Monday, June 30, 2008

Beatitudes, Part 1

When I read the Bible, one of the first and most important questions I ask is, "What did this mean to the original hearers?" By understanding what a scripture would have meant to those who originally heard it, we are more likely to accurately understand what it means to us today.

Some of this information about the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-10) is provided for us at the end of Matthew 4:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis [Ten Cities], Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. - Matthew 4:23-25

Segue to Matthew 5:1:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying...

What this tells us is that the crowd whom Jesus was speaking to were a very diverse bunch. Northern Judea, which included Galilee, was a racially mixed area. Although the land was Jewish, it was also heavily populated by non-Jews. The Decapolis were ten cities which were grouped together as strongholds of Roman culture. Gentiles were the majority population of the Decapolis. Of course, Jerusalem was predominantly Jewish. The picture Matthew paints then is one of a mixed crowd following Jesus throughout the Northern Judea region. They were probably mixed in terms not only of race but also of economic status. This is still true today.

The first part of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount to this throng of followers has come to be called The Beatitudes. Beati is Latin for blessed. Beatitudes means Blessings. Jesus didn't speak Latin (that we know of). He probably spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. Later theologians chose to call this section of Jesus's speech The Beatitudes because each line begins with the word "Blessed". Most likely though, Jesus gave the speech in either Aramaic or Koine (or Common) Greek, which was the lingua franca of the day. Koine Greek was to the Roman Empire of the 1st century what English is to the world today: a common trade language. Strangely, many Jews of the day did not speak or write Hebrew, but did use it's variant, Aramaic. If Jesus spoke The Beatitudes in Greek, the word that Jesus used, which is translated as blessed was makarios. Matthew's gospel seems to have been originally written in Greek and so, even if Jesus spoke only Aramaic, the writer of Matthew used the word makarios.

Makarios could also be translated as "happy" or "lucky". Have you ever been to the mall at Christmas-time, cruising around looking for a parking space when you suddenly spot one right in front of the store? That's makarios! Or have you ever put on a jacket that you haven't worn in a year and put your hand in the pocket, only to find a $20.00 bill? That's makarios! Or, as Napoleon Dynamite would say:

Mmmm. Maybe not.

The ancient Greeks originally used the word makarios to refer to their gods. Life was short and brutal and filled with misery on earth, but the gods on Mount Olympus had it easy. They were the the lucky ones. The word makarios came to be used to describe anyone who was rich or powerful. A common belief in ancient times was that wealth and influence were signs of God's favor upon a person.

If you were an average, rank & file Jew living in 1st century Judea, you probably didn't think of yourself as makarios. You lived under the iron boot of the Roman occupiers. Your own king, Herod, was a sadistic despot and a puppet to the Roman Empire. Your High Priest and civic leaders were corrupt. Life was hard. A lot of Jewish people wondered when God would send a deliverer--perhaps a warlord like Judas Maccabeus a few generations earlier or, going farther back in history, a David or a Gideon or a Samson or a Moses. If God was truly the God, and we were his chosen people, then why was He allowing the pagans to rule over us?

There were different opinions about this among the various Jewish sects. One group, the Sadducees, was comprised of men with wealth and power, including the High Priest. They didn't want to rock the boat. Another group, the Zealots, believed that armed rebellion was the only solution and that if they began a war against the Romans, God would raise up a warrior-messiah. Another group, the Essenes distanced themselves from the whole mess--living in compounds out in the wilderness where they strived for purity and awaited the messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls were produced by the Essenes. Another group, the Pharisees took pride in their success at observing strict adherence to the Torah--the laws of Leviticus, and the Talmud--the labyrinthian interpretations of those laws. They believed that if all of the Jews would toe the line and follow their strict interpretation of the Law, then God's judgment would come to an end and the Romans would be cast out of the land.

Your average Jew, however, was probably just worried about how to feed his family and get through another day.

It's among these average people that Jesus was born and where Jesus spent most of His time. Fishermen and farmers, prostitutes and lepers. Gypsies, tramps and thieves... no wait, that's a song by Cher ...anyway, you get the idea: The down-and-out, the hoi polloi, the proletariat, the little people, the insignificants, the nobodies.

But Jesus doesn't just identify with them. He says to them, "The rich and powerful? They aren't the lucky ones. You are the lucky ones! You are the ones favored by God!"

Jesus turns the whole system upside-down.

I was sitting with a group of inmates once and we had just read through the Beatitudes. One of the men let out a long sigh. He had tears in his eyes and stared hard down at the table. I had come to know this man. He was at rock bottom, having come face-to-face with the effects of his alcoholism. His wife had recently divorced him and was already engaged to re-marry. Another man ("a good man", he freely admitted) would be raising his children. Now he had wound up in jail; broken, ashamed, filled with self-condemnation. He saw each line of The Beatitudes as something he would have to try to measure up to and would probably fail at.

"I'll never be able to do all that.", he said, softly.

"You already have done most of it.", I told him. "You're already there."

He was stunned. And then a look came over his face as if the proverbial lightbulb had just come on. "Ahhhh.", he said, with a nod and a smile. A new set of tears filled his eyes.

The Beatitudes aren't a checklist of how to earn God's approval. The Beatitudes were good news to the average people who first heard them, just as they are good news to average struggling people today. The Beatitudes don't so much describe how to become a person of God; rather, they describe how to recognize a person of God.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn't say "Blessed will you be if..."

He says--
to the people who lack the influence of the Sadducees,
to the people who don't want the murderous hatred of the Zealots,
to the people who aren't accepted in the holy outposts of the Essenes,
to the people who can't measure up to the religious rigor of the Pharisees,
to the rejects and underdogs, He says
--blessed are you.

Like my inmate friend, I think there came from the people who first heard Jesus speak the Beatitudes, a collective "Ahhhh."


Anonymous Dave from FBFF said...

While I agree that the meaning of the Beatitudes you stated (to the rejects and underdogs, He says --blessed are you) is a part of the overall meaning, I don't think it's the only meaning. For instance, there are several statements of attitudes that aren't necessarily the result of a life as an underdog or reject.
The meek, pure in heart, merciful and a hunger and thirst for righteousness don't seem to be byproducts of suffering or rejection necessarily, but would be attitudes in those who want God and the truth more than anything.
To my mind, Jesus is painting a portrait of someone who has rejected the world's way to find life and success and instead chooses God's way, which is radically different.
Just my thoughts.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Danny Coleman said...

Agreed Dave. I may have overemphasized the point in this initial post. I'm going to go into more detail in upcoming posts, so stay tuned and let me know what you think. Thanks for the comment!

11:34 AM  

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