For my sermon last Sunday, I preached from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.3-10. Amidst my commentary research, I found a multiple sources that interpreted *all* the Beatitudes with a moral frame of reference. Most particularly, there are common tendencies to interpret the first three beatitudes about the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, and the meek as having some coded moral message. Not to pick on John Wesley, but his notes on the New Testament is a good example. Wesley believes the “poor in Spirit” are the penitent, that mourning is about sins, and meekness is about having control over one’s passions. In a somewhat different vein, Michael Wilkins in the NIV Application commentary on Matthew considers the beatitude about the poor in Spirit to be undercutting of a worldview that takes prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, those who are mourning to not be self-satisfied, and meekness about being gentle as opposed to domineering. However, as Ulrich Luz’s commentary on Matthew in the Hermeneia commentary series notes: “[T]he first four beatitudes probably do not have a unified religious or ethical meaning.”1
This tendency to interpret the Beatitudes with a moral frame of reference may in some sense of represent what we think Jesus, or religion, is all about. Insofar as we understand Jesus to be a bearer of religious and moral teaching, there can be a stark inclination to interpret the beatitudes as expression about highly revered moral virtues and traits. This is not a problem when it comes to the later beatitudes about being merciful, being pure in heart, and being peacemakers, as these beatitudes shout out a sense of ethical virtue. The problem is that we try to fit all the beatitudes as an expression about moral virtues, of who people must be to be blessed by God.
This reading has misdirected us towards what I think to be a more appropriate form of reading: the Beatitudes as Jesus describing the transformation of the victims, particularly those who have been burdened by the oppressive, burdensome teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. In this reading, there is a moral concern behind the Beatitudes, but it is in how all the beatitudes relate to each other as a whole in describing the way God reverses the fortunes of those who have been brought low and made powerless in life.
The first three Beatitudes are the expression of the sense of destitution, desperation, defenselessness of those who have been greiviously harmed by the current socio-religious-political realities for the people of Israel. As the foreing occupation of Rome fomented a deep sense of resentment among many of the Israelites, this resentment fueled a drive towards reproducing Torah purity in one’s own life in the hopes that God would restore Israel’s autonomy and blessed status. However, the danger with *behavioral* purity is that it judges persons who fail to act approriately/pure as dangerous and contagious. However, in addition, when an authoritarian streak combines with an unrelenting concern for behavioral purity, false accusations and attacks will be leveled against people for mere suspicion of standing against the authority.
Consequently, the poor and even those with some wealth were defenseless towards the social opprobrium of the Pharisees, much like King David feel poor and needy in the face of those hostile to him (Psalm 40.17). The LXX translation of the prophet Jeremiah in 12.4 expresses the mourning that comes with the wickedness that ravages the land, including those who feel that God can not see their secret dealings. Psalm 36.9-11 expresses the confidence that God will bless the meek when God cuts off the wicked, implying that the meek are those have been controlled and made powerless by those who wickedly seek to have control.
All this paints a picture: the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims is about the trasnformation of life that comes when people who have been victimized recognize and follow Jesus as the one who God from heaven has appointed as King.
The fourth beatitude is the transition that leads to transformation, as Jesus restores hope to the victims who would have otherwise been tempted to give up. The craving for righteousness is for more than just wanting to do what is right oneself, but a craving to see right relationships between others and with God. When one follows Jesus as God’s King, one longs to see the wickedness of the present era to be replaced with truth, love, and justice.
However, how this righteousness is realized is where the profound transformation takes place. Often times, victims are set up in a “game” where the only way to protect themselves is to beat the oppressor at their own game, that the tools of their oppression becomes the tactics that they feel they must use to be free and vanquish the wicked. The end result of this if victims do not give up, they may be at times tempted to take on the image of their abuser and oppressor and to join in among those who act wickedly in a dog-eat-dog sort of world. When victims do not have resources to protect themselves, they may feel they are put into a double-bind of either giving up or adopting the image of their oppressor. But for those who retain hope by following Jesus as King, they learn to be merciful rather the sharp condemnation of the Pharisees, their purity is of the heart rather than a behavioral purity that the Pharisees prescribed, and they act to bring well-being and shalom to others rather than load people down with burdens like the Pharisees. Jesus leads people away from the false vision of righteousness that begets a darker evil to one that produces the fruit of true righteousness.
Yet, the truth is that today most victims come to find themselves somewhere in between the poles of hopelessness and imitation of their abuser. Instead, many victims protect themseles by becoming prickly, like a cactus, that keeps all who would hurt them away. Yet, even here, one’s prickliness can hold people back from experiencing the blessings of love in belong to God’s Kingdom, because no one wants to hold and hug a cactus. In our day where we have given greater concern for those who have been grieviously harmed, the victims who find the resources to protect themselves don’t adopt the image of their oppressor, but they may still find themselves struggling to fully live into the blessing of life that the Gospel brings. However, when they don’t learn how to drop their prickliness but yet expect others to be close to them, they can still harm others, even if they are not acting with intentionality.
The word that is hard for victims who protect themselves by being prickly in today’s word to hear is “be merciful.” Many of us hear in the word “mercy” the idea that we let those who hurt us off the hook because we have been conditioned to think that “forgiveness” is about absence of consequence for one’s behaviors. However, mercy is more about how we limit ourselves in the face of others who we deem to be somehow caught in moral trespass than it is denying or just absolving the offense. In mercy, our goal is not to destroy and ruin those who hurt us, even while we may still seek to bring about repentance and/or disempower them from doing further harm. Furthermore, as victims, we are often inclined to bring out the thorns anytime we hear or see anything from anyone that we think reminds us of our abusers and oppressors, treating the other person as essentially one and the same with those who caused us harm. Learning to by merciful like King Jesus calls us to not react with such strong accusations when we find people violate our ethical systems of behavioral purity.
The challenge in accepting the call for victims to be merciful in this society is that we have been taught not to take responsibility for ourselves, lest we make ourselves susceptible to the shouts of those who would blame the victim. We are encouraged and exalted when we use our voice to bravely speak up, but we are not taught to really bear responsibility for the direction our life takes after victimization. While we should never bear responsibiltiy for the victimization that we were not at fault for and were powerless to stop, growing beyond the victimization means we are transformed from the powerless to taking moral and ethical responsibility for our lives to be a blessing not just to ourselves but to others. When we set in our hearts that Jesus is our King, we don’t experience the blessing of God’s kingdom by being mired in the destitution, desperation, and defenselessness of the first three beatitudes, but in the fourth beatitude we find the transition that leads to transformation. This Kingdom transformation comes to full bloom as we learn to responsibility for ourselves to follow Jesus’ teaching and life, to put Jesus’ words into action, including those parts that may be emotionally hard such as forgiveness (albeit, not the false type of “forgiveness” that simply enables and denies the need for justice).
However, the Kingdom transformation that the Beatitudes express are true even for those who have not experienced a severe victimzation, because everyone has been hurt and harmed to various degrees, whether it be in minor harms inflict against you or hearing and witnessesing severe victimizations inflicted upon others. While you don’t need to play the victim that needs protections by exaggerating the harms done to you to recieve the blessings of God’s kingdom, you simply need to recognize that it is in your own forms of desperations, your disappointments, and your weaknesses that keeps you vulnerable that you are invited to dream a better way of life that you discover by following Jesus. Even the priviledged can come into the blessings of God’s Kingdom when one recognizes the injustices that one’s privilege has allowed you to otherwise safely ignore and in those seek to discover and bring about something much better for others and yourself through the instruction and example of Jesus Christ. So, in making the Beatitudes about the transformation of victims, I am not suggesting the Gospel is only for victims, but that the words and life of Jesus are a source of transforming power for those who have experienced the destitution, desperation, and defenselessness that life can bring, no matter how big or small they might seem, through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father gives to those who the true identify of Jesus as the Son and King has been revealed to.