Matthew 5:1-12

The Kingdom of God –The Good News


Matthew 5:1-12     The Beatitudes

(Lk 6:20-26)

1 Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up into the mountain.  
He sat down and his disciples came to him.

Unlike Luke, who situated the corresponding discourse on level ground by the side of the lake, Matthew had Jesus and the disciples (and apparently the crowds) ascend the mountain.

Earlier in the narrative, Matthew had pictured Jesus on the mountain, where he was tempted by Satan. There Jesus had clearly turned his back on the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. On this second symbolic mountain, Matthew would show Jesus outlining the values that held sway in the kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom of the Father, to which he was totally dedicated.

The mountain location recalled the site where God had spoken to Moses and revealed the Torah. Jesus could be seen as the new Moses, who would teach with the authority of God; or even as the one who, in the place of God, and on his own authority, would teach the privileged band of disciples. Later, like Moses, the disciples, in their turn, would be commissioned to interpret the teaching to the crowds.

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone
out of the land of Egypt,
... Israel camped there in front of the mountain.
 Then Moses went up to God....
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me... (Exodus 19:1-21:3)

The God who spoke to Moses was Israel’s liberator, the one "who brought you out of... the house of slavery" – an identity that was made unmistakably clear again in the initial wording of the Commandments. God, who would speak through Jesus, would speak again a message of freedom for the oppressed of Israel and, as far as Matthew was concerned, for his oppressed community under the yoke of Rome.

Matthew distinguished two groups – the crowds and the disciples. Jesus directed his teaching to the disciples, though the crowds would be mentioned again at the end of the discourse [7:28] as though they were a privileged audience, overhearing all that Jesus was saying. Matthew wanted his community of fellow disciples to recognise that this teaching was of specific relevance to them.

2 Opening his mouth, he taught them: 

In the teaching that would follow, Jesus did not present a clear and organised code of conduct. He wished to stir people’s imaginations and to stimulate their deepest heart desires, hoping, in this way, to sensitise them to the possibilities of authentic life in the Kingdom of the heavens. He sought to encourage their own exploration of what could be, and what they were called to become. Only as people personally came to discover the truth, would they experience it as genuinely life-giving.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of the heavens is for them.
4 “Blessed are those who are mourning,
for they will be consoled.

The Beatitudes directly confronted the ethos of Rome, where those regarded as blessed by the Roman gods were the wealthy and the powerful.

In referring to the poor in spirit, Jesus was not spiritualising his message (as later commentators have often done). More likely, he was referring to those whose experience of poverty had penetrated so deeply as to affect even their very spirit – those whose spirit had been ground down and left aching by constant oppression and hardship. They were those whose experience was truly one of mourning, not joy, those who saw no prospect of change, those who had lost hope, who despaired.

[Modern readers may well wonder who fits Jesus’ designation as the poor in today’s world. The poor and marginalised in many Western affluent societies, with their access to free medical and hospital treatment, free education, social security safety nets, etc. would be regarded as well-off by the poor in many developing nations.]

In claiming that they were the true blessed, Jesus was not referring directly to present or future experiences of personal happiness, but to the fact that, in God’s Kingdom, the values of Rome and empire would be radically reversed; and, instead, those now suffering would be the ones consoled by God and at home in the Kingdom.

5 “Blessed are the meek,
for they will possess the land.
6 “Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for justice,
for they will be satisfied.

The contrast with the common Roman approach, where violence was seen as the pathway to peace, continued. That same option for violence had been adopted by Jewish zealots, who had tried to overthrow Roman rule in Judea in the decade preceding the year 70 AD (ten or twenty years before Matthew wrote his Gospel). They were wiped out ruthlessly by the Roman armies, their temple burnt and their city destroyed. The way of the Kingdom, though clearly in defiance of so much of what Rome stood for, pursued the way of non-violent resistance, the way of the courageously meek. In God’s Kingdom, true justice would reflect God’s inner truth and would replace the oppression, greed, arrogance and denial of human dignity that prevailed in the Empire.

Like poverty and suffering, the meekness (and hunger for justice) could be interpreted as reflecting an inner attitude. More likely, however, Jesus was referring to an objective state or social position, the situation of a servant or inferior. In the context, it could refer to all those who did not share in the power structures of the Empire, those who had no option other than to do what was demanded of them. Along with them, those hungering and thirsting for justice were those presently deprived of it.


The first four beatitudes promised a future experience where fortunes would be reversed. Taken at face value, independently of the broader context of the Gospel as a whole, they lend themselves easily to misinterpretation.
Conversion. No inner conversion was asked of the presently suffering poor, oppressed and powerless. Yet, without on-going conversion, they could not experience the blessedness of the Kingdom. Without conversion, the powerless and the powerful simply exchange positions; nothing else changes or improves. The same hatreds and intolerance continue.
Unfortunately, too many revolutions have happened across history, where those who were previously oppressed have come into positions of power, only to show the same injustice, corruption and violence towards their former oppressors as had been shown to them. 
The rest of the “Sermon on the Mount” would provide the only context in which reversal could bring true blessedness.
Why, then, the promise of reversal?  Perhaps it was Jesus’ shorthand way of fostering hope in the hearts of his listeners. They felt abandoned and powerless, their situation relentlessly deteriorating. Change for the better seemed totally beyond their capabilities. Without some definitive intervention by God, there seemed no hope. They were without leadership, dispirited, truly “poor in spirit”.
God would intervene. But the Kingdom reality would come about only with conversion. If the poor, the meek, the mourners and the oppressed were to change, they would need hope. 

7 “Blessed are the merciful,
for mercy will be shown them.
8 “Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are those who make peace,
for they shall be called children of God.

Though social change under the totalitarian regime of Rome was effectively out of the question, nevertheless, within their constricted world, disciples were still to live according to the Kingdom values of justice. Their active response was to exercise compassion (mercy) towards each other and to their neighbours, to be clear-sighted and focussed (clean of heart) in their prioritising of God’s vision for society, and to work actively for reconciliation. They were to be peacemakers within their own community and, as far as possible, in the broader world, even with their sometimes-hostile Jewish brothers and sisters. Though their action might prove fruitless in the short term, nevertheless they would be the truly blessed in the long term.

That the merciful receive mercy, the clean of heart come to see God and the peacemakers enjoy the intimacy of God [children of God], need not be seen simply as rewards paid for virtue. Indeed, in some respects, it is because they have already been empowered by the merciful God that the merciful can show mercy. Because they have already had some taste of the mystery of intimacy with God, the clean of heart and the makers of peace are able to be the persons they are. At the same time, their own openness to mercy, cleanness of heart and reconciliation dispose them to relating ever more closely to the God of mercy, integrity and peace. The Kingdom of God is not, primarily, an other-worldly reality. It has come near, and is accessible in the present.

Whilst their mercy and peacemaking might well be fruitless, Jesus foresaw clearly that those who chose to act that way might well provoke active opposition and persecution. Such had been his own experience. Rather than being the actual experience of Jesus’ immediate disciples, however, persecution reflected more the experience of Matthew’s community. They needed reassurance.

10 “Blessed are those persecuted in the cause of justice,
for the kingdom of the heavens is theirs.

This beatitude may have been Matthew’s own composition, serving to sum up incisively those that preceded it. Persecution in the cause of justice would result from people’s actively living according to the ways of God. For Matthew, action was non-negotiable – only action according to the ways of God guarantees membership of the kingdom of heaven.

11Blessed are you when people criticise and persecute you,
and speak any kind of evil against you
on account of me. 
12 Rejoice and be glad,
because your reward will be great in the heavens.  
For this was the way they persecuted the prophets before you..

These last two beatitudes (or are they really one single beatitude developed at length?) revert, like the earlier beatitudes, to objective situations of oppression, and do not refer to behavioural attitudes, other than to those of perseverance and courage. 

In referring to the persecution of the prophets, Matthew wished to emphasise that the way of the disciples was in direct continuity with the experience of genuine Israel. Paradoxically, their familiarity with suffering was to be occasion for joy.

The issue of reward would recur later in the discourse (where it will be dealt with more fully).

Next >> Matthew 5:13-16