The first of Matthew’s five great discourses begins with an elegant and poetic set of blessings on those specially favored by God. The first four speak of passive sufferers, the poor, the mourners, the gentle but strong (meek) and those starving and thirsting for justice. Keep in mind that Christian meekness is not a divinely sanctioned theology of Casper Milquetoast, since Moses is described as the meekest of men. It is the strength that comes from nonviolent commitment.
The second set praises those actively engaged in responding to God, people of integrity (clean of heart), the merciful (a major theme of Matthew), peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the quest for justice, even if they do not achieve it. Both sets significantly end with a concern for justice.
In describing those attitudes and actions, which bring God’s blessing, I have used justice rather than righteousness. The latter suggest personal piety and represents a religious patois that limits the impact of the Beatitudes. Imagine, for example, a Righteousness Department, or a Minister of Righteousness. Justice evokes rather the Old Testament motif of individuals and a community who are in proper relationship to God and neighbor. This is possible because of God’s gift manifest in the liberation from Egypt and in the Sinai covenant. The Beatitudes take up again the great prophetic concern for justice and also anticipate the final words of Jesus, which declare the just blessed again, because they responded to the sufferings of their neighbors (Mt. 25:31-45).
Another problem in interpreting the Beatitudes is a radical eschatological reading. The first and last Beatitudes promise the kingdom to the poor and those persecuted for justice, and the others speak of a future reward that parallels the attitudes of those blessed: the nonviolent meek will inherit the land, and the merciful will receive mercy. The future dimension is clear, but it is not necessarily an otherworldly future. For Matthew the arrival of Jesus and his proclamation of God’s kingdom creates the conditions by which the world can be changed. The promise to the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for justice, that the kingdom of heaven is yours, might better be translated as on your side or for you.
The Gospel today, last Sunday and this coming Sunday lead us quietly into a Lenten journey of conversion and renewal. The dispositions and actions praised today by Jesus provide an alternate vision to contemporary, destructive attitudes and trends. Paul realized this when he said that God chose the foolish and weak of this world to shame the wise and the strong. Are Jesus’ praises and Paul’s declarations really too much for a contemporary church to believe? We give thanks that Lent comes every year.