The “Blessed are you…” and “Woe is you…” sayings.
Matthew 5.2-12 • Luke 6.20-26
A lot of Jesus’s teachings are bunched together as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. They overlap a bunch, so I’m going through ’em together. And both of them begin with beatitudes.
Beatitude is an old-timey word for “blessing.” Most translations follow the King James Version’s lead and begins each line with “Blessed are the…” as Jesus lists the sucky, not-so-great situation which these folks are groaning under. They’re poor. Mourning. Humble. Starving for justice. Merciful in a world without mercy. Pure-hearted in a dirty culture. Striving for peace where there’s nothing but rage and fear. Getting hunted down, mocked, slandered, driven out. These things sure don’t sound like blessings.
Let’s be blunt: They’re not. We’re not blessed with poverty, misery, no justice, no peace, and persecution.
I’ll explain. But first let’s get to the beatitudes of these two gospels.
Matthew 5.2-12 KWL
- 2 Opening his mouth, Jesus taught them, saying:
- 3 “The spiritually poor: How awesome!—the heavenly kingdom is theirs.
- 4 Those mourning: How awesome!—they’ll be comforted.
- 5 The gentle: How awesome!—they’ll inherit the land.
- 6 Those hungry and thirsty for justice: How awesome!—they’ll be filled.
- 7 The merciful: How awesome!—they’ll be shown mercy.
- 8 Those of clean mind: How awesome!—they’ll see God.
- 9 Those making peace: How awesome!—they’ll be called God’s children.
- 10 Those hunted down because of justice: How awesome!—the heavenly kingdom is theirs.
- 11 When people condemn you, hunt you down, say everything evil against you, lie,
- all because of me: How awesome you are!
- 12 Rejoice and celebrate for your great reward in heaven!
- For they persecuted the prophets before you this way.”
Luke 6.20-23 KWL
- 20 Jesus, lifting his eyes to his students, said:
- “The poor: How awesome!—God’s kingdom is yours.
- 21 Those hungry now: How awesome!—you’ll be filled.
- Those crying now: How awesome!—you’ll laugh.
- 22 When the people hate you, segregate you, condemn and throw out your names as if evil,
- because of me: How awesome you are!
- 23 Rejoice on that day! Skip! Look at your great reward in heaven!
- Their ancestors did likewise to the prophets.”
Yeah, you likely noticed I went with a much different translation of makárioi than the typical “blessed.”
It’s because language evolves, folks.
Now, if you wanted one word for impressively great, back then it was “blessed.” But nowadays “blessed” either means holy or approved of. Doesn’t have the impact which the Greek word makários is supposed to convey. “Awesome” does. So that’s what I went with.
“Awesome” isn’t meant to describe the crummy situations people suffer from. Jesus wasn’t saying, “The poor in spirit are awesome.” There’s no estín/“are” in that part of the sentence. The
God’s kingdom has come to put an end to suffering.
- The spiritually poor in Matthew, the literally poor in Luke, and the fugitive: They get to receive the kingdom. As do we all, but these are the folks who really need it most.
- The mourning get comfort, and the crying get to laugh.
- The gentle get land. I know; this sounds weird to a lot of Christians. (Sounds weirder in the
KJV: “The meek” get to “inherit the earth.”) But the gentle weren’t the people trying, at the time, to overthrow the Roman occupation in order to get their land back. That’d be the zealous. That’s literally what they called themselves; the zilotaí. They didn’t control their emotions; they were pissed. And they didn’t inherit the land either; 40 years later the Romans finally had enough, and wiped ’em out. But the gentle survived.
- Those of clean mind (literally of kardía/“heart,” but the ancients believed we think with the heart, so “mind” is a proper translation) get to see God. And why not? A clean mind means we’ve not filled it with sin, and for us, sin makes God cloudy… if not invisible.
- Those making peace get called God’s children. It’s the devil’s children who make war and chaos—who pretend they’re interested in peace through strength, but who are itching for the chance to show that strength off in warfare.
- Those hungry for justice, and those who are literally hungry: They’ll be filled. Either way. God wants to meet that need.
Certain scholars like to notice the Matthew beatitudes have kind of a chiastic (meaning “X-shaped”) structure, because Jesus said “the heavenly kingdom is theirs” twice, at what they consider the first and last beatitudes. Which isn’t really the last, ’cause they’re skipping the extra-long beatitude in verses 11-12.
- 3 The spiritually poor …get the kingdom.
- 4 Those mourning …get comfort.
- 5 The gentle …get land.
- 6 Those hungry and thirsty for justice …get filled.
- 7 The merciful …get mercy.
- 8 Those of clean mind …get God-experiences.
- 9 Those making peace …get praise.
- 10 Those hunted down because of justice …get the kingdom.
- 11-12 Those condemned, hunted, slandered …get a heavenly reward.
Anyway, they try to find a parallel between mourning and peace-making, comfort and praise; between gentleness and a clean mind, land and seeing God; between justice and mercy, getting filled and mercy. Since a lot of these traits are fruit of the Spirit, stands to reason there’ll be some similarities. But really they’re playing connect-the-dots, looking for a pattern which isn’t actually there. Trying to solve hidden puzzles instead of learning Jesus’s lesson.
In the Luke beatitudes it’s more obvious there’s no such structure. It’s just poor, hungry, crying, hassled; receiving the kingdom, fullness, laughter, and reward. Those who don’t have, receive.
That’s the lesson. In the kingdom (both now and when Jesus returns), God makes everything right.
Jesus says this to give us hope. Something positive to look to. When we’re in the middle of rough times—a lack of justice, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, and comfort; when people just plain aren’t treating us right—rejoice. Celebrate. Because you will be fully compensated by God for it. Fully.
Skeptics mock this idea because they think it means, “Live in denial. You’re suffering now, but just concentrate on the afterlife: Pie in the sky when you die, by and by.” And y’know, some Christians actually do teach it that way. But it’s not what Jesus means.
Yes, Jesus’s reward awaits us. But he doesn’t say here—or anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount—that this reward is only for the age to come. He puts no time limit on when the kingdom will arrive. He uses future-tense verbs, but he doesn’t say “they’ll be comforted” or “they’ll be filled” or “you’ll laugh” after he returns. They happen when they happen. When God moves his hand. Often they happen in this life. God isn’t withholding his blessings till the End.
And for that matter, the rest of the Sermon has some very specific directions to us, for us to help alleviate the suffering in the world. Some of the reason these blessings are coming, is ’cause Christians regularly get off our behinds and make ’em happen. We fight injustice. We comfort the mourning. We feed the hungry. We house the refugees. We stand up for the condemned, the persecuted, the slandered. We do. Assuming we’re legitimately following Jesus.
We’re part of God’s kingdom, after all. The kingdom is here now, and is made obvious when Christians act like it’s here. So act like it!
In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus followed his positives with some negatives. Unlike Matthew there is a parallel here. Jesus said the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hassled are awesome; now he says the wealthy, the full, the laughing, and the praised are not. He used the Greek exclamation uaí, which means the same as the Hebrew oy: “Woe,” or “Sadness.”
Me, I figured I’d just use a parallel English word to “awesome” which carries the same idea.
Luke 6.24-26 KWL
- 24 “But the wealthy: How awful for you—you’ve been encouraged long enough.
- 25 Those who’ve been full now: How awful for you—you’ll be hungry.
- Those laughing now: How awful for you—you’ll cry.
- 26 When the people say everything good about you: How awful.
- Their ancestors did likewise to the fake prophets.”
Problem is, people too often assume when Jesus said “Woe is you,” he cursed you. No he didn’t. Uaí is an expression of sympathy: Jesus was mourning for these people, for they had no idea their pursuit of money, comfort, happiness, and recognition was simply ruining them for the kingdom.
See, if you’re comfortable now, you don’t want a Kingdom Come. You’re fine with this kingdom. If the United States is the greatest country in the world, those who love this nation don’t want Jesus to overthrow it and establish his. If we have the best economy, the freest markets, the greatest opportunities, and we’re sitting on fat stacks of cash, we don’t want Jesus to topple it, regulate it, and especially redistribute it.
If we’re happy now, we have serious suspicions about life under Jesus. How many teenage Christians have begged Jesus not to return before they could lose their virginity? How many gamers, addicted to first-person shooters, worry this particular type of video game won’t be allowed in the heavenly kingdom? How many music fans are scared to death the Fundamentalists will be set in charge of what we get to listen to?—that all the good rock music (and musicians) are headed for hell, and all we’ll be stuck with is white gospel music for all eternity? (Lord forbear! As bad as K-L
If we’re getting praised now…. This verse always made me worry about getting compliments. If people are speaking well of me now, does that mean I’m losing some heavenly reward? I don’t wanna miss out on some prize Jesus has for me, just because somebody at my church thanked me for some lesson I taught, or some video I produced. But no, that isn’t what Jesus means. He’s talking about unmerited public acclaim. You know, like reality show celebrities.
The lesson here: If we’re doing just fine in this age, we’re not gonna get ready for the next one. We’re not gonna groan, with the rest of creation, because we want God to finish the job.
I’m not saying we should rather want to suffer, or should strive to suffer. Loads of Christians make that mistake. They deprive themselves, or physically hurt themselves, and suffer for no good reason. Or they take really trivial inconveniences and exaggerate them into “suffering for Jesus.” They offer these things to God like Cain offered fruit
But if you are suffering, there’s hope. And if you’re making yourself nice ’n comfortable in this world, just to warn you: You’re killing that hope. Don’t do that!