Interpretive Approaches to the Beatitudes

As I said in my previous post, “Interpretive Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount,” I’m working on how Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer read the Sermon on the Mount.

Of course, when interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, the best place to start is at the beginning! This means beginning with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1–12.

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12)

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:1–12, NRSV).

Here’s Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20–26)

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20–26, NRSV).

So, what should we make of the Beatitudes?

Of course, the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the Beatitudes have prompted considerable discussion within biblical studies.

As Jason C. Kuo notes in his “Beatitudes” article in The Lexham Bible Dictionary:

Some believe that only a few of the Beatitudes originate from Jesus Himself. Based on an examination of the background and the overlapping beatitudes between Matthew and Luke, Davies and Allison suggest that only three are original—“Jesus utters three paradoxical beatitudes: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who hunger” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 435). Others, however, suggest that at least eight of the nine can be traced to Jesus Himself. Hagner contends, “To assert that only three go back to Jesus assumes criteria that are too restrictive and presumes to know more than we can know” (Hagner, Matthew, 90). Blomberg suggests the possibility that “both Matthew and Luke might be excerpting from an original set of eight Beatitudes and eight woes” (Blomberg, Matthew, 98).

With all due respect to these “Matthew vs. Luke” discussions, I’m much more interested in how people have gone about making sense of the Beatitudes in the context of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7.

Again, here’s Kuo:

A number of different approaches can be employed in interpreting the Beatitudes. They have been typically understood as primarily (1) pronouncing rewards for the virtuous, (2) signaling reversals for the unfortunate, or (3) combining elements of the two (Powell, “Matthew’s Beatitudes,” 460).

Here’s how Warren Carter summarizes the interpretive debates in his “Beatitudes” article in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible:

There has also been considerable debate about how to interpret Matthew’s beatitudes. Do they promise eschatological rewards for the virtuous who manifest these characteristics in their lives, or do they proclaim God’s reversals for those who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances? Are the Beatitudes ethicized “entrance requirements” exhorting readers to a way of life by which they might enter God’s reign? Or are they “eschatological blessings” announced on those who already encounter God’s reign in part? Or is it possible to read them in one consistent way? To “mourn” in Matt. 5:4 does not necessarily seem to be a virtue, while to be a “peacemaker” is not a situation that needs reversing. (p. 159).

In my opinion, that’s a really interesting observation to make regarding “mourn” and “peacemaker.” Are we perhaps trying to parse things out too finely if we try to make the Beatitudes fit into a single interpretive framework?

After all, I agree with Kuo that, regardless of which framework we go with, we need to remember to keep the focus on “the kingdom of God.” As Kuo puts it:

Regardless of the approach, the Beatitudes provide a framework for the people of God to understand what it means to be a part of the kingdom. Turner notes, “The theological purpose of the Sermon on the Mount in general and of the beatitudes in particular centers in the kingdom of heaven” (Turner, “Whom Does God Approve,” 36). In conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount, members of the kingdom are to be salt and light (Matt 5:13–16), providing an example as a “contrast community” (Bailey, “Model for Community,” 86) in the world. The Beatitudes—with their pronouncements of blessings as rewards and reversals—communicate a value system that is of the kingdom of God. Finally, as Davies and Allison conclude, the Beatitudes “bring consolation and comfort to Jesus’ heavy-laden followers … putting into perspective the difficulties of the present,” giving believers a “hope that makes powerlessness and suffering bearable” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 467).

What about Barth and Bonhoeffer?

For me, it’s still early days in trying to make sense of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Nevertheless, I’m comfortable with claiming that they both take a “synthetic” and “christological” approach to the Beatitudes.

“Synthetic” as in “not analytic.” As Merriam-Webster puts it: “attributing to a subject something determined by observation rather than analysis of the nature of the subject and not resulting in self-contradiction if negated.” (Compare/contrast “analytic,” as in: “being a proposition [as “no bachelor is married”] whose truth is evident from the meaning of the words it contains.”)

This is the language that Barth uses to describe the Beatitudes:

the sufferers of this world cannot pride themselves on the fact that their lives have this transparency, that the kingdom, Jesus, is in fact near to them. The declaration that they are blessed is a synthetic and not an analytic statement, referring to the objective thing that characterises their existence from above and not from below. To them, too, the new thing is said when they are called blessed in relation to their misery. Neither they nor their misery create the fact that they exist in that light of Jesus. It is simply the case, and they are called blessed simply because of that which is indicated by their misery: “The poor have the gospel preached to them” (Mt. 11:5). (CD IV/2, 191).

A bit later, Barth writes: “It is also clear that in so far as it entails suffering it is not an enviable situation. In this connexion, too, suffering is not joy. Again the beatitude is a synthetic and not an analytic statement.” (CD IV/2, 191).

So, for Barth, the Beatitudes are statements of self-evident truths. Instead, they are statements that are made true by the particular relationships between Jesus and the people in question.

Although Bonhoeffer doesn’t use the “synthetic vs. analytic” language, he seems to be saying much the same thing in Discipleship:

Therefore, “Blessed!” Jesus is speaking to the disciples (cf. Luke 6:20ff.). He is speaking to those who are already under the power of his call. That call has made them poor, tempted, and hungry. He 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. The observation that some of the Beatitudes speak of want and others of the disciples’ intentional renunciation or special virtues has no special meaning. Objective want and personal renunciation have their joint basis in Christ’s call and promise. Neither of them has any value or claim in itself. (DBWE 4:101–2).

Two things strike me as interesting about that paragraph. First, note how Bonhoeffer is willing to use Luke’s parallel to make a conclusion about whom Jesus is speaking to in the Beatitudes. I think I disagree with Bonhoeffer here, because, in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount seems to be addressed to both the disciples and the crowds—the boundaries between the two groups being, in some sense, still up for grabs.

Second, in the penultimate sentence (“The observation that…”), as the editors note, Bonhoeffer is taking issue with Tholuck’s interpretation of the Beatitudes:

Tholuck observes: “These eight beatitudes are arranged in an ethical order. The first four are of a negative character.… The three following … set forth what attributes of character are required in the members of that kingdom” (Commentary, 64). (DBWE 4:101n6).

You can hear the “entrance requirements for the kingdom” coming through loud and clear in Tholuck. To me, both Barth and Bonhoeffer push back against the “entrance requirements” view, without thereby committing them to a single interpretive framework at the expense of the others.

By Joshua Steele

Anglican Priest, Managing Editor of Anglican Compass, Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School.

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