Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 24, 1990, p. 74, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
God’s favor is granted to those whom society regards as the ones left behind: the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the merciful, those hungering for justice, the purehearted, the makers of peace, those mistreated for the cause of justice.
The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) begin the body of material commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) , the first of five major sections of teachings within the Gospel of Matthew. Carefully structured, all five conclude with the formula "And when Jesus had finished all these sayings.
It may or may not be the case that Matthew used the five books of Moses as a model. Neither is it important to defend or oppose the term "sermon," traditionally attached to this material. To insist that Jesus delivered all these sayings at one sitting is equally unimportant. In fact, the variety of subjects treated and the fact that Mark and Luke use some of these sayings in other contexts argue rather persuasively against a single audience and a single occasion. But none of these positions rob the material of its meaning or authority.
It is important, however, to ponder the nature of Jesus’ original audience because audience is integral to understanding a speaker’s meaning. Did Jesus speak to the crowds or to his smaller circle of followers? In 4:25 Matthew describes great crowds following Jesus and in 5:11 says, "Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain." At the close of the sermon, "the crowds were astonished at his teaching" (7:28) . However, 5:1-2, which reads "when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them," clearly makes his disciples the audience. The content of the sermon seems to assume a commitment to life under the reign of God; it would be difficult to argue that Jesus’ teachings were or are for the general public, to be implemented in the larger arena of civic and social networks. Jesus is addressing his followers. But it seems that the disciples are being instructed in the context of a larger audience. The presence of the multitudes keeps the disciples honest as to who they are and what price is to be paid for their commitments. The crowds serve also to remind the reader that the invitation to join the circle of disciples is always open provided we are willing to submit to the discipline of God’s reign. After all, the church is a community, not a ghetto, and it is always open to and aware of the world.
Even more important for understanding Matthew 5:1-12 is an understanding of what a beatitude is. A beatitude is a blessing or announcement of God’s favor. Of the 44 in the New Testament, the vast majority occur in Matthew and Luke. In the Old Testament, most of the beatitudes occur in Psalms and in Wisdom literature. In the context of proverbs or other wisdom sayings, beatitudes can be translated "Happy are those who" or "How fortunate are those who." However, it is more appropriate to translate Jesus’ words so as to convey God’s favorable behavior toward those addressed. Hence, "blessed" or "favored of God are those who" conveys the understanding that such favor is both present and future. The language of a blessing is also performative; the pronouncement of blessing actually conveys the blessing. Certainly the language is not hortatory: "We ought to be poor in spirit" or "Let us be meek" or "We must hunger and thirst for righteousness." Preachers are too easily tempted to urge, push and exhort us to implement these qualities. Such exhortations reflect frustration before the grace of God. It is more difficult to hear and receive a blessing than to attempt to achieve one.
Very important, then, is the recognition that the beatitudes appear at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, before a single instruction is given, before there has been time for obedience or disobedience. If the blessings were only for the deserving, very likely they would be stated at the end of the sermon, probably prefaced with the conditional clause, "If you have done all these things." But appearing at the beginning, they say that God’s favor precedes all our endeavors. In fact, all our efforts at kingdom living are in response to divine grace, motivated by "because of," not "in order to." In this regard, the Sermon on the Mount begins as the Decalogue begins, with a statement of God’s gracious initiative: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of bondage" (Exod. 20:2) . Some Christian characterizations of Judaism forget the words of grace in the Old Testament. In fact, some Christians are so anxious to rush to the Sermon on the Mount’s moral and ethical instructions that they overlook the initial word that God’s blessing is the context for all our behavior and relationships.
Finally, and most important to the reader of Matthew 5:1-12. God’s favor is granted to those whom society regards as the ones left behind: the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the merciful, those hungering for justice, the purehearted, the makers of peace, those mistreated for the cause of justice. On these Jesus pronounces God’s congratulations, with these God identifies in Jesus, to these comes the Good News of God’s interceding grace. What a reversal of values and fortunes! Many of these are victims, to be sure, but the beatitudes deliver them from a victim mentality. Just as there is a difference between being a servant and being servile, so there is a difference between being victimized and regarding oneself as a victim. Those who in the face of violence, oppression, abuse and neglect continue to turn the other cheek, go the second mile and share possessions even with accusers are not really victims. They are in a very real and profound sense victors, set free to live by hearing Jesus extend to them the beatitude of God.