It is common to ask if the Beatitudes are “entry requirements” or “kingdom blessings”. Are they what we need to do and be or are they sudden revelations of who it is that God is favoring?
I see the Beatitudes as the agenda of Jesus, and an in-your-face sudden declaration that the unlikely are the likely and the divested will be invested and the powerless will be powerful and the abused will be the favored. This is nothing short of radical, and nothing short of a revelation of what God is doing in the Kingdom. It tells us who are the people of God.
These Beatitudes bless people for what they will inherit when all the dust settles and when God’s will is fully established. They are intended to comfort people now in light of what will happen then.
Back to the two views of the Beatitudes.
In the first view, what we have is a list of virtues; in the second, a list of people groups whom Jesus is now declaring approved by God. Do you realize the difference between these two options? It is nothing short of remarkable.
First, the statements are straightforward declarations: this group of people is blessed. It is not an exhortation to “be” something one is not yet.
Second, in many ways the categories blessed are not things humans choose — that is, one does not choose to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, to to be meek, or to be persecuted. One either is poor or persecuted. [I take “poor in spirit” to refer to the Anawim, the pious poor of Israel, like Jesus’ mother and Simeon and Anna.]
Third, Jesus is blessing the sorts of people whom he sees as Kingdom people. Instead of the rich in spirit (rich), the partying, the aggressive, the people who yearn for food, the non-compassionate, the pure in hands, the zealots, and the persecuters, Jesus blesses just the opposite.
Now, I need to say something more controversial: to examine these as ethical virtues and things for which we are to strive is a gross misunderstanding of what Jesus is saying here. He begins the SoM with a manifesto of who it is that enters the Kingdom and who is favored by God, not by giving another set of commands to follow or by giving an Aristotelian list of virtues.
Jesus knows that God favors those who have been abused and marginalized, and this is a theme that we can trace to Zechariah’s and Mary’s songs in Luke 1 and which Jesus will continue in his inaugural sermon (Luke 4) and in his answer to John (Matthew 11).
The sudden arrival of the Kingdom means the onset of justice for all — especially the marginalized.
So, are they virtues for us strive for? Well, in a sense, yes: they are the sorts of people who inherit the Kingdom and therefore we would do well to emulate their character, if possible, but primarily this is a list of those who will discover in Jesus that they are in fact blessed by God.
The brother of Jesus, James, says the same thing in James 1:9-11.