Matthew’s More Radical Beatitude

A while back in my Sunday school class, I sought to challenge the idea that anyone takes the Bible literally, by focusing on some of the things that Jesus says about topics like poverty and possessions.

We started with Jesus’ saying about a camel passing through the eye of a needle. I tried to get everyone to face the literal starkness of Jesus’ woes against the wealthy without rushing to explain them away. Eventually we got to the contrast between Matthew’s and Luke’s beatitudes. In the past, I’ve gone from viewing Matthew’s “blessed as those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” as a spiritualization away from the raw challenge of pronouncing blessing upon the hungry, to viewing it as an adaptation that allows it to be applicable to those who are not poor but who may nonetheless long for justice, who may hunger to be participants in a reality in which hunger and other injustices have been abolished.

But in this particular class, I started to wonder if Matthew’s version isn’t in fact more radical rather than less. After all, one can be without food and yet not become an activist. Matthew’s version, on the other hand, seems to imply not just longing and desire but action. If you’re hungry, you’ll act to get food. If you’re hungry for justice, you’ll act to bring it about, for yourself and others.

On a related note, Fred Clark blogged recently about one reason why some churches have the impression that social justice is something unbiblical (whether simply not in the Bible, or actually antithetical to its teachings). Some Bibles rarely if ever render the relevant words in Hebrew or in Greek as “justice,” preferring other terms such as “righteousness” which are susceptible to interpretation in individualistic and pietistic terms.

The same point that I have made here about hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice can also be made about merely happening to be poor, vs. adopting a particular outlook of humility that can be labeled “poor in spirit.” Indeed, one might suggest that Matthew is extrapolating from Jesus’ own approach to scripture, looking beyond the letter’s legislation about outward behavior to a deeper transformation, applying that approach that stems from Jesus to Jesus’ own words, with a similarly transformative effect.

Finally, let me share this Non Sequitur comic:

Wiley Non Sequitur Camel Needle Heaven

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  • John MacDonald

    I connect the camel/needle imagery with Matthew 6:24:

    No man can serve two masters: for either he
    will hate the one, and love the other; or else
    he will hold to the one, and despise the other.
    Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

    This verse continues the discussion of wealth, and makes explicit what was implied in Matthew 6:21: a person cannot pursue both material goods and spiritual well being. The two goals are mutually exclusive. This saying also appears at Luke 16:13, but there it comes at the end of the Parable of the Unjust Steward. In Luke’s Gospel, the saying is thus clearly one about God and money.

    • John MacDonald

      It would make sense for being “spiritually just” one needed to be charitable rather than pursuing wealth:
      “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I definitely think the Sermon on the Mount is understood best politically against the situation of disenfranchised first century Israel and their present circumstances. We may decide, principially, that the Sermon has things to say to us today (I do, in fact), but we miss a lot of the teeth if we make the Sermon a collection of unrelated, transhistorical, spiritual aphorisms rather than concrete exhortations and encouragements for the first century audience against an impending judgement on that present age.

    • John MacDonald

      Thanks for sharing that interpretation, Phil. I always feel more informed after your posts! I’m new to New Testament studies, but it never ceases to amaze me how most fields have disagreements about pretty core issues. As Heraclitus said, regarding “the heart of the matter” of most things, “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” We need phenomenological strategies for teasing “the heart of the matter” out of it’s hiding place, like the way neuroscientists learned about the functioning of the various parts of the brain by analyzing those parts when they were damaged (the damaged part being responsible for the missing function), or when it is “un-veiled” or “revealed” (a-letheia) to you how central an ex-lover was to your life when that partner leaves you because you took them for granted – and you “dis-cover” how central they were to your life and what a hole their absence leaves in your life. This is the “de-concealment (truth as “a-letheia”)” of the Being of beings. Truth isn’t just the agreement of the proposition with the state of affairs, but also the “de-concealment (a-letheia)” of the Being of beings, like when your friend shows you what “true” friendship means by empathetically listening to you cry all night about your relationship problems when they should really be getting their sleep to be ready for their important meeting in the morning.