Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Two)

See POWELL, MARK ALLAN. “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1996): 460–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722717.

Are the Beatitudes about “reversals” or “rewards”? Mark Allan Powell answers that question with a confident “Yes.” According to Powell’s analysis, the Beatitudes devote one stanza to each subject with a concluding beatitude at the end. Warren Carter notes that he relies in large part on Powell’s analysis. It’s worth reading the original article for a deeper understanding.

This two-stanza poetic structure “marks the Beatitudes as one of the most carefully crafted passages in the Gospel. Unless no other option exists,” Powell argues, “Matthew’s readers should not be forced to decide between finding meaning for the individual verses and finding meaning for the collection as a whole” (page 461). Some middle ground in this regard would certainly help us as preachers, too.

Most scholars regard Matthew 5:3-10 as a unit to which Matthew 5:11-12 is added – at least in structural terms. As Powell notes, we change from the second person plural in the main body to the third person plural in the conclusion. The first unit has the bookends of “the kingdom of the heavens” to mark its limits. The verbs of the second unit are in the imperative rather than the indicative mood. So far, so good.

Now for the two stanzas. Verses three through six and verses seven through ten each contain precisely thirty-six words in the Greek. Verses three through six use a sort of alliteration. Each of the groups begins in Greek with the “p” sound. Warren Carter identifies them as the poor in spirit, the plaintive, the powerless, and those who pine for righteousness (page 131). I like that a lot! And both verses 6 and 10 end with a reference to righteousness, creating a parallelism of stanza endings.

“Acceptance of a two-stanza structure allows for a compromise solution to the reversal-reward debate,” Powell concludes, “the first stanza (5:3-6) speaks of reversals for the unfortunate, and the second stanza (5:7-10) describes rewards for the virtuous” (page 462). We’ll hold off on the structural role of verses eleven and twelve for now.

I think that, for the preacher, this analysis is most helpful. The Matthean author is not commending poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, and starving for righteousness. These are not the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” These challenging circumstances and states will be reversed when the Kin(g)dom comes in its fullness.

Part of the call of discipleship is to resist the powers that bring about these states and to begin to live as if they are real in the here and now. “The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Matthean author is, on the other hand, commending mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance when persecuted. These are behaviors that reflect the Kin(g)dom in its fullness. They are marks of the path of discipleship in the here and now. They are practices to be encouraged and formed.

“The remaining four, and the elaboration in vv. 11-12,” Carter writes, “concern human actions which, inspired by the experience of God’s reign in vv. 3-6, are honored or esteemed because they express God’s transforming reign until God’s completion of it” (page 131).

While I can understand Powell’s label for the first stanza as “resistance,” I’m not so sure about his label for the second stanza as “reward.” That will take some more reflection. But first, back to the structural analysis.

Powell argues that this two-stanza solution encourages the assumption that the beatitudes are really for the whole world and not just for the Church. That assumption is contested, and Powell goes on to wrestle with the evidence.

While Powell doesn’t include this in his analysis, I am wondering about Hebraic parallelism within the stanzas as well. What I’m wondering is if we can use lines in this poetry to interpret and expand each other? For example, there’s great similarity between “poor in spirit” and “meek.” I suspect that these ideas are intended to “rhyme” in the style of Hebrew poetry, such as some of the Psalms.

I think it’s interesting to look at the possible parallels between “mourning” and “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” It is likely that what’s being mourned is the continuing internal exile of God’s chosen as the various empires hold them captive. On the other hand, anyone who has grieved wonders how their loss is right, just, or fair.

In the next stanza, the parallels between the merciful and the peacemakers are not hard to see. It’s again interesting to wonder what parallels exist between the pure in heart and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Purity of heart may not be simply some sort of innocence or (as Kierkegaard said) the ability “to will one thing.” Perhaps it is the passion for God’s justice and the willingness to suffer in pursuit of that justice which marks real purity of heart for the disciples.

In any event, this sort of analysis reduces the pressure on the preacher to come up with a definition for each of the Beatitude classes. However, I would commend to you Powell’s discussion of the various terms in use here. That discussion is instructive. That being said, this is a poem that has within it resources for interpretation, if we know where to look.

Let me quote Powell’s summary of the first four beatitudes here.

“In short, all of the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness or justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is done” (page 469).

Powell notes that the grammar makes something clear. The Matthean Jesus is using the third person plural in verses three through ten. This is about “those people,” not exclusively about the disciples. Jesus switches to a second person plural in verse eleven when he addresses the disciples directly. The Beatitudes, Powell argues, are not limited to the Church. These are not entrance requirements for the Kin(g)dom. These are the people for whom the coming Kin(g)dom will in fact be a blessing (page 470).

Now, on to the second stanza. Powell argues that these verses promise eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. But, Powell says, the text is more specific than that. He suggests that “the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6” (page 470). Once again, Powell has some detailed description and discussion of each of the verses in this stanza.

Powell offers a summary for the second stanza that parallels his summary of the first. “When God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God’s will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness” (page 475).

Powell goes on to note the ironic connection between the stanzas. This connection, he suggests, “lies in the realization that those who practice the virtues described in the second stanza may on that account come to be numbered among those described in the first stanza on whose behalf these virtues are exercised” (pages 475-476). In Warren Carter’s terms, my voluntary action on behalf of the involuntarily marginalized may result in my joining them on the margins (please see the previous post).

That temporary change in status, however, does not change God’s goals for all people, according to Powell. “God’s rule sets things right,” he concludes, “for all oppressed people” (page 476). “Whether the coming of God’s kingdom is perceived as bringing reversal or reward depends only on the position that one occupies prior to its advent,” Powell writes, “God’s rule sets things right. Those for whom things have not been right are blessed by the change it brings, and those who have been seeking to set things right are blessed by the accomplishment of what they have sought” (page 477).

And what about the ninth beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12? While God’s rule is intended to set things right for all people, Jesus’ words are most directly applicable to the disciples themselves (and to all disciples in future generations). “Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

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