Jesus Begins on an Angular Note

I’m thinking about the Beatitudes of Jesus, those “blessed are…” statements.” What are they about? What’s the point? What’s their rhetorical impact at the very beginning of this sermon? Why begin with some “in” and “out” statements?  What did they sound like in a Jewish context? I draw here from my Sermon on the Mount.

Beginning his greatest sermon ever with a list of the good guys implies (and the parallel at Luke 6:20-26 makes it explicit) a corresponding list of bad guys. Matthew will provide for us in Matthew 23’s “woe” sayings an alternative list of bad guys. Not only that, Jesus finds all the “wrong” people on God’s side and all the “right” people against God.  Those who first heard this list of the truly blessed by God immediately began to wonder about themselves by asking “Am I in or out?” The Beatitudes are a radical manifesto of a kingdom way of life because Jesus sees reveals who is in and who is not.  

Two mutations of Israel’s Story occur in the Beatitudes: first, Jesus joins the prophetic voices, like Isaiah, who contended that not all of Israel is on God’s side and that the remnant or the faithful are the true Israel.  Jesus redefines who the remnant are. Second, Jesus stands here at least as more than a prophet. Jesus is the Lord and Jesus pronounces who is on God’s side. The natural response to Jesus’ list of the blessed is to ask “Who does this man think he is?!”

Listings like this at the time of Jesus had two basic orientations: one list rolled out the names of the saints, usually describing their behaviors, while another list focused on the characteristics of those who were observant of Torah and approved by God. For the first, I mention the list of noble ancestors in the Old Testament apocryphal book, Sirach 44, and then later in the New Testament we find a similar listing of saints at Hebrews 11. The other way of categorizing people, by characteristics of piety, can be found in later rabbinic texts, like Mishnah Avot 5:12:

A.        There are four types of disciples:
B.        (1) quick to grasp, quick to forget-he loses what he gains
C.        (2) slow to grasp, slow to forget-what he loses he gains;
D.        (3) quick to grasp, slow to forget—a sage;
E.        (4) slow to grasp, quick to forget—a bad lot indeed.

Jesus’ list diverges from both of these lists and blesses the most unlikely of people. Instead of congratulating the Torah observant or the rigorously faithful or the heroic, he blesses the marginalized who stick with God through injustice.

Beginning with this list shapes the entire Sermon because it jolts us all into listening more attentively. We ask, “If these are the people who are in, what does that mean for me? If this is how the in-group lives, how should I live?” Jesus does not stand foursquare with the tradition of listing the saints and he doesn’t stand alongside the rabbis who saw humans through Torah observance. Instead, Jesus approached morals through the lens of people who were (actually) living out the kingdom vision. The beatitudes then are a radical revisioning of the people of God. As Warren Carter frames it: “In the beatitudes, Jesus has the disciples imagine a different world, a different identity for themselves, a different set of practices, a different relationship to the status quo. Why imagine? Not because it is impossible. Not because it is escapist. Not because it is fantasy. But because it begins to counter patterns imbibed from the culture of the imperial world.”


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