Are the Beatitudes “Good Works”? (Matt. 5:13–16)

Yesterday, I wrote just a bit about interpretive approaches to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. I’m trying to get a better handle on how Barth and Bonhoeffer treat the Sermon on the Mount, and I’m starting with the Beatitudes.

However, it’s pretty challenging to situate Barth and Bonhoeffer in light of the “standard” approaches to both the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. A case in point: yesterday, I felt pretty confident that Bonhoeffer does not take the standard “entrance requirements” approach to the Beatitudes.

After all, Bonhoeffer writes:

“[Jesus] calls them blessed, not because of their want or renunciation. Neither want nor renunciation are in themselves any reason to be called blessed. The only adequate reason is the call and the promise, for whose sake those following him live in want and renunciation.” (DBWE 4:101).

However, complicating things just a bit, in his discussion of the “salt and light” passage in Matthew 5:13–16, Bonhoeffer seems to equate the Beatitudes with “good works”!

Here are the verses in question:

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (NRSV).

Toward the end of his discussion of these verses, Bonhoeffer relates Christ’s cross to the visibility and “good works” of the disciples.

The good works of the disciples should be seen in this light. “Not you, but your good works should be seen,” says Jesus. What are these good works which can be seen in this light? They can be no other works than those Jesus himself created in the disciples when he called them, when he made them the light of the world under his cross—poverty, being strangers, meekness, peacemaking, and finally being persecuted and rejected, and in all of them the one work: bearing the cross of Jesus Christ.

Note the connection with the Beatitudes. Bonhoeffer continues:

The cross is that strange light which shines there, by which alone all these good works of the disciples can be seen. Nowhere does it say that God becomes visible, but that the “good works” will be seen, and that the people will praise God for these works. The cross becomes visible, and the works of the cross become visible. The want and renunciation of the blessed become visible. But human beings can never be praised for the cross and for such a faith-community, only God can be praised. If the good works were all sorts of human virtues, then the disciples, not the Father, would be praised for them. As it is, there is nothing to praise in the disciple who bears the cross, or in the faith-community whose light so shines, which stands visibly on the mountain—only the Father in heaven can be praised for their “good works.” That is why they see the cross and the community of the cross, and have faith in God. There, then, shines the light of the resurrection. (DBWE 4:114).

R.T. France agrees, noting the connection between these “good deeds” and the Beatitudes:

The phrase “good deeds” conveys the qualities set out in the beatitudes, and especially the “righteousness” of life which is to be characteristic of disciples (cf. vv. 6, 10, 20); the phrase and the concept are echoed in 1 Pet 2:11–12. It is only as this distinctive lifestyle is visible to others that it can have its desired effect. But that effect is also now spelled out not as the improvement and enlightenment of society as such, but rather as the glorifying of God by those outside the disciple community. The subject of this discourse, and the aim of the discipleship which it promotes, is not so much the betterment of life on earth as the implementation of the reign of God. The goal of disciples’ witness is not that others emulate their way of life, or applaud their probity, but that they recognize the source of their distinctive lifestyle in “your Father in heaven.” (The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, 177).

I’ll admit that I’m used to taking Matthew 5:13–16 in a more mundane and less eschatological sense than Bonhoeffer. I’ve interpreted Jesus’ words as more along the lines of “mind your reputation in the eyes of outsiders” than “demonstrate good deeds that, because they are at cross-purposes with the world, won’t even be recognized as such other than eschatologically.”

After all, when will the outsiders glorify God? Now? Or, as it were, at the end of days? Here’s what 1 Peter 2:11–12 says:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge (ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐπισκοπῆς, “in [the] day of visitation”). (NRSV).

Perhaps Bonhoeffer, France, and Barth are all right to draw our attention back to the eschatological character of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I have to agree with France when he explains “the eschatological character of the promises” in the Beatitudes:

A distinctive feature of these beatitudes (and of those of Luke 6:20–22) is that they not only list the qualities commended, but they also explain that commendation by a promise appropriate to each quality. The second half of each line is as important as, and indeed is the basis for, the first. All but the first and last are expressed as promises for the future, and the question is often raised whether that future is envisaged as fulfilled within the earthly sphere, or whether it looks to compensation beyond this life. The third beatitude, with its echo of Ps 37:11, raises the issue particularly acutely: “inherit the earth” (or perhaps “the land,” see below) sounds more concrete than a purely heavenly reward. So are these beatitudes speaking of benefits “now in this age” and not only “in the age to come”? That is the language Jesus uses in Mark 10:30, but we shall note that Matt 19:28–29 avoids such an explicit dichotomy, and is worded in such a way that it can be read as speaking only of heavenly reward. On the other hand, the present tense used in verses 3b and 10b, “it is to them that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” warns against a purely futuristic interpretation, and suggests that the simple dichotomy between “now” and “then” may miss the breadth of Matthew’s conception of the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven has already arrived (4:17, and see on 3:2), and so these are people who are already under God’s beneficent rule. The advantages of being God’s people can then be expected to accrue already in this life, even though the full consummation of their blessedness remains for the future. The tension between “now” and “not yet,” so familiar from much of the rest of the NT, may appropriately be seen as running also through the promises of Matt 5:3–10. (The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, 164).

Even just the mixture of verbal tenses in the Beatitudes reminds me of the complex interplay between the “already” and the “not yet” when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer.

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

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