Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Beatitudes

Adventus has a really thoughtful post on the Beatitudes. The essay notes that both Luke and Matthew are clear references to curses and blessings of Deuteronomy 27, which was intended to be a ritual text in Judiasm, and then makes some very interesting observations:

Rituals are not rote acts repeated mindlessly because the people are sheep and puppets; they are islands in the sea of time which connect us to the past and the future in an ever-changing present. Ritual is another way of forming identity. Which casts an interesting new light on the Beatitudes. When Jesus speaks these words, they resonate with the history of Israel; interestingly, too, they resonate more for Luke, the Gentile, than for Matthew, the Jew; but that's another issue.

The source of the Beatitudes is clearly performative language: the priest announces each one, and the people say "Amen" ("so be it"). Now Jesus replaces the priests (and, by inference, Moses) with new performative language. And that language is clearly meant to recall, and to reinterpret, this language. But notice where the emphasis falls in this chain of curse and blessings: it falls on everyday life. These are not the sweeping pronouncements of the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not kill." How many of us have to worry about violating that one in daily life?), but the day to day issues of living in community. "Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen."

. . .

It has been noted before that Matthew generalizes, or "spiritualizes" the Beatitudes, while Luke makes them concrete. The "poor" in Luke are "poor in spirit" in Matthew. The ones who are hungry now in Luke are the ones who "hunger and thrist after righteousness" in Matthew. And Matthew leaves out any mention of curses, which Luke, like the original, links directly to to the blessings. But both versions serve their disparate purposes: to announce the presence of the kingdom of God, and to declare by declaring blessings on precisely those on the margins: not the stranger, fatherless, and widow this time, but the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the hungry, the peacemakers. These words originally re-announced the covenant of Israel: "Deuteronomy" is the title from the Septuagint for this fifth book of Moses, and it means roughly "restatement of the law." It was drafted after the Exile, as a restatement of the continuing covenant between the generation which never knew Jerusalem, and the God of their ancestors. It is a liturgy pronounced in the aftermath of Exile, hearkening back to a time when that Exile was unimaginable and unimagined. It is, in short, an act of healing. Which gives us an even better context for the pronouncement of the blessings and curses of the Beatitudes.


Read it all.

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