As we encounter the Beatitudes, the first major question is how to best translate the Greek word makarios (μακάριος), most often translated "blessed." It has also been translated as "happy," and even "congratulations." Tom Wright translates it "Wonderful news for you!" Makarios is a difficult concept to grasp with one English word.(1) Part of the problem is that no translation is done without a context, not only within the context of the original document, but also the context of the translator figures in as well. The reason that "happy" is not a good translation of makarios is that too often we read back into the beatitudes our context in which happiness is a feeling and often connected to twenty-first century notions of the good life and prosperity. But all one has to do is to take a cursory glance at the list to know that prosperity and a trouble-free existence are not on the mind of Jesus-- "blessed are those who mourn," "blessed are those who are persecuted." But understanding what is meant by the word makarios is critical. As Scot McKnight rightly notes, "...on this one word the entire passage stands and from this one word the whole list hangs. Get this word right, the rest falls into place; get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart."(2)
Scot offers to us five major themes that provide the context for the beatitudes.(3) I only outline them here. We will return to them as we look at each beatitude individually.
"First the one who is blessed is blessed by the God of Israel." One cannot rightly read the Sermon on the Mount apart from the Old Testament and God's covenant with Israel. God blesses God's obedient people.
"Second, there is a clear eschatological focus in the word blessed." The attention here is on present blessing and future blessing as well; but the future is not only a reference to a time yet to come. The eschatological blessing Jesus speaks of begins in the present. Gushee and Stassen rightly point out that the Beatitudes echo Isaiah 61:1-11. (4)
"A third theme at work is conditionality." Those who are blessed have a certain character; those who do not are cursed. The beatitudes are not virtues to strive for; they are blessings for the obedient in the midst of persecution, poverty, and marginalization. Scot notes, "...God's eyes are on all and God knows those who are living properly, regardless of their circumstances and condition." Context is not a result of blessedness as is so often understood to be the case-- e.g. wealth and power are the result of blessing. Instead the blessed are those who remain faithful in the midst of circumstances beyond their control. Indeed, if blessedness is conditional, then those in positions of wealth and power need to be concerned that their situation is a result of a certain character that results in being cursed. Thus, wealth and power are not the result of blessing; they are the result of a character disobedient to the covenant. While Matthew does not explicitly mention the character of those who are cursed, in Jesus' Jewish context it is clearly implied. Luke makes the curses, the woes, explicit in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:22-26)
"Fourth, this list concerns the person's relational disposition." In the beatitudes Jesus not only has one's relationship to God in mind, but also one's relationship to others. Some of the beatitudes are focused on one's relationship to God-- e.g. "pure in heart" and "hungering and thirsting for righteousness," while others directly concern the relationship of persons to each other-- "merciful" and "peacemakers." It is clear from the Bible that one cannot love God without also loving others.
"A final theme: reversal or contrast. In the beatitudes, Jesus seems to bless all the wrong people. We normally consider the rich as blessed and those with power and influence as blessed. But here, Jesus stands the state of blessed on its head. The kingdom Jesus brings reflects a character that is topsy-turvy in a world where might makes right and wealth and success are the primary goals of living. Scot rightly notes, "Jesus blesses those whom no one else blessed." He concludes,
...a "blessed" person is someone who, because of a heart for God, is promised and enjoys God's favor regardless of that person's status."So, "blessed" does appear to be the best translation of the word mainly because others translations are less acceptable. I do like Tom Wright's way of trying to capture makarios-- "Wonderful news for you!" but in our context the word "blessed" carries with it divine approval, so I opt for the most common translation of makarios.
So, Jesus is now on the mountain, a clearly symbolic image of Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. But unlike Moses, Jesus does not merely receive the law, give it to the people and speak as a prophet; he is one who puts the Law of Moses in Kingdom context, and he speaks uniquely for God as no one else has or ever will. Indeed, Jesus speaks as the voice of God.
(1) Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15, pp. 34-35.
(2) Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, p. 32.
(3) McKnight, pp. 33-35.
(4) David Gushee and Glen Stassen, Kingdom Ethics, p. 24.