Beatitude

As the title suggests, Jonathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing sees the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ instruction in a way of virtue and wisdom that leads to flourishing. As Pennington puts it, “Jesus provides in the Sermon a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation.” Pennington aims to show that the theme of “flourishing through wholeness” provides a frame within which the details of the Sermon can be understood.

His treatment of the Beatitudes illustrates the “kingdom-awaiting” aspect of his interpretation. Jesus’ “macarisms”—blessings—are shocking because “they describe flourishing with ironic, paradoxical, future-oriented hopes” (153). We have been conditioned to think positively about the Beatitudes, and so don’t recognize that “Jesus is authoritatively yet perplexingly commending states of being in the world that are the opposite of flourishing, despite introducing them with the standard makarios” (155). 

We may endorse “poverty of spirit,” but for ancients this is the character of the low and shameful. Hunger is not a state of blessing, nor is meekness a value to ancient readers and hearers. We misunderstand the nature of the blessing Jesus pronounces if we see him transvaluing ancient values—simply pronouncing blessings on what is self-evidently an un-blessed condition, as if He were commending hunger and thirst, lowness, weakness in themselves. 

Rather, Pennington argues, we have to see the Beatitudes as eschatological promises. The protasis doesn’t announce a blessing; the blessing is found in the apodosis. That is, it’s not the hunger, lowliness, meekness, or persecution in themselves that are blessed. These are blessed states only insofar as they mark out a “way of being in the world that will result in flourishing” and insofar as they indicate that “Jesus is redefining flourishing as suffering while awaiting the eschaton” (157–8). 

We cannot delete the eschatological hope of inheritance, filling, vindication, from the Beatitudes without distortion. Without the eschatological expectation, the Beatitudes amount to a quasi-Stoic ethic of “grin and bear it”—pretend you’re blessed when you’re not. For Jesus, blessing in the present depends entirely on the reliability of God’s promises for the future.

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