers. Where the law taught that adultery was just a physical act, the new ethic for the Kingdom is to not even look lustfully on a woman. The law taught that murder was sinful, but Jesus’ new ethic is that anger is sinful. Those who want to enter the Kingdom of God must embrace the new ethical standards.
Others see the Sermon as a description of the eschatological rewards. Eschatology refers to the end times or the period of history after the return of Jesus. So, Jesus’ words describe the rewards that await those who follow Christ in the here and now. Life as a follower of Christ can be difficult today (poverty, persecution, anxiety, etc.), but we should live in such a way as to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
In applying this big picture theme to the Beatitudes themselves, we see how it determines our interpretation of the Beatitudes. If the “Blessed are those who” statements are ethical requirements, then Jesus is telling us how to behave as followers of Christ. If the “Blessed are those who” statements are eschatological rewards, then Jesus is giving hope to the downcast.
Of course, there are more options than these two when reading the Beatitudes. For instance, many have suggested that the wisdom poetry of the Hebrews is a better model for reading the Beatitudes. Compare the Beatitudes with the wisdom literature of the Proverbs or the Psalms. Consider the opening words to the book of Psalms:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
If we read the Beatitudes as wisdom literature, how would that be different from reading them as “entrance requirements” or as “eschatological rewards”? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.