If we truly repent in light of the coming kingdom, we will treat our neighbors rightly. No one who has humbled himself or herself before God can act with wanton self-interest in relationships. Those with the faith to await the vindication of the righteous in God's kingdom can afford to be righteous, to relinquish the pursuit of their own rights (5:38-42; compare 1 Cor 9:3-23), because they know the just judge will vindicate them as they seek his ways of justice.
Jesus employs a standard Jewish literary form to express this point, a beatitude, which runs like this: "It will go well with the one who . . . for that one shall receive . . ." ("Fortunate" or "it will be well with" may convey the point better than blessed or "happy.") In this context Jesus' beatitudes mean that it will ultimately be well with those who seek first God's kingdom (Mt 6:33).
Because various themes pervade all or many of Matthew's beatitudes here, the principles are summarized by topic rather than by verse in this section of the commentary. Matthew intends his audience to hear all the beatitudes together (his Gospel would have been read in church assemblies), not for them to be taken piecemeal. What themes emerge from these brief pronouncements of blessing?
Jesus lists promises that pertain to the coming kingdom. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven frames most of this section (5:3, 10). All the blessings listed are blessings of the kingdom time. In the time of the kingdom God will "comfort all who mourn in Zion" (Is 61:2); he will satisfy the hunger and thirst of his people (Mt 8:11; 22:2; 26:29; Is 25:6) as in the first exodus (Deut 6:11; 8:17). God's ultimate mercy will be revealed on the day of judgment (1 Enoch 5:5; 12:6; 92:4; Ps. Sol. 16:15). At that time he will ultimately declare the righteous to be his children (Rev 21:7; Jub. 1:24), as he had to a lesser degree at the first exodus (Ex 4:22). God is technically invisible (1QS 11.20; Jos. Apion 2.191), but in the future the righteous will fully see God (1 Enoch 90:35; ARN 1A).
The blessings he promises come only by God's intervention. Because the future kingdom is in some sense present in Jesus, who provides bread (Mt 14:19-20) and comforts the brokenhearted (14:14; compare Lk 4:18), we participate in the spiritual down payment of these blessings in Christ in the present (see Gal 3:14; Eph 1:3). But such blessings come only to the meek-those who wait on God to fight God's battles.
The blessings of the beatitudes are for a people ready for the kingdom's coming. This passage shows what kingdom-ready people should be like; hence it shows us prerequisites for the kingdom as well as kingdom promises.
First, kingdom people do not try to force God's whole will on a world unprepared for it. Many first-century Jews had begun to think that revolutionary violence was the only adequate response to the violence of oppression they experienced. Matthew's first audience no doubt could recall the bankruptcy of this approach, which led to crushing defeat in the war of A.D. 66-73. But Jesus promises the kingdom not to those who try to force God's hand in their time but to those who patiently and humbly wait for it-the meek, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers.
Of course Jesus' demand does not merely challenge the bloodshed of revolution. Peacemakers means not only living at peace but bringing harmony among others; this role requires us to work for reconciliation with spouses, neighbors and all people-insofar as the matter is up to us (Rom 12:18).
Second, God favors the humble, who trust in him rather than their own strength (5:3-9). For one thing, the humble are not easily provoked to anger. These are the poor in spirit, . . . the meek, those who appear in Jewish texts as the lowly and oppressed. Because the oppressed poor become wholly dependent on God (Jas 2:5), some Jewish people used "poor [in spirit]" as a positive religious as well as economic designation. Thus it refers not merely to the materially poor and oppressed but to those "who have taken that condition to their very heart, by not allowing themselves to be deceived by the attraction of wealth" (Freyne 1988:72).
Jesus promises the kingdom to the powerless, the oppressed who embrace the poverty of their condition by trusting in God rather than favors from the powerful for their deliverance. The inequities of this world will not forever taunt the justice of God: he will ultimately vindicate the oppressed. This promise provides us both hope to work for justice and grace to endure the hard path of love.
There are, of course, exceptions, but as a rule it is more common for the poor to be "poor in spirit"; Matthew's poor in spirit does have something to do with Luke's "poor." Surveys in the United States, for example, show that religious commitment is generally somewhat higher among people with less income (Barna 1991:178-81; Gallup and Jones 1992), and Christians in less affluent countries like Nepal, Guatemala, Kenya or China often are prepared to pay a higher price for their faith than most Western Christians. In Bible studies among students from different kinds of colleges and backgrounds I have found that students from poor homes, struggling to pay their way through college, frequently understand this passage better than those students for whom the road is easier. Feeling impressed by the wealth and status of others, the less privileged students are amazed to learn how special they are to God and embrace this message as good news. Those of us who have attained more income or education would do well to imitate their meekness, lest the self-satisfaction and complacency that often accompany such attainments corrupt our faith in Christ (13:22).
Further, these humble people are also those who yearn for God above all else. Luke emphasizes those who hunger physically (Lk 6:21); Matthew emphasizes yearning for God's righteousness more than for food and drink, perhaps also implying that those who hunger physically are in a better position to begin to value God more than food (Mt 5:6; this may include fasting). In this context hungering for righteousness probably includes yearning for God's justice, for his vindication of the oppressed (see Gundry 1982:70); the context also implies that it includes yearning to do God's will (5:20; 6:33; 21:32; 23:29). This passage reflects biblical images of passion for God, longing for him more than for daily food or drink (Job 23:12; Ps 42:1-2; 63:1, 5; Jer 15:16; compare Mt 4:4). God and his Word should be the ultimate object of our longing (Ps 119:40, 47, 70, 92, 97, 103).
"Mourners" here (5:4) may thus refer especially to the repentant (Joel 1:13; see also Jas 4:9-10; Lev 23:29; 26:41), those who grieve over their people's sin (Tobit 13:14). Given the promise of comfort, however, the term probably also applies more broadly to those who are broken, who suffer or have sustained personal grief and responded humbly (see Fenton 1977:368). God is near the brokenhearted (Ps 51:17) and will comfort those who mourn (Is 61:1-3); the people of the kingdom are the humble, not the arrogant. The pure in heart (Mt 5:8) in Psalm 73 refers to those who recognize that God alone is their hope.
Likewise, this lifestyle of meekness Jesus teaches challenges not only Jewish revolutionaries but all Christians in our daily lives. If we are to walk in love toward our enemies (Mt 5:43), how much more should we walk in love toward those closest us (compare 5:46-47; 22:36-40)? I am always awed by the presence of the truly humble-like three of my friends from Ethiopia, one of whom was imprisoned by the old Marxist regime for a year and two of whom led about two thousand fellow Ethiopians to Christ in their refugee camp. Not only did these brothers regularly offer me their most gracious hospitality when I visited them, but every time I came they would insist on my teaching them the Bible-though I am sure that I had far more to learn from them!