We have all watched a play or read a novel that moves at a fast pace, but suddenly slows down and presents us the quintessential part of the play or novel. In some ways, the sudden change in pace makes us pay close attention to what comes next. This is true of the narrative context of the Beatitudes as well.
Jesus has been on a mission - and in a hurry. He has just announced that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and invited people to repent. He essentially called upon people to turn their backs on existing structures of power and join the new movement. Just a small ask!
He has recruited disciples to be agents of the new movement. He went about healing every disease, sickness, and demon-possession that he encountered. And he acquired several million Twitter followers in a matter of days. No, the last part is not in the gospel. But everything else is.
Here in this text, Jesus slows down - actually, sits down - and delivers the most significant sermon of his ministry. One that becomes his manifesto for the new community. Like an effective communicator and leader of a budding movement, Jesus wants his would-be followers to know what they are getting into. The Beatitudes reveal what the new community will look like.
We all know what “blessed” means, right? The word “blessed” is used so frequently in popular culture, literature, and in sermons. We know who the blessed are: it is the wealthy, the healthy, and the most powerful. They are what some might call “the winners.”
But as Jesus tells it in the Beatitudes, that is not who the blessed are in the new kingdom. Rather, it is the poor in spirit, the people who mourn, the hungry, and the oppressed. To put it bluntly, every single person who is called blessed in the Beatitudes is what some might call “the losers.”
The Beatitudes are a deeply subversive text in the American context. Whereas the culture frequently associates the word “blessed” with the wealthy, the healthy, and the powerful, Jesus makes it clear that it is precisely the poor, the sick, and the people who mourn that are entitled to his blessings.
But what makes them blessed? Surely, Jesus is not condoning their poverty, sickness, or oppression. So what does it mean for the poor to claim the kingdom of heaven? And what will comfort look like for those who mourn?
The most common translation of Matthew 5:4 is: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. This translation does not fully capture the force of the Greek word at the end - parakleytheysontai - which is derived front he Greek word paraclete. Every major Greek lexicon notes that, in the first century Greek or Roman context, the word “paraclete” meant an advocate, specifically a legal advocate. A paraclete was someone you called to stand by your side, and stand with you, in order to advocate for you.
Now, I know a lot of advocates. They are not in the business of handing out tissues to their clients who have been wronged. Well, they might hand out tissues, but pretty quickly they will put their arms around their clients and say, “Hey, I have got your back. I will go into that courtroom and fight for you.”
Within this use of paraclete, Matthew 5:4 should be translated as, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be advocated on behalf of.” That is, “blessed are those who mourn, because someone will advocate for them.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with offering comfort to victims of oppression. In fact, it might often be the first helpful response. But if someone consistently substitutes comfort for advocacy, we need to be asking this question: Whose interests are served in the process? And whose needs are undermined? As Walter Brueggemann says in a recent Church Anew piece, “We should refuse to be comforted in the face of social failure.”
If we apply his insight to the Beatitudes, it would mean refusing to be in the business of comforting the oppressed when they actually need something more than comfort. If we consistently privilege comfort over advocacy, we will end up comforting the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Turning one’s weeping into joy takes advocacy. Not advocacy instead of comfort, but in addition to it.
I remember my first English class. The teacher told us to avoid using the passive voice. He told us that they use of passive verbs amounts to bad grammar. And yet, I turn to the Beatitudes, and there is the passive verb. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be advocated on behalf of.” In fact, many of the Beatitudes are in the passive voice: they will be advocated for, they will be filled, they will be shown mercy, they will be called children of God. Which makes you ask: who will advocate for those who mourn? Who will fill the hungry? Who will show mercy to the merciful? And who will call the peacemakers “the children of God?”
One can suggest that it is the divine passive, and that God is the agent of these actions. That might well be true. But the open-ended nature of the verbs in the Beatitudes allows, even calls for, the human agency. Not instead of the divine agency, but in combination with the divine agency.
The human agency in the Beatitudes takes on additional significance when one reads the text within the literary context where Jesus has invited the disciples to promote the ethos of the new kingdom. The emphasis on the human agency – that is, the church and the larger community – suggests that, when we see oppressed people, the question should not be: Where is God when people are mourning, hungry, treated brutally by the police, and denied justice in the courtroom? Rather, the question should be: Where is God’s community and what is it doing to address the situation of suffering? The Beatitudes offer a promise of liberation to those at the margins. They also invite everyone with privilege and power to make the liberation a reality.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to advocate for the oppressed and do everything in our capacity to reverse their situation of suffering. When we see people weeping because of hunger, police brutality, or gun violence, our response cannot be limited to words of comfort. Words of comfort should become catalysts for action rather than substitutes for action.
But the oppressed are not objects of our compassion or passive recipients of help. They themselves have an agency in the process of realizing their blessings. Many of the Beatitudes use active verbs in the second part – they will inherit the kingdom of God, they will see God, and so on. The active verbs suggest that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation. Rather than turn the oppressed into objects of compassion, those of us with power must acknowledge their agency and work with them to facilitate the blessings that Jesus promised.
We are all blessed when we work to create the kind of community that Jesus envisioned.