The beatitudes are not virtues (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago a visiting preacher taught on the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

He had some interesting insights, but he taught the traditional view of the beatitudes as virtues, as Christlike character traits we should develop. I think that is not technically correct.

The beatitudes as virtues

There are eight blessed things mentioned in the verses; being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, etc. When these are understood to be attitudes or Christlike qualities, there are several consequences.

1. It affects how we interpret the meaning of the eight things.

Four of the eight — meekness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking — do seem like virtues, but the other four are a little harder to interpret that way. As a result, they have to be reinterpreted slightly. Being poor in spirit is usually taken to mean humility; mourning to mean a repentant heart; hunger and thirst for righteousness to mean a desire to be holy; and being persecuted to mean a willingness to endure persecution.

2. It puts the emphasis on how we can develop these qualities.

Our visiting speaker stressed that we cannot attain these qualities on our own, but only by the power and work of the Holy Spirit in us; nonetheless, he assumed that the point of the passage is that we need to grow in them somehow.

3. It affects how we interpret the benediction (“Blessed are”) pronounced on each of the eight.

It becomes natural to hear “Blessed are …” as an expression of God’s approval of these qualities. He favors the poor in spirit because of their humility, the mourners because of their repentant hearts, and so on. The promise in each verse is a reward corresponding to the virtue. The merciful will receive mercy as a reward for their having been merciful, and so on for the other verses.

The beatitudes as descriptions of oppression

I believe a better way to look at the same verses is to see them as describing ways that people suffer oppression. The easiest way to understand this is to start by considering the parallel passage in Luke. Here are the beatitudes as recorded in Luke:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man … (Luke 6:20-22, NASB)

Why are Luke’s and Matthew’s versions different? One possible reason is simply that Jesus preached the same thing in slightly different ways on different occasions. Then Matthew and Luke each selected for his own narrative the version that fit best with the particular points he was trying to make as an author.

The beatitudes in Luke sound a lot less “spiritual” than those in Matthew. The meek, merciful, pure and heart, and peacemakers are not even mentioned in Luke. The remaining four are poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution, all of which are things that just happen to people, not virtues that they develop. Matthew’s version turns poverty into poor in spirit, but for Luke it’s just plain poor. Matthew’s version talks about being hungry for righteousness, but Luke’s hungry people just want food. Matthew may be talking about how to be a good person. Luke is simply describing what it’s like to suffer.

That makes it a little confusing that Luke says the poor are blessed (and even more confusing a little later when he pronounces woe to the rich). Does Luke mean that somehow being downtrodden makes us better people automatically?

Our speaker mentioned that there are some churches which seem to think there is something extra spiritual about being poor. On the basis of these verses in Luke they encourage some believers to take a vow of poverty. Our speaker disagreed with that perspective. He argued that that is why Matthew added “in spirit”. He was saying that having an attitude of poverty (i.e., being humble) is the real point.

I also disagree with that perspective, but I don’t think Jesus was talking about being humble (not in Luke, for sure). He was talking about having no money.

The point is, though, Jesus also wasn’t telling them how to be better people, he was encouraging them to have hope. Listen to another difference between Matthew and Luke: in Matthew, Jesus says “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit …”, announcing a general spiritual principle. In Luke, Jesus says directly to his audience, “Blessed are you poor … “, a specific promise to a specific audience. They didn’t need to work at being oppressed! They needed to learn to trust God in the midst of their oppression. That’s the point in Luke.

In the next part I will talk about reconciling the Matthew passage with the Luke passage.

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