Monday, January 23, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

This passage occurs in the Epiphany season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently January 2017.
A very familiar passage.  What caught me this time was the focus on Jesus teaching them:  διδασκω.  Jesus is presented as a teacher in the Gospels.  Sometimes in our (Lutheran) emphasis on Jesus as savior we overlook Jesus as teacher.  This passage, if not Matthew's Gospel, can rub us the wrong way as theologians because it portrays Jesus as moralistic and therapeutic.  So where is the theology of the cross?  Well, in the beatitudes, God once again is showing up in the wrong places for the wrong people.  This is the theology of the cross and something worth teaching.

στομα ('mouth'; 5:2)  The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all use this expression to talk about the Word coming from the mouth of the Lord.  It does not seem an entirely common phrase, but one really picked up by these three prophets, all of whom faced false prophets.  I suggest with this strange wording, Matthew harkens back to this prophetic tradition, portraying Jesus as the Word of God who had spoken through the prophets.

εδιδασκεν ('began to teach'; imperfect form of διδασκω; 5:2)  Jesus teaches in all four Gospels.  The question is, what is he teaching them?  About heaven?  About how to live?  About how they are all sinners in need of grace?  Sometimes as Lutherans we want to avoid Jesus as teacher - making him into Moses - but the Gospels have no problem with Jesus teaching!

παρακληθησονται ('they will be comforted', future passive of παρακαλεω; 5:4)  This is a major word in the Bible; in fact, the word for Holy Spirit (the advocate in John 14:26) comes from this verb.  In Isaiah 40, God promises to comfort the people.  Have fun with the concordance on this one!  It is fair to say that, although Jesus is not simply a big teddy bear, part of the mission of God is comfort.

ονειδιζω ('reproach' or 'insult'; see also 5:11; 11:20; 27:44).  This word appears twice more in Matthew's Gospel...once when Jesus rebukes the unrepentant and finally when Jesus himself is on the cross.  This would mean that Jesus is blessed even on the cross.  Moreover, it shows that Jesus is not simply talking about his disciples' conduct, but talking about his own ministry.

μακάριος (‘blessed’ or ‘happy’: 5:3 and throughout the passage): The theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Spicq) gets to the core of this word and its striking use in the beatitudes. After a long summary of the Greek understanding of what it means to be blessed (pretty much what average Americans think, namely, healthy, wealthy and wise), the Lexicon finally assesses Jesus' use: “It is impossible to insist too strongly on the meaning of this μακάριος …This is much more than contentment; it is an interior joy that becomes external, elation translated into shouts, songs, acclamations. …Secondly, the new faith implies a reversal of all human values; happiness is no longer attached to wealth, to having enough, to a good reputation, power, possessions of the goods of this world, but to poverty alone.”

η βασιλεια των ουρανων (5:3; the kingdom of heaven): Matthew's Gospel does not use the phrase kingdom of God.  Some scholars speculate this may be out of deference to the word God that comes from Matthew's Jewish piety.  Generally Matthew only uses θεος in quoting the OT; κυριος (often the NT translation of YHWH) is reserved for its more secular meaning, "master." 

Grammar review and verse translation:  To be or not to be?
NRS Matthew 5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνεθματι οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων

First clause:  μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνεθματι
In Greek, you do not need to use the verb "to be."  You can simply add it.  So the sentence reads:  "Blessed the poor in spirit."  You supply the "are." 
The phrase τω πνεθματι is challenging for a translator, even though the words are straight forward.  The simplest translation is to interpret the dative as indicating location (where it is).  But then what does "Poor in the spirit" mean?  Psalm 34:18 has a similar phrase often translated "discouraged." 

The second clause:  οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων
is more interesting.  In this case we have a "to be" verb - "εστιν"
What is most peculiar is the genitive case in which we find "αυτων" and "ουρανων."  The genitive can be translated a number of ways.  Consider how many relationships the word "of" can imply in English:  Kingdom of Fish.  Does this mean possessive (it belongs to the fish) or partitive (it consists of fish) or objective (kingdom for fish).  So in this case, "αυτων" might be a possessive genitive, like "the kingdom of heaven BELONGS to them."  However, nothing suggests why it couldn't be partitive, ie, "the kingdom of heaven CONSISTS of them." In fact, it might even be "objective," as in "the kingdom of heaven is for them."  I think "belongs" (possessive) is probably the most natural use of the genitive, but this exercise reminds us possibilities.  Likewise, "heaven" is in the genitive, which mean all of these translation possibilities exist for it as well.  (Also worth throwing in there is that οτι  can mean "because" or "that")

So, this sentence could read:
"Happy are the poor in spirit that the kingdom belonging to God consists of them."
"Blessed are the poor in spirit because the kingdom which belongs to God belongs to them."
"Blessed are the discouraged because the kingdom from God is for them."
And so forth!


Bryce said...

just recently discovered your blog and want to say that I very much appreciate it.
bryce fellbaum

RJM said...

Bryce, feel free to email me with any questions.

Oscar Garcia said...

love this, helps me review the greek I learned in seminary. Thanks!

Marsha Roscoe said...

Rob - thank you for faithfully posting your blogs each week. I really appreciated the new insight given to the use of "comfort" connected to the Holy Spirit and part of God's mission. Incredibly awesome!