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For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

January 9, 2012

I’ve been reading Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy recently. The book focuses on the Beatitudes and is fairly well-known for providing an alternate approach to these often-preached-upon verses. Willard disagrees with a common reading in which each characteristic listed in the Beatitudes is a virtue. Instead, he suggests that Jesus is actually announcing blessings for those who would be least expected to get them. We shouldn’t, he says, strive to be poor in spirit. That’s not an enviable condition at all. However, God, in His mercy, will bring the Kingdom even to these.

I’m interested both in this debate and in a larger question: how do the interpretations we reach impact our lives? The Beatitudes seem like an excellent test case. If we take the view Willard opposes then we will strive to figure out what we should be mourning about or what it looks like to be meek. (This latter example is not random. I’m familiar with some teaching on exactly that subject which appears to me to bear the marks of distortion to make being meek significantly more palatable.) If we adopt Willard’s view then we shouldn’t strive for any of these things. Instead, we should be joyful that the Kingdom of God has come to the downtrodden and to the losers.

Before we follow this line of thought any further, we need to answer the first question: how should the Beatitudes be read? It is hubris to offer my opinion on this but I will anyway after first restricting the conversation to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 as Luke’s version is different and, presumably, accomplishes different purposes.

One of the reasons I wish to offer my interpretation is that I think a number of things about the standard model could be wrong and by suggesting a reading with some different presuppositions maybe some of these “givens” can be re-examined. The first thing I’d like to suggest is that the Beatitudes are repetitive because that is the Hebrew poetic form. I’ve frequently seen the eight conditions listed represented as a collection of eight central virtues, eight conditions that cover the span of some human experience, or eight steps in sequence. Instead, I’d like to suggest that they are variations on one thought. This is how Hebrew poetry often works. Take Psalm 34. The opening lines read (NIV):

“I will extol the LORD at all times;

his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;

let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;

let us exalt his name together.”

I picked this psalm at random, looked it up, and yet found exactly what I expected from Hebrew poetry: repetition. The lines work on one theme. The first two lines and the last two lines are pairs of parallels. The middle set is less clearly parallel but it fits with the theme of the larger block. Were we to treat Psalm 34 like we treat the Beatitudes, though, we would be busy trying to figure out how praise always being on our lips differs from extolling the Lord at all times.

Given this, the Beatitudes need not contain eight separate points. Indeed, I find that I manage to agree and disagree with both Willard and the interpretation that he dislikes. Willard’s model is clearly better for the opening lines of the Beatitudes. Being poor in spirit and mourning just don’t sound good. Being meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness also involve some unpleasantness – the meek are downtrodden by the arrogantly powerful while one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is probably someone who is seeing a lot of evil. (It is worth noting that “righteousness” has links to justice. In Psalm 103 verse 6, for instance, the Lord works justice and righteousness for the oppressed. In Greek the link is also apparent in the words: the Greek word for “righteous” is related to the Greek word for justice. A righteous person is in the right and justice will vindicate them against their oppressors.) Indeed, the blessings these people receive suggest that all are in a state of want. The poor in spirit (a bit obscure) receive the Kingdom (a bit vague), but those who mourn are, predictably, comforted, those who are meek receive an inheritance (which cannot be taken from them by those who view them as pushovers), and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled.

However, when Willard’s model is applied to categories like “pure in heart” and “merciful”, I find it as much of a strain as the other model is for the first lines. Moreover, there seems to be a switch in how the blessings come to them. Those who mourn are comforted – their need is filled. Those who are merciful, on the other hand, are shown mercy – their righteousness is their reward. This pattern continues through “peacemakers”. For this reason I think the second set of conditions are ones we should strive to have.

What about the last line? I only separate it out because it contains the only repeated blessing: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. This blessing doesn’t really fit either pattern for either location in which it appears. It’s too broad. Maybe that’s the point. It begins and ends the Beatitudes and probably summarizes them. The blessings of the Kingdom include everything listed between the two “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” statements.

In Matthew’s gospel the last line continues on into the next thought as well. Jesus goes on to discuss persecution in an Old Testament context, making a point about how people react to God’s work amongst them. However, the rest of Matthew 5 is beyond the scope of this article.

Effectively, then, I think that the Beatitudes in Matthew consist of two parts. Both announce for whom the Kingdom of God is intended. The first part announces that it is for the oppressed. It’s not here to make the rich richer, the powerful stronger, and to give the kings more territory. It’s for the broken, the weeping, and those who always get the short end of the stick. God will overturn things (a familiar theme from both Mary’s and Hannah’s songs when these women realized that they were pregnant with children who would deliver Israel) and set things right.

The second part of the Beatitudes announces that the Kingdom of God is for the virtuous. It’s not, it’s worth noting, for the Torah-scholar, the scribe, and the priest. It’s not about virtues that one needs to have money and social position to practice: it’s for those who really love God’s ways. The Kingdom of God is coming and it knows its own. It knows who wants to see justice done and who would rather have the status quo, who wants a pure heart and who would rather clean only the outside of the vessel.

All of this serves to launch into a greater sermon which, I suspect, is meant to echo Sinai in location and scope. A new Law for a new Kingdom and obviously we must start by announcing the nature of this Kingdom. But what does this do for us? If I’m right (which is an if) what would we have gained by picking through poetic forms, the nature of the responses, and the subsections?

Obviously, if we’ve done this right then we’ve gained truth. The issue is that some of us are unsure what one does with true facts other than bludgeon others in debate. But it’s the truth and the truth should set us free. Surely even those of us who find that statement cryptic would probably not claim that lies are more likely to free us.

I’m going to be really practical here. We get principles out of this. Who’s the Kingdom of God for? The downtrodden. God cares about the weeping, the broken, the poor, the sick, and the miserable. So should we. In context, these people are also unexpected people to receive the Kingdom. Their awful condition would have suggested to many of their peers that they were cursed by God not loved by Him.

So the Kingdom of God is coming to those who you might not expect. In fact, more broadly, the Kingdom of God is being offered to everyone. Who do you think the Kingdom of God isn’t for? Well, you’re wrong. This isn’t to say that the Kingdom of God has no limits on who gets in, but it’s being offered to everyone. Practically this means we need to offer God’s Kingdom and the grace, mercy, and love that comes with it, to everyone. Especially the ones we’d rather leave behind. The Kingdom of God is competing with crystal meth for the meth-head’s heart but that’s the point – it’s competing, not passing him by. Are we also engaged in this competition or are we writing people off? You’re a better person than me by far if you’ve never written anyone off.

In fact, we can even apply the Beatitudes to some simple Christian questions. When someone wonders if people who are depressed are failing to trust Jesus enough we can look to the Beatitudes and see that God is actually coming to rescue those who need help. Moreover, He’s coming to offer hope to those you are tempted to think He is punishing. So throw AIDS victims in there, too.

Secondly, the Kingdom of God is for the righteous. Yes, the Kingdom of God wants you to give up on meth, and prostitutes, and killing stray cats for kicks, and screaming at your children in drunken fits of rage. It wants you to leave a lot more than that behind. But that’s because the Kingdom has a different set of rules. Do you love God’s goodness? Lip service is easy; transformation is hard. The Beatitudes ask us to go beyond lip service and enter into the ways of God’s Kingdom. Moreover, they don’t ask us to conform to external rules – the Beatitudes don’t say “Blessed are those who’ve given more than ten percent of their gross income to the poor this year,” they bless those whose internal state is aimed at God. This is, of course, because simply trying to follow the rules with a heart that hates them is a hopeless, depressing, failure of a project. God wants us to be a new sort of people, ones in whom His image shines clear. This is also clear, practical advice. It’s very hard advice, but it is, ironically, less difficult than attempting to clean up the outside of the bowl while the inside remains a mess.

I don’t know if I’ve made the Beatitudes any clearer in this article or whether I’ve made points that are new or exciting. I do hope, though, that by directly connecting a careful reading of the Bible to facts on the ground I’ve made an important point about why one should read the Bible, and read it carefully, and try to get things right.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    January 10, 2012 10:47 am

    Thank you Eric for a most refreshing exposition and for re-issuing the challenge that is so clearly present in all of your writings – read, re-read and understand.

  2. Eric permalink
    January 10, 2012 11:15 pm

    Thanks. I thought it was time for another good exegetical article. These take more time to write but I can’t neglect them.

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