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The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.

Chapter 3: The Paradox of the Beatitudes

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you for so did their fathers to the false prophets. Luke 6:20-26.


Readers and students of the New Testament often find that it is not the refined argument of Paul or the mystical wisdom of John, but the simple sayings of Jesus, as recorded by the first three evangelists, which are the most difficult to interpret. The words of Jesus seem so clear and straightforward and adequate that it is hard to imagine that anybody could miss the meaning. But when we are asked to express the meaning in our own words, we discover one level of meaning after another. We realize that words of Jesus which we have known since our earliest childhood are incomprehensible to us. And if we try to penetrate them, we are driven from one depth to another; we are never able to exhaust them. Nothing seems simpler, and yet nothing is more perplexing, than, for in- stance, the Lord’s Prayer, the Parables, and the Beatitudes.

We have heard the four Beatitudes and the four Woes as Luke reports them. Their meaning seems unmistakable. The poor, those who are hungry now, those who weep now, those who are isolated and insulted, are praised, congratulated, so to speak, because they can expect precisely the opposite of their present situation. And the rich, those who are full, those who laugh, those who are popular and respected, are pitied, because they must expect precisely that which is contrary.

Two questions arise. What is promised and to whom is it promised? What is the kingdom which is to be owned by the poor, and who are the poor who shall own it? And who are the rich against whom the Woes shall be directed, and what shall happen to them?

Matthew tried to answer these questions. He said that the poor are the poor in spirit, and that those who hunger, hunger after righteousness. He said that those who weep, mourn for the state of the world. And to them is promised the kingdom of heaven, the vision of the Divine Spirit, the comfort and mercy of the realm of God.

Is Matthew’s interpretation right? Or has Matthew, and have the official Christian Churches, following him, spiritualized the Beatitudes? Or, on the other hand, has Luke, and have the many sectarian and revolutionary movements, following him, distorted the Beatitudes from a materialistic point of view? Both assertions have been made and both are wrong. If we want the true answer, we must look at those to whom Jesus spoke. He spoke to two kinds of people. One kind lived with their hearts turned toward the coming stage of the world. They were poorly adjusted to things as they were. They were suffering under the conditions of their lives. Many were disinherited, insecure, hungry, oppressed. There is no distinction made in the Beatitudes between spiritual and material want, and there is no distinction made between spiritual and material fulfillment. Those to whom Jesus spoke were in need of both. Neither the prophets nor Jesus spiritualized the message of the Kingdom. Nor did they understand it and interpret it to say that the Kingdom would come as the result of a merely material revolution. Christianity pronounces the unity of body and soul. The Beatitudes praise those who will be fulfilled in their whole being. But the other kind of people to whom Jesus spoke were those to whom He promised the Woes. They were unbroken in their relation to the present stage of the world. They lived with their hearts in things as they are. They were well-established in their lives; they enjoyed prestige, power and security. Jesus threatened them spiritually and materially. They were bound to this eon, and they were to vanish with this eon. They had no treasure beyond it.

The situation of the people of Galilee to whom Jesus spoke is still our situation. The Woes are promised today to all of us who are well off, respected, and secure, not simply because we have such security and respect, but because it inevitably binds us, with an almost irresistible power, to this eon, to things as they are. And the Beatitudes are promised today to all of us who are without security and popularity, who are mourning in body and soul. And they are promised not simply because we lack so much, but because the very fact of our lacks and our sorrows may turn our hearts away from things as they are, toward the coming eon. The Beatitudes do not glorify those who are poor and in misery, individuals or classes, because they are poor. The Woes are not promised to those who are rich and secure, classes or individuals, because they are rich. If this were so, Jesus could not have promised to the poor the reversal of their situation. He praises the poor in so far as they live in two worlds, the present world and the world to come. And He threatens the rich in so far as they live in one world alone.

This brings a tremendous tension into our lives. We live in two orders, one of which is a reversal of the other. The coming order is always coming, shaking this order, fighting with it, conquering it and conquered by it. The coming order is always at hand. But one can never say: It is here! It is there! One can never grasp it. But one can be grasped by it. And whenever one is grasped by it, he is rich, even if he be poor in this order. His wealth is his participation in the coming order, in its battles, its victories and defeats. He is blessed, he may rejoice and leap even when he is isolated and insulted, because his isolation belongs to this order, while he belongs to the other order! He is blessed, while they who cast out his name are to be pitied. By their dread and despair, and by their hatred of him, they prove that the Woes Jesus has directed against them have already become real. They lose the one and only order they have; they disintegrate in body and spirit. Perhaps we are right to consider the catastrophe of our present world as a fulfillment of the Woes which Jesus directed against a rich, abundant, laughing, self-congratulating social order. But if we believe this, we can also believe that those who have become poor and hungry and sorrowing and persecuted in this catastrophe are those in whom the other order is made manifest. They may betray it, but they are called first. Only through the paradox of the Beatitudes can we begin to understand our own life and the life of our world.

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