Anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with Matthew will be aware that it has an interesting structure. Chronology is not at the forefront of the evangelist’s mind; rather he intended to write a work structured around thematic blocks of teaching, separated by narrative (which also performs a didactic role). The first of the has been termed the Sermon on the Mount, derived from its introductory verses (5.1-2). How then does the account kick start his teaching? A selection of sayings known as the Beatitudes, or Blessings.
To understand their purpose in the work is to understand their position. They are an introduction of sorts. But Jesus was evidently aware that his teaching built on that which came before him and so here it also serves as a bridging passage, between the Biblical tradition he inherited and the teachings of Jesus himself. The evangelist wants both; its positioning, therefore, has a dual purpose.
Firstly, although not a single Beatitude is a quote from the Hebrew Bible, they would still have a familiar sound. The formula of ‘blessed are x, for they will y’ is common enough. The Psalms begin with one such example (Ps 1.1-3). So this collection of sayings in Matthew would immediately invoke the past tradition. This is made implicit at the end of the Beatitudes, with the phrase ‘for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (v.12). The teachings are introduced with a call back to the past.
However, one might be forgiven if they read the Beatitudes as foreshadowing the future. After all, they do appear to be talking about groups of people in the present and their fate in times to come. This is only a half-truth. Most importantly, the second half of each clause occurs after the first. Therefore it might be possible for both halves of the clause to have been fulfilled. Take the second Beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (v.4). The first time God intervenes to improve a situation after the fall of man is in fulfillment of this: he comforts Eve after the death of Abel with the birth of a new son, Seth (meaning ‘substitute’) (Gen 4.25). It is a monumental Biblical theme that God’s intervention transforms a state of affairs, described throughout the Scriptures, and here Jesus gives some examples of what this might look like. Some are a departure from an oppressive situation, whilst others are the reward for perseverance, but all are a change.
Their position at the start of the first teaching block suggests the idea that these things have been going on all along. The reader must then look to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount to see what follows. This section is entirely centred on present day conduct. Even those brief eschatological passages towards the end are more commentary on how life now will impact one’s future fate and therefore how one should live in the present (7.13-14; .21-23). This would seem odd if the Beatitudes were merely about the future of those groups of people listed with them. Rather, the Beatitudes are supposed to stand as the beginning of something.
To return to the example of Seth, the subsequent narrative is telling. The reader of Genesis has already seen that Cain has a line of descendants and the implication of the brief episode of Lamech is that they are far from righteous (4.23-24). Seth, on the other hand, is God’s replacement for Abel. Consequently, his lineage include Enoch, described as someone who ‘walked with God’ (5.22 & .24), and Noah, ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation; [he] walked with God’ (6.9; cf. Eze 14.14 & .20). Curiously, Noah is also one who is destined to end God’s curse on the land (5.29). God’s intervention begins with comfort for Eve, only for Seth and his descendants to undo a curse that resulted from evil actions. This is another common Biblical theme that goes hand in hand with God’s reversal of situations: there is an assumption that God’s grace will be a trigger, setting the ball rolling for others to have a similar impact on the world around them. There is no need to detail every Biblical example of this but it becomes strikingly clear as an expectation when Israel’s first king Saul goes astray. Samuel reminds him:
‘Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel’. (1 Sam 15.17).
Here the meek really did inherit the earth, only for Saul to be rejected as king (15.23 & .26). There is an expectation that God’s intervention in a person’s life demands a response.
To return to the Beatitudes, the author has created a link with a familiar Biblical theme and simultaneously offered an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes continue to occur, just as they always have done and always will. But for each individual occasion in which they happen, the teachings that follow illustrate what the natural response should be. Again, order and arrangement in Matthew is always vital. Therefore, it is no mere coincidence that Jesus has been healing the sick for the first time immediately before the first discourse begins (4.23-25). God’s grace comes first here; it is not earnt but only sought. Once received it transforms, changing a situation. The Beatitudes give some poignant examples. The rest of the discourse shows a disciple of Jesus how they can bring about similar effects for others, whilst simultaneously changing their whole approach to life. It teaches forgiveness, kindness and a lack of judgment towards others. It teaches reliance on God and perseverance in doing his will. Put simply, it teaches how to contribute to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the great theme of the synoptic gospels, none more so than Matthew. The Beatitudes aptly illustrate this theme. The people described within them are the sort of people that belong in the Kingdom and the change that occurs in each is indicative of how the Kingdom functions. In Matthew (and elsewhere), Jesus assumes that the Kingdom is a work in progress and that those within it contribute to it (cf. 7.21). The Kingdom begins to grow with the Beatitudes and then those who enter are invited to help do the same. Behind the Sermon of the Mount, just beneath the surface, lies Jesus’ iconic statement, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’ (4.17).