Heschel Center, Catholic University of Lublin: Paradox of the Beatitudes – Jesus reverses the logic of the Hebrew world
photo by KUL Heschel Center
The Beatitudes announced on the mountain recall Mount Horeb, where, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites made a Covenant with God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reverses the logic of this world and is the first to fulfil these beatitudes with his own life. These are the comments on the verses of the Gospel for this Sunday by Bible scholar and theologian Prof. Barbara Strzałkowska from Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw.
In her commentary for the Heschel Center at the Catholic University of Lublin, Prof. Strzałkowska stresses that there is no other text in the Hebrew Bible which would be analogous to such a radically and paradoxically presented teaching. “Can the Greek makarioi, an equivalent of the Hebrew ASHREI meaning ‘happy’, still be sad?” – asks the Bible scholar.
Full commentary to the verses of the Gospel (Mt 5:1-12a) for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
If there is a single Gospel text that typifies and distinguishes Jesus’ teaching in particular, it is certainly the so-called Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew, and especially the very beginning of this discourse that we hear this Sunday: the eight Beatitudes.
It is a veritable constitution of Christian life and the core of Christian doctrine. It was preached on the mountain now known as the Mount of Beatitudes, on the shores of Lake of Gennesaret. The mountain recalls another mountain central to the history of the biblical people of Israel – Mount Horeb – where the Israelites made their Covenant with God after their Exodus from Egypt. Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain, sat down and his disciples came to him; this is how this Gospel passage begins.
The Gospel according to Matthew is constructed in such a way that the principal part of Christ’s teaching includes five speeches made by Jesus (concluded with special statements, respectively in the verses: 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1, and 26:1). For the Jewish followers of Christ, these five discourses were reminiscent of the five books of the Torah. Just as Moses was the lawgiver, the mediator between God and the people on Mount Horeb, Christ is shown as the lawgiver on this mountain of the New Testament but also as someone far greater. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with the following statement: “Jesus finished the discourse and left the crowds spellbound at his teaching. The reason was that he taught with authority and not like their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).
This made the first recipients of the Gospel ask themselves the question that is essentially the heart of the Gospel: who is Jesus? We ourselves reiterate this question. In reply to this question, the followers of Christ say: he is the Son of God and the awaited Messiah. What kind of Messiah is He, though?
This question is answered by the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which consists of the Beatitudes. They first reveal Christ himself. He himself was poor in spirit, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful and suffered persecution for righteousness’ sake. He was like the suffering Servant of the Lord from the Book of Isaiah (52:13-53,12).
The Beatitudes, then, define Christ in the first place, and are supposed to be the path for His disciples. The eight Beatitudes is the ethics of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ. In the Gospel according to Matthew (4:17) Jesus urges us: “Reform your lives! The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Chapters 5-7 define in detail the lifestyle of the members of this kingdom of heaven.
The Beatitudes are paradoxical; can the Greek makarioi, an equivalent of the Hebrew ASHREI meaning ‘happy’, still be sad? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reverses the logic of this world: not only does he forbid one to hate one’s enemies, but urges his followers to love them. He shows the way He himself has taken, the way of the Cross; His cross has become a sign of victory.
God liberates us. However, contrary to some expectations, he does not do so by means of armed intervention and war. Instead, His promises are addressed to the “poor in spirit”, the “meek” and the “humble.” In Judaism, poverty and piety were linked and poverty of spirit was equivalent to reliance on God and His ways, which were sometimes so much surprising.
Christ’s disciples are called to change the world with precisely this logic: the world is changed not by human action, the power of arguments or the arguments of power, but by Christ’s teaching. Seemingly a paradox, it is in fact the way to freedom through Love.
There is no text in the pages of the Hebrew Bible that is analogous to such a radically and paradoxically presented teaching. This novelty of Christianity, a scandal to many, has nevertheless become a force that has genuinely transformed the world. Indeed, can one win by losing? Christ’s logic shows that this is perfectly possible.
Naturally, in the Hebrew Bible we had texts pointing out the happy way, for example, Psalm One, which begins with the words: “Happy the man who … he is like …”
In the Beatitudes, we find promises for those who want to be happy according to the logic of Christ. This is how the first listeners of Jesus may have perceived them. Furthermore, they may have seen them as promises to be fulfilled in the future when God assumes the reign and as referring to those who accept this new message, who are converted because the kingdom of heaven is near. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt has often been portrayed as the prototype of the biblical redemption.
In addition, the Beatitudes contain a promise of redemption. God announces his kingdom, on another mountain in Galilee, as earlier at the foot of Sinai. But this kingdom is to follow His new logic, based – as Christians believe – on Him alone, who is the first to fulfil these blessings with His life.
About the author
Prof. Barbara Strzałkowska from Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University – head of the Department of the Exegesis of the Old Testament and head of studies of Christian Religious Tourism at the University’s Faculty of Theology, an author and editor of books and articles on the Bible; a distinguished guide of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the countries of the Bible.