Beatitudes, not Platitudes

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And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:  And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,  Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.  Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5: 1-10]

It is difficult to convey the effect these now familiar paradoxes must have had upon Jesus’ listeners.  The conventional wisdom (not just of Jews but of Greeks and Romans) is turned on its head.  Success is what mattered in the ancient world.  Good fortune, wealth, and power were signs of divine favor.  Jews, in looking back at their own history, would have admired the exploits of Joshuah, Gideon, and Samson, men would not have been out of place in the American West.  King David and his son Solomon were among their greatest heroes.  David was a man of war who smote his enemies and built a powerful (albeit tiny) kingdom; Solomon was proverbial for his wealth as well as for his power.

For more recent heroes, Jews could turn for inspiration to the Maccabees, who had led a bloody insurrection that liberated their people from the Macedonian kingdom of Syria ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes.  The successors to the Macedonians were the Romans, who had been ruling over the Jews, largely through proxies like the Herods, for    years.  In expecting a messiah or savior, the common belief was that he would come as a fighting prince, another David or Judas Maccabeus, with sword in hand to to drive the Romans into the sea.  Yet here is this prophet or (some might say) messiah, early in his career, calmly beginning an address to the multitude proclaiming the blessedness of “the poor in spirit” or simply, as in the parallel passage in Luke, “the poor.”

What do these words mean, really, “blessed” and “poor in spirit.”   Blessed, for example, can mean several things in English.  When we bless someone, we speak well of him.  While poor can mean either lacking in wealth or in a poor condition or quality, as in “the actor turned in a poor performance.  The original text is clearer.  The Greek word makarios means happy, in  the sense of having good fortune.  The simpler word makar is typically used in early Greek to refer to the gods as opposed to mere mortals, and makarios thus retains a strong whiff of divine favor.  In the plural (as Jesus uses it here), makarios  refers to the rich and well-educated.  Ptochoi (the poor), by contrast, are at the end of the socio-economic spectrum; they are the beggars that crouch and cringe, fearfully, in the presence of their superiors.  A slightly educated listener might have thought of Odysseus, the noble Greek warrior who disguised himself as a beggar and had to endure insults and abuse in his own house—a story that eerily anticipates Jesus’ own arrival in earthly form: the son of God who is born to a poor family, a man “despised and rejected and acquainted with grief.”

Matthew’s phrase “poor in spirit” is even stronger than Luke’s.  Odysseus may have been without resources and beggarly in appearance, but, as a proud and violent Greek aristocrat, he was anything but poor in spirit.  Jesus was telling his people that the greatest happiness one can have is to have the spirit of the cringing beggar.  What a strange statement, then, to make that the abject and miserable, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, are the ones who have experienced divine good favor.  Most of us have read or heard this sermon so many times we take it for granted as either hyperbole—He could not have meant these things literally, could he—or as a set of Sunday school clichés that we recite without any intention of living up to.  But then they would not be the Beatitudes, but only the platitudes.

In Mathew’s story, nothing has prepared us for this shocking message.  We know only of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth, his precocious wisdom, his baptism by John the Baptist, and his temptation by Satan, who had promised him material comfort and power if he would only challenge his father, as Satan had done, and follow the fallen angel.  Emerging victorious over the Enemy, Christ attracts a large following, not only from his home-area of Galilee but also from Jerusalem and Judea and even from the Decapolis, ten Hellenic cities that enjoyed important municipal privileges within the empire.  These cities enjoyed Greek culture, which even the Semitic inhabitants (whether Jews or Syrians) had absorbed.  The mention of these Decapolitans in the audience is the first indication that Jesus is not necessarily preaching only to Jews or to men and women of exclusively Jewish cultural traditions.

What would these Greeks or Jews who had a Greek education think of the Sermon, with its disturbing invasion of values?   Those who had read some Homer—and the Iliad and Odyssey were obligatory reading in any course of education—would think of the noble heroes who populate the epics, especially of Achilles, whom some believed to lead a life of eternal happiness in the Isles of the Blessed.  These were men of violence and wrath, who took nothing from nobody, as the saying goes.  The only lower-class character in the Iliad, the ugly rabble-rouser   is rebuked and beaten by Odysseus.

Early Greek poets  had never tired of celebrating men of wealth and power or of complaining about their own failures and poverty.  Traditional Greek culture taught that shame (aidos) and honor had to be respected.  A sense of shame included having a regard for social conventions and being respectful to parents, elders, and social superiors, while honor (the Greek world literally implies price or value) was the respect to which you were entitled, by your family, social status, and personal qualities.  When the great Achilles quarreled with Agamemnon and left the Trojan War, it was not so much that he missed the woman of whom he had been deprived as it was the honor he was losing.  It would be little use telling Achilles (or most Greeks) to ignore public opinion, because they would interpret such a remark to be an indication of a base character.

If they had dabbled in philosophy, the Decapolitans might have been less shocked and connect Jesus’ preaching with the diatribes of Cynic and Stoic philosophers who derided the pursuit of wealth and power as vanity and distraction, but in that case they might also suspect that Jesus was one more hypocritical guru, of the type that satirists routinely ridiculed.  Wealth is nothing, say the philosophers?  Then why are they always asking for handouts and taking fees for teaching—rather than practicing—the virtues of self-restraint, chastity, and humility?

In this sermon, Christ fulfills the highest traditions of the Jewish prophets and Greek moral philosophers.  The implications might take us ordinary folks a lifetime to figure out to any degree.  With  these bold paradoxes he turned conventional wisdom on its head and forced his followers to acknowledge the humanity of people they may well have loathed–Samaritans, Syrians, Greeks, Romans.  It has nothing in common with either Capitalism or Socialism, but offers us a truth that is also the way to life, both to a better life on earth and  to eternal life.

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