The eighth Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:10) brings the collection of Beatitudes to a close:
Maka/rioi oi( dediwgme/noi e%neken dikaiosu/nh$, o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Happy the (ones) having been pursued on account of justice/righteousness, (in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens”
The Greek verb diw/kw (diœ¡kœ) has the primary meaning “pursue, chase after”, and can be used in either a positive/neutral or negative sense. For the instances of the latter, it is typically translated “persecute”—that is, to pursue with hostile intent, or for the purpose of doing harm. Occasionally, we see the verb used in the positive sense (of pursuing righteousness, peace, etc.) in the New Testament (see Rom 9:30-31; 12:13; 14:19; 1 Cor 14:1; Phil 3:12, 14; 1 Thess 5:15), but more often it is used in the negative sense, as here in the Beatitude (cf. Matt 5:44; 10:23; 23:34; Lk 21:12, et al.). Already in the early Church the verb, with its related nouns diwgmo/$ and diw/kth$, came to have the technical meaning of the persecution of believers (because of their faith in Christ)—cf. Jn 15:20; Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 15:9; 2 Cor 4:9; Gal 1:13, 23; 2 Tim 3:12; Rev 12:13, etc. The compound/prefixed verbs e)kdiw/kw (ekdiœ¡kœ) and katadiw/kw (katadiœ¡kœ) are intensive forms (lit. “pursue out” and “pursue down”) which occasionally appear in the New Testament as well (Mk 1:36; Lk 11:49; 1 Thess 2:15). The verb diw/kw (along with its compound/prefixed forms) is relatively infrequent in the Septuagint (LXX), and translates a range of Hebrew words (cf. Lev 26:17; Deut 6:19; Judg 7:25; Psalm 7:1, 5; 31:15; 35:3; 44:16; 71:11; 109:16, 31; 119:84, 86, 157; Prov 13:21 [LXX 12:26]; Eccl 3:15; Isa 30:28; Jer 20:1-11; Nah 1:8; Joel 2:20; Dan 4:22). The theme of the persecution of the righteous became more common in the Psalms (cf. Ps 7; 31:15; 69:26; 119:84-88, 150, 153-158, 161ff, etc) and subsequent Apocalyptic and Wisdom Literature—see especially Wisdom 1:16-2:24; also 1 Enoch 95:7; 103:9ff. The prophets, as righteous messengers of truth, were seen as the target of persecution (Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11), a theme continued on into the New Testament: the suffering of the prophets was a model and parallel for the suffering of believers (Matt 5:12; 23:29-37; Lk 11:47-50; 13:34; Acts 7:52; Rev 11:18; 16:6; 18:24). Similarly, the so-called “Teacher of Righteousness”, as (idealized) head and representative of the Qumran sect, was depicted as enduring persecution. Indeed, even in the Greco-Roman world, it was a philosophical topos that the wise and virtuous person was likely to suffer in this way (the ideal figure and example being Socrates, cf. Plato’s Apology and Phaedo, also Republic 361e-362a, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.1-2, etc). For additional references, with some bibliography, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 143-145.
The Greek particle e%neken (héneken) is difficult to translate into English—it is necessary to use cumbersome expressions such as “on account of”, “for the sake of”, to capture the genitive relationship. It is specifically because of (or on account of) justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) that the faithful follower of Jesus will be persecuted. What precisely does this mean? Several related aspects have to be considered:
- When the wicked act unjustly against the “righteous”, this violation of “justice” can be said to be “on account of” justice/righteousness.
- “Righteousness” in the specifically Jewish sense (used by Jesus) relates to upholding the Law of God (in both thought and action). Those who violate and transgress the Law are, by definition, unjust, and (in their wickedness) tend to oppose the righteous.
- The righteous came to be identified largely with the poor and needy—persons who tend to be victimized and oppressed by the (unscrupulous) wealthy and powerful in the world. This aspect is what today we would call social justice.
- The justice/righteousness of the Kingdom of God (Matt 5:33) is connected with the idea of being like God Himself (Matt 5:48). The wicked who act as enemies of God will also oppose those who are like Him.
- Justice is interconnected with judgment—by way of eschatological “reversal”, the “righteous” who are poor and suffer now will, in the end, be rewarded by God.
All of these themes are emphasized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, and continue to be important elements in any proper Christian ethic. However, eventually, the ethical standards of Jesus’ teaching here would be subsumed under the general concept of believing and following him, and expressed in a new way as (to use Paul’s expression) “walking in/by the Spirit” (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16, 25). Jesus himself uses older expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, closer to what we find in Jewish writings of the period—see especially the way the wicked and righteous are juxtaposed in Wisdom 1:16-2:20. This has caused Christian interpreters no end of difficulty in attempting to harmonize and reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with later Pauline theology. Paul uses the word dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in rather a different way than Jesus does here.
The intimate connection between poverty and righteousness (see Wisd 2:10) is made especially clear in the Beatitudes, as the eighth concludes with the same phrase as the first: “(in) that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens” (o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n). This forms an inclusio which frames the collection of eight Beatitudes, and creates a kind of equivalence (synonymous parallelism) between those who are “poor in the spirit” (oi( ptwxoi\ tw=| pneu/mati) and those who “have been pursued on account of justice/righteousness” (oi( dediwgme/noi e%neken dikaiosu/nh$). Many interpreters have seen a progression of sorts from first to eighth Beatitude: one begins with humility and lowliness (the extreme inward condition) and ends with enduring persecution (the extreme outward manifestation). That there is an artistry of this sort involved is almost certain (I will discuss the order and arrangement of the Beatitudes in an upcoming note). The eighth Beatitude, with its emphasis on persecution, both concludes the set of eight sayings (in 3rd person plural address) and leads into the summarizing “ninth” Beatitude (in 2nd person plural address) of Matt 5:11f, which I will be exploring in the next article.
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