Why I haven’t liked the Beatitudes

August 8, 2013

divine_conspiracyI have been severely yet delightfully challenged this week by Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy, particularly the chapter on the Beatitudes, on which I’ll preach this Sunday.

Among other things, Willard challenged me to confront the uncomfortable fact that I don’t really like the Beatitudes. Well, for one thing—just looking at Luke’s version (from the less popular “Sermon on the Plain”)—I’m not poor, I’m not hungry, and I’m not particularly sad. I’ve hardly experienced any meaningful rejection or scorn or persecution because of my Christian faith. Moreover, I don’t want to be or experience any of these things if I can help it!

I can try to take some refuge in Matthew’s version: “Sure, I’m not poor,” I tell myself, “but I can still be spiritually poor in spite of my wealth.” Except I’m not even that. Hungry for righteousness? Please! I’m not meek. I’m not much of a peacemaker. Forget purity of heart.

Does the fact that I strike out on all these Beatitudes make me a horrible Christian? Does at least feeling guilty about my failure make me slightly better? Is there still a place for me in God’s kingdom?

But then: Why would I even ask these questions? Justification by faith alone, we Protestants say—and I’ve got all the proof-texts on my side. Why does Jesus seem to be teaching works righteousness? Is he really saying that if you are this way, or you do these things, then all these good things will happen to you—including heaven when you die? Or, as in Luke’s version, if you aren’t and you don’t, you’re in trouble? Does even faith in Christ matter less than these things?

Seriously: I had a theology prof in seminary who argued for “hopeful universalism” based in part on the Beatitudes. “See, people can prove that they really know Jesus—without really knowing him—if they are or do these things.” Didn’t Karl Rahner call these Beatitude-obeyers “anonymous Christians” who will be saved in the end?

Nice thought, I guess, except who are these anonymous Christians since so many of us professing Christians can’t live up to the Beatitudes?

I’m with Dallas Willard: these “literary and religious treasures of the human race,” these “highest expressions of religious insight and moral inspiration,” are nothing but “pretty poison” if my traditional way of interpreting them is true.[1]

My defense mechanism against these verses is to say that Jesus is describing an ideal state: we’re not this way, but we ought to be. We’ll still be saved, of course (thank you, St. Paul, for making that clear), but “only as through fire,” as Paul would say. Some other Protestants—dispensationalists—assign these words of Jesus to another “dispensation,” specifically the millennial reign of Christ. In other words, like much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ tough words don’t really apply to us here and now.

Seems like wishful thinking to me, and, besides, I’m not a dispensationalist.

So what do we do with the Beatitudes? Mostly—if we’re evangelicals—we ignore them. If we’re not evangelicals, we “join the revolution,” devote ourselves to social justice, and probably read a lot of liberation theology. I read a lot of liberation theology in seminary. (It was Candler’s default theological stance.) There’s value in some expressions of liberation theology, but even if all the world were as socially just as, say, Sweden, the world would still need Jesus. Sweden still needs Jesus!

No, maybe we’re reading the Beatitudes wrong. That’s what Willard thinks. And I think he’s onto something, although some of the following words knock the breath out of me because they’re so contrary to what I’ve thought.

The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings.

No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top “after the revolution.” They are explanations and illustrations drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.[2]

In other words, Willard says, Jesus was drawing on types of people that were following him in the crowds—most of whom, by worldly standards, were of little or no account—and saying, “the blessings of God’s kingdom are available even to these,” just as they are available to everyone else. And to signify the truth of his words about the availability of God’s kingdom, he was healing and forgiving many of them.

If Willard is right, we could paraphrase the Beatitudes to say, for example, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs even to you. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for even you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for even you will laugh.”

I know from my previous study that there’s something to this idea. The peasants of Jesus’ day wouldn’t have doubted that wealthy, powerful elites already possessed or were entitled to God’s kingdom. For example, remember the Rich Young Ruler? Jesus’ words about how hard it is for a rich man to be saved “astonished” his disciples because if even a rich man can’t enter God’s kingdom, then who possibly can? What hope is there for the rest of us?

And Jesus answers, in so many words, “Quite a lot, actually: With God, all things are possible”—including the salvation of both rich and poor. Because, as we Protestants knew all along, salvation isn’t based on anything other than justification by faith alone.

The Beatitudes, therefore, are mostly an expression of the magnanimity of God’s grace—something quite different from any kind of works righteousness.

This doesn’t settle every question in my mind, but it’s a good start.

What do the rest of you think?

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 98-99.

1. Ibid., 106.

7 Responses to “Why I haven’t liked the Beatitudes”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, just got to this, as I was out some last week with family at Sea World. (Haven’t read your subsequent sermon yet–too much work! :).) In my view, the Sermon on the Mount is a little bit “stronger stuff” than just “even you.” I think Jesus is saying, at least, that things will be “made right” in heaven, such that every deprivation on earth will be more than made up for in heaven. Not to say that rich people will fare poorly–that depends on their devotion to God, etc. But, nonetheless, a willingness to “do without” in this life without “complaining” is itself a “virtue” which will, in itself, result in some reward.

    Also, I think that Jesus is further saying that being “poor in spirit” and things of that nature (recognizing your “falling short” and wanting and striving to be “filled” with true “spirituality”) are also “virtues” worthy of, and receiving, appropriate rewards. Being “meek” (properly understood) is a trait to be sought after and, to the extent obtained, will not lose its reward, etc.

    I think people make one or the other or both of two mistakes about such “conduct” or “character” categorizations being “cognizable” by God in the “hereafter.” First, that they are irrelevant to salvation. True, we are “saved by faith”–I don’t dispute that. But, “faith without works is dead.” What is true faith? It is a willingness to “sacrifice” the good things of this life (to the extent called upon to do so) for the benefits of the next. See Hebrews 11. Somewhat overly simplistic, of course, but I think that is the “general direction” of the truth on that matter. (Of course, you have to believe the correct “theology” as well, but I am looking to what Jesus seems to be getting at in the Sermon.) So, in fact, there has to be some of the “character” that the Sermon eulogizes on the part of a person as a “demonstration” that true faith exists, and hence salvation obtained.

    Second, that “works” are irrelevant even “post-salvation.” I certainly think that is wrong (probably you do as well, but there is some chunk of pop-theologians today who practically advance such theology). Jesus says that even giving a cup of cold water in his name will in no wise lose its reward. And, conversely, that we will give an account for even every “idle word.” So, indeed, “blessed” are those who “seek holiness” above those who do not. We can be “blessed” above and beyond salvation itself, and Jesus is, I think, pointing out in the Sermon (on the Mount, in any event) some of the types of characteristics which will result in “greater blessings” when the eternal rewards are “passed out.” Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on this earth, but lay up treasures in heaven.

    So, that is my limited and general take on the “Sermon.” I just don’t think “even you” does it justice.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I doubt I disagree with much of what you say, Tom, except I’m not talking about the sermon as a whole. The “even you” part applies to the Beatitudes. And in this post I was trying to fairly represent someone else’s argument (Dallas Willard’s). I think he’s onto something, but I don’t agree with him completely. But he certainly made me think!


  2. Hi Brent. I found this page randomly as I was looking for someone else online who was wrestling with Dallas Willard’s take on the beatitudes. (Though I think we may have a friend in common in Kevin Hargaden?).

    I’ve been largely persuaded by Willard’s argument, and slightly thrown by it, as it’s so different to the way I’ve read the beatitudes in the past, and the dominant approach in commentaries and sermons and articles I can find.

    I find his basic approach very persuasive. My question is how it works for all of the beatitudes. It fits well with the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and the persecuted. My difficulty is with the other four, which seem to describe virtues – the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Are these not things we are meant to pursue and cultivate?

    I’m finding the meek particularly puzzling. I can see how the English word describes a quality of weakness (the timid, the unassertive, the shy) but my difficulty is that the Greek word is used positively throughout the NT, usually translated as “gentleness” (e.g. in the fruit of the Spirit, or in Jesus’ own description of himself as “gentle and humble of heart”). So does context suggest it’s describing a weakness in Matt. 5 but a strength elsewhere?

    And what do we do with those other three?

    I’m preaching the beatitudes over the next few weeks so any thoughts would be appreciated!

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you, John! As I said in my post, Willard’s approach doesn’t answer all my questions, but it answers more questions than the traditional approach. It avoids works righteousness as well.

      I think I might say something like this: While meekness seems obviously virtuous to us Christians today, it wouldn’t have seemed that way to Jesus’ original audience. Meekness was the mark of people on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. Probably peacemakers too. These things were perhaps a sign of weakness, rather than strength. In this way, these qualities are congruent with the poor and the persecuted.

      I can’t remember how I handled it in my sermon, but that sermon is probably a few posts later. There’s a search field on my blog.


  3. Thanks Brent. I’ve been thinking along similar lines so that’s helpful. I think I’m slightly wrestling the part of me that wants it to be systematic and neat. Maybe the beatitudes function more like the parables, in that Jesus throws them down alongside our lives and they set off all kinds of resonances and challenges? But I do think Willard’s basic approach is right.

    Kevin and I were on staff together with a student ministry here in Ireland. He’s been a friend and hero since those days. I’ve seen your name on his blog a few times. Good to connect with you!


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