1.8 Synoptics -- The Beatitudes as Wisdom
The Beatitudes are especially prominent in Matthew's Gospel because he puts them at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew places his Big Guns up front. This is what he thinks is most important in the teaching of Christ. Honestly, we have been desensitized to the power of these words. They are a fitting counterpoint to the “Thou shalt (not)” of the 10 Commandments: brief, absolute, compelling, delivered from a mountain top. They describe the character of those who would enter the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is proclaiming.
The eight "blesseds" (four in Luke, followed by four "woes") are not commands in a Mosaic, legal sense. They do not prescribe or proscribe certain behaviors. Their effect is larger, on the heart and mind. They couple a heart attitude with a reward. They force the listener to ask, “What does it mean to be poor in spirit? to be meek? Do I thirst for righteousness? What is righteousness? What is being pure in heart?” This teaching engages the hearer, it makes him reflect on his conduct, not according to a fixed external standard, because it challenges him first to consider what that standard is.
This is a great departure from Jewish religious teaching of the sort that required memorizing the 613 “mitzvot.” Indeed, much of the course of Jewish learning involved discussing and commenting on not only the laws in the Torah itself, but also the accretions in Talmudic and rabbinic sources. This enterprise was strictly walled off from the non-Jewish world, and was confined to specialists within the community: the learned, the devout, men only.
Jesus’ teaching breaks with this pedantry, but not with the entire Jewish tradition of learning. Rather, the Beatitudes is in the lineage of the Wisdom books, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. As such, his words are accessible to Jewish lay people, men and women, as well as to non-Jews. This was a revolution in religious communication, which we should not overlook . The predominant mode of religious teaching in Israel was like that of nuclear physics or medicine today: restrict it to the highly skilled, highly trained specialists, who have spent decades developing the abilities and concepts essential to understanding the subject. Learning is a filtering process -- the unworthy and unfit are weeded out the higher you go. This is doubly so when intellect is coupled with piety, as in Rabbinical training. Progress is a matter of separation from the ignorant, the unclean, the common. Gentiles are bad, women are bad, many kinds of food are bad, doing most things on the Sabbath is bad. Virtue consists in knowing and following an extensive catalog of things and people to avoid.
Jesus overturns this entire mindset. It is as if he is repackaging the contents of the Old Testament: "You have heard that it was said....but I say to you..." Yet he repeatedly emphasizes the continuity between the prior revelation and His words:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mat 5:17).
Yet the Beatitudes are new. They do not require a foundational understanding of Jewish theology or history. They are accessible to the ordinary man and woman, and most radically, to the spiritually interested Gentile. It's as if Jesus is saying, "Here is what the heart of our faith is about. Everything written in the Scriptures is correct and will be fulfilled, but here is a summary of the kind of life they will produce. The teaching and rituals are only the Means, now let me describe the Ends, the goals." The result of the Beatitudes, and in fact of the entire Sermon on the Mount, is that barriers come down, excuses are gone. Everyone can understand, everyone is responsible. So although Jesus does not speak to Gentiles in his teaching, the fact is that he frames his message in words they can understand. And this undermines the very wall of separation that he purports to respect.