The Rabbi from Nazareth spoke calmly, assuredly, with the confidence of one who knows he has the authority to teach the Truth. His voice was strong and kind, and both those next to and farthest from him heard him equally well. His torah, his teaching, on this day opened with a series of proclamations that displayed his mastery of scripture and rocked the foundations of Judaism as of that moment forth.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:3-12 (NIV)
These ten statements comprise what is known as the Beatitudes, the Blessings, for very obvious reasons. To modern readers, these statements proclaim the core of Jesus’ message to the world and offer the succor of grace for those who need it. When this hitherto unknown rabbi from the tiny, poor town of Nazareth proclaimed these from atop a Galileean mount in the year 3757 (4-3 BC), however, it would not have been lost on the multitudes listening that this was nothing short of a revelation of God’s mercy and a fulfilment of His promises straight from the pages of scripture.
I’ve read the Beatitudes before, heard them quoted countless times, but never truly stopped to think about them until now. The first time I read them upon my return to Christianity, they filled me with joy and hope, as well they should, but they also left me questioning. When considering that this is Jesus’ opening statement on his worldly ministry, why did he choose to start by proclaiming who was blessed?
If we consider that he’s preaching mostly to a lay audience who managed to only sporadically make it to synagogue on Shabbat to hear the words of the Torah, and did their daily best to obey the commandments while struggling under the ever-tightening grip of Rome and its appointed cronies, Jesus’ blessings to the poor, the mourner, the meek, and the desperate come as a drink of cold water on a hot day. In that sense, it’s a perfect opening statement, but to see it only that way is to severely underestimate what Jesus is doing here.
I found myself exploring different translations of the text trying to better understand it when I stumbled upon the answer as to why there was something about the Beatitudes that seemed familiar and that unlocked the magnitude of what Jesus was doing.
As I read Scripture now, one thing is crystal clear when I read the words of Jesus: while he may not have been trained as a rabbi, he discoursed expertly using the same methods. He sounds like the rabbis in the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, sources still available to us and which I studied for years during my time practicing Judaism. At a time before the Scriptures were readily available for the masses and conveniently organized into chapters and verses, the custom was to quote a few words from the beginning of a verse to reference the entire passage. This method is still in use in Judaism today, so people will refer to Shir Lamaalot to mean Psalm 121 which starts with those words (A song of ascents), or Ashrei to mean the prayer starting with that word (Happy) recited three times a day.
In reading the translation from the Orthodox (or Complete) Jewish Bible by Dr David H Stern, a translation meant for Messianic Jewish congregations which incorporates Jewish context, culture, and language into the New Testament, one can see how Jesus was doing something similar in his inaugural address. When he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not only is he talking in the literal sense, he is also referencing a passage of Scripture, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit (Isaiah 66:2 NIV).” A side-by-side look at the Beatitudes in the NIV and the OJB reveals all the references to Scripture Jesus called on for this initial message.
When it says in Matthew 7:28-29 that the crowds were “amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority,” this is one of the reasons why. Jesus teaches with the complete confidence and authority of one who is the Word and one with Scripture, who in basic statements understood by the simplest of people hides deep layers of meaning that show the fulfillment of God’s promises.
For someone with my background, finally understanding what Jesus did when proclaiming the Beatitudes is monumental. Not only do I now find greater comfort in the blessings, I find him speaking directly to me, the man raised a Catholic, who journeyed in Judaism, and returned to Christianity, using a language and form that I am uniquely equipped to understand because of my background. It further cements how Jesus is truly the continuation, and culmination, of the story and teachings I learned.