The beatitudes are not virtues (part 2)

Reconciling Matthew and Luke

(Part 1 is here.)

So how do we synthesize the two versions of the beatitudes in a way that is faithful to both contexts?

Luke points us to the truth that the beatitudes are promises of hope to people who are hurting in concrete ways, rather than a list of character qualities to grow in. And yet, Matthew does spiritualize and generalize the beatitudes, so that they can apply to rich and poor alike. What can the meaning of Matthew 5:3-10 be in light of Luke’s version?

I suggest that we see the beatitudes as expressions of faith, rather than as marks of good character. When I started these posts, I listed three effects of interpreting the beatitudes as virtues. To clarify my meaning here, let me return to that list.

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

The hardest four beatitudes for the virtue interpretation to make sense of are being poor in spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. It has to adjust these slightly so that they mean, respectively, recognizing that we are poor in spirit (humility), mourning over our own sin (repentance), hungering and thirsting for personal righteousness, and being willing to endure persecution.

Suppose we interpret these four, as in Luke, as things that happen to the downtrodden. We find ourselves crushed by what happens to us — poor in spirit — not because we are humble but because we have been beaten down by circumstances or other people. We find ourselves mourning, not just over our sin, but over the tragedies of life in general. We hunger and thirst not just for our own personal holiness but for justice and fairness in a wicked world. We endure persecution even when we do what is right.

If this is the meaning of the beatitudes, then Jesus is not telling us to grow in these qualities (Be more persecuted! Mourn more!) but to rejoice in the midst of them. We are blessed! God has promised us the kingdom!

In other words, recall that the second consequence of the virtue interpretation was:

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

The oppression interpretation puts the emphasis on having joy in the midst of sorrow.

This is true even for the remaining four beatitudes. Meekness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking are virtues, but I still don’t think the point of the passage is to encourage us to grow in them. The thing about meekness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking is that they are the unique virtues of those who are being mistreated. Jesus is not saying, “Develop your meekness”; he is saying, “When you find yourself having to be meek, don’t despair! Count yourself blessed instead.”

The third consequence was:

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

If the eight qualities are virtues, then we understand the “Blessed are …” as being an expression of God’s approval of these qualities, and the promises (“… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) as rewards for having the corresponding virtues.

In the oppression interpretation, though, God is not expressing approval of the oppression. It does not please him that we are persecuted, or that we mourn, or that we are poor in spirit. Again, although our meekness and mercy pleases Him, it does not please Him that we find ourselves in situations requiring meekness and mercy. God isn’t registering His approval; He is promising to deliver us.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Because I mourn, God makes a promise to me. Because of the promise, I am blessed. The blessing is not a reward for my mourning, but because I am mourning the promise is addressed to me.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Again, the point in Matthew 5:3-10 isn’t that somehow I earn mercy when I show mercy (although at times Jesus taught something like that). It means that when I show mercy and others more ruthless than I am step on me, I can take heart in knowing that I myself will receive mercy one day.

Virtue in the beatitudes

There is virtue in the beatitudes, and it is something we can grow in as Christians, but it’s the virtue of faith in the blessing of God.

There are some spiritual truths that run counter to every instinct we’ve got. When we are being mistreated, it is really hard to trust God’s pronouncement of blessing. I think we do have to work to grow in humility, repentance, meekness, and so on. The way the beatitudes will help is to remind us of the promise of God, and encourage us to have faith in God’s declaration that we are blessed.

Do I find myself empty and broken? God says “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit …” It doesn’t feel like I’m blessed. But if God says I am, I can just believe it. Do I find myself compelled to show mercy to someone who has been ruthless? It may be hard to believe God’s declaration, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” I haven’t received mercy yet! But I will — and in that faith, I can act in mercy anyway.

I think perhaps this is the way of character growth according to the beatitudes: to let mistreatment be another reason to trust God and His promises. As we grow in our faith in the truth it makes us more Christ-like.

“… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, NASB).

 

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