The Beatitudes as presented by Matthew are beautifully crafted prose, in fact, they come across as rather poetic. Apart from the aesthetic appeal, Matthew offers them as vitally important. Not only are they the first teaching of Jesus, he is placing Jesus in the company of King David and Moses. The “blessed” of the Beatitudes is parallel in structure to a number of the Psalms (112, 128), so Jesus is like David in composing a song to God. Showing Jesus ascending the mountain to preach and teach serves to make a comparison to Moses (made rather clear in later portions of this teaching when Jesus says “you have heard that it was said…”). So this Sermon on the Mount is something Matthew wants us to pay close attention to.
If we listen carefully to the lyrical language, we hear a song of emptiness, sung not as a lament, but as a yearning. Each verse begins with makarioi, which we typically read as “blessed.” The drawback of this translation is that to our ears it is a past tense action. In truth, there is no verb in the Greek, this word describes a state of privilege, even being privileged by divine grace. Because of this, some translations prefer “happy.” In this way we hear the irony more fully as “happy are the empty, mourners, and the persecuted.” There are other surprising nuggets hidden in the original grammar. The comforting of the mourners is presented in the future passive tense, “they shall be comforted.” The first century Jewish audience of Matthew’s gospel would have understood this to be the divine passive. In the relentless effort to avoid taking God’s name in vain, the future passive tense became a substitute for an active tense that would require naming the subject, with the potential of ascribing action to God that was not divine. Using the divine passive leads reader to assume that God is the active agent. So it is not simply that comfort will come, but God will do the comforting.
The divine passive is used in half of the beatitudes. In one of them, hungering and thirsting for right relationship with God (the meaning of righteousness) is met by God’s action of feeding us. The verb used originally referred to the care of livestock. When we see that we are reminded of God being our shepherd, we need not fear any evil.
Another nugget to harvest from the grammar is that the verb used to tell the empty ones (what else does poor in spirit mean?) that heaven belongs to them is present tense. This is why Jesus preached repentance, not because it was the last minute to change your behavior before the judgment of heaven coming to earth, but because repentance actually means changing your entire way of thinking. If you are going to see the truth that even in your emptiness (indeed because of your emptiness) you are in possession of heaven here and now, you will need a new way of thinking. Crazy talk, isn’t it? And it gets crazier when you connect the dots.
There is a path from emptiness to heaven. If you are poor inside, you are longing to be filled, hungering and thirsting after a right relationship with God if you will. And God fills that longing by leading you like a shepherd, even through the dark valleys. Now notice the twist in the next to last beatitude that ties it all together in a neat, if unwelcome, way. “Happy are people who are persecuted for seeking a right relationship with God because heaven belongs to them already.” It hardly seems fair that those who are already hopeless should also be persecuted. Then the whole weight of these surprising blessings comes crashing down in the twist in the final beatitude where the person changes, no longer is it those other hopeless, grieving, hungry, thirsty, humble, pure-hearted, peacemaking people who are persecuted on their way to seeing God in the Promised Land…it is YOU!
That is likely not what you thought this journey would be about. But when you come to terms with the poverty of your spirit when you feel full and satisfied by whatever you have fed on other than righteousness, then you are ready to accept an emptiness that can only be filled by a right relationship with God. Then persecution is a small price for admission because the destination has come to you. Heaven has come to earth and it belongs to you now.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of Old South United Church of Christ, Kirtland, Ohio where Darkwood Brew is used as part of an effort to be the church beyond walls. He also has a YouTube channel of two-minute videos called Bible Bytes.