most basic piece of information that a modern Western
believer should learn about the Mediterranean world
of Jesus is that honor, its central value, drives
all behavior. Honor is a public claim to worth and
a public acknowledgment by others of that claim.
more than eighty “beatitudes” sprinkled throughout
the Old and New Testaments are poetic sayings that present, encourage,
and praise honorable behavior. Rather than “happy,” “fortunate,” or “blessed,” the
first word in each beatitude should more correctly be translated “truly
honorable” or “highly esteemed” (is the one who
behaves or thinks thus and so).
Moses concludes his praise of the tribes of Israel with this beatitude: “Truly
honorable are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the
shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning
to you, and you shall tread on their backs” (Deut 33:29). Salvation by the
Lord and public service from conquered enemies are publicly demonstrated and
confirmed claims to honor.
Beatitudes in Jesus' Sermon
Matthew 5-7 has gathered scattered pieces of Jesus’ teaching and crafted them
into an artificial sermon delivered on a hillside. Luke 6:17-49 reports an
abbreviated version in a similar sermon delivered by Jesus on a plain. Both introduce
the sermon with beatitudes.
Luke presents what were very likely the “original” three beatitudes
Jesus spoke on that occasion; Matthew creatively expands them to eight. Matthew
uses the appropriate grammatical form: third person singular (“honorable is
the one who ... ”). Luke gives them a more personally direct orientation
by using the second person singular (“honorable are you
who ... ”).
The three basic honorable and esteemed behaviors offered by Jesus are being poor,
mourning, and hungering. “Poor” in the Bible is never an economic designation.
It rather describes someone who has temporarily lost honorable status and must
seek at all costs to regain but never surpass that status.
“Poor” thus refers to a revolving class of people. The customary association
of poor with widows and orphans confirms this notion of losing status. Widows
and orphans did not have to retain this position forever. Widows could remarry
(see the serious discussion of “real” widows in 1 Tim 5:3-16); orphans
could be reabsorbed into an extended family. Those who lost status were culturally
obliged to regain it.
There are, however, two distinctive elements in Jesus’ beatitudes. First, he
says being poor constitutes true honor! Second, the passive voice in each beatitude
(“will be comforted,” “be filled,” etc.) is a strategy used
by our ancestors in the faith to avoid saying the name of God. Those who engage
in social protest (mourning and fasting) will be comforted by whom? By God, of
course! This grammatical usage in the Hebrew and Greek Bible is called, appropriately,
the “theological or divine passive voice.”
In Jesus’ view, true honor and esteem are determined and bestowed by God, very
publicly, for all to see. And the things that God considers truly honorable and
worthy of praise are almost always the opposite of what human beings of any culture
Though modern American believers are not driven by the values of honor and shame
as is the Mediterranean world, crises often indirectly reveal our genuine assessment
of values. The survivors of a hurricane will say again and again that life is
more precious than possessions. Yet given new opportunities, many would return
to collecting material possessions and resuming conspicuous consumption. These
are, after all, signs of American “honor.”
John J. Pilch
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 28-30.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/