The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:4

Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21a

The second Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4) is one of the shortest and simplest:

Maka/rioi oi( penqou=nte$, o%ti au)toi\ paraklhqh/sontai
“Happy the (ones) mourning, (in) that they will be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted]”

In some manuscripts, verses 4 and 5 are reversed, making this the third Beatitude. It is parallel with the third Lukan Beatitude (Lk 6:21a):

Maka/rioi oi( klai/onte$ nu=n, o%ti gelasete
“Happy (you) the (ones) weeping aloud now, (in) that (later) you will laugh”

Unlike the situation in the first Beatitude, here the differences may well reflect entirely separate sayings by Jesus; in any event, they are effectively different (though related) macarisms as they have come down to us in the Gospels. The verb klai/w (klaíœ, “weep (aloud), wail”) is often used in terms of lamentation for the dead, and so is close in meaning with penqe/w (penthéœ, “mourn, grieve”). The former verb (klai/w) is much more frequent in the New Testament, and is commonly associated with the experience of suffering and loss. As such, the Lukan Beatitude is much simpler and straightforward:

    • The righteous (those called “happy/blessed”) will weep now (nu=n) here on earth
    • But later, in the end, will laugh (gela/w geláœ)

This is an example of the (eschatological) reversal we see often in Jesus’ sayings and parables (Mark 9:35-36; 10:29-31 par; Matt 6:1-8, 16-18; 11:11; 18:4; 20:25-28; 21:28-32 par), especially those in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 14:11ff; 16:19-31; 18:9-14; 22:28-30; cf. also 1:47-55). By this literary and ethical topos, the person who appears to be happy and carefree, wealthy and powerful, devout and influential in this life (but without thinking of God, cf. Lk 12:21), will experience the opposite in the life to come. On the other hand, the righteous often experience hardship and loss, suffering and poverty (or willingly experience them through self-denial and sacrifice) in this life, but will receive the opposite (as heavenly reward) in the end. The corresponding Woe to the Lukan Beatitude (Lk 6:25) is equally straightforward in this regard:

Ou)ai/, oi( gelw=nte$ nu=n, o%ti penqh/sete kai\ klau/sete
“Woe (for you) the (ones) laughing now, (in) that (later) you will mourn and weep aloud!”

I will touch upon this “Woe” momentarily; but first it is necessary to examine the Matthean Beatitude (5:4) a bit more closely, specifically the two parallel verbs penqe/w and parakale/w.

1. penqe/w (penthéœ)—the basic meaning of this verb is clear enough (“to mourn, grieve”); but mourning in what sense? There are several possibilities:

    • The straightforward sense of grieving over the loss of a friend, relative, etc. This would align the saying with the wider “consolation” literature found in Greek philosophy—see, for example, Plato’s Phaedo [“On the Soul”], a dialogue with a setting around the death of Socrates (for additional references and bibliography, see Betz, Sermon, pp. 120-123). However, given the qualification of the “poor” and “hungry” in vv. 3, 6, one would expect that something more than simple mourning/grieving is meant here.
    • Grief and mourning over the general condition of humankind. This sort of meaning accords with the tradition in Wisdom Literature (see esp. in Qohleleth/Ecclesiastes), which emphasizes, in particular, the futility of pursuing wealth, riches, worldly success, etc. While the idea is sound, with a basis in both Scripture and philosophy, it does not seem quite to fit the context of the Beatitudes.
    • Mourning in the sense of repentance (i.e. grief/mourning over sin). This has been a popular interpretation of the Beatitude, and, in fact, the verb penqe/w is used this way elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Cor 5:12; 2 Cor 12:21; James 4:9). However, if this were the intended meaning here, one would expect it to be specified—that “mourning” would be qualified as “poor” and “hunger” are in vv. 3, 6. A closer Scriptural metaphor is perhaps found in mourning for the destruction of the land and suffering of the people as a whole (brought about by sin and wickedness).
    • The religious/symbolic idea of mourning for the fate of Israel and Jerusalem. This is a theme derived from Isa 61:2-3; 66:10, and other Old Testament passages (in Isa 25; 60; Jer 31:15ff, etc; cf. also the vision of the “Weeping Woman” in 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 9:38ff). The “Mourners of Zion” was a label applied to Jews at the time of the New Testament (cf. the Qumran text 11QPsaZion), and is sometimes associated with the so-called ±anawîm piety of Jews and early Jewish Christians. The use of the verb parakale/w makes this interpretation at least possible (see below), though it certainly would be reading too much into the Beatitude as it stands.

It is probably best to consider “mourning” used here in a general, unspecified sense—i.e., mourning as the result of suffering and loss (for whatever reason). That it is meant to describe the mourning of the righteous (believer, follower of Jesus), rather than grief experienced by humankind overall, is clear enough from the context. Interestingly, the positive aspect of mourning/grief sets this Beatitude (and the Lukan parallel in 6:21b) in contrast with segments of Greek philosophy, in which (according to the ideal of a)pa/qeia, freedom from passion/desire) grief and mourning (over death) were inappropriate for the wise man (cf. the saying of Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius 10.139, etc); however, see 1 Cor 7:30 for a similar perspective.

2. parakale/w (parakaléœ). The verb literally means “to call (someone) alongside”, usually with the sense of bringing aid, help, comfort, etc. It can relate either to the one bringing help or to the one being helped. Both the verb and the related noun (para/klhsi$, parákl¢sis) occur many times in the Septuagint (LXX) and New Testament. Paul uses the verb frequently for exhortation (“I call you alongside…” [i.e. I exhort you / appeal to you], Rom 12:1 et al.), but also in the context of believers helping one another (Rom 12:8; 1 Cor 14:31; 2 Cor 1:4; 2:7-8; 7:7; 13:11; 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11, 14; Col 2:2; 4:8). The words are popular in Luke-Acts, often with the sense of exhortation/encouragement (Lk 3:18; 16:25; Acts 2:40; 11:23; 13:15; 14:22; 15:31-32; 16:40; 20:1-2). In Acts 9:31 we read of the “help/comfort” (para/klhsi$) of the Holy Spirit, which is reminiscent of the Holy Spirit as “helper/comforter” (para/klhto$) in Jn 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 Jn 2:1. Most notable is the use of the words (verb and noun) in Isaiah 40-66 (so-called deutero-/trito-Isaiah)—see Isa 40:1; 51:3, 12, 19; 54:11; 57:18; 61:2; 66:13, etc. In these Isaian passages (and similar passages from the exilic Prophets), we find the important theme of the Lord bringing a message of “comfort”, promising the (ultimate) restoration of Israel. Here there also occurs the image of comfort/consolation to those who mourn (over Israel/Zion)—cf. especially Isa 57:18; 61:2-3; 66:10-13; also Jer 31:10-14; Zech 1:17. In particular, Isa 61:1-3ff and 66:10-14 (along with Jer 31:10-14) appear to have exercised an enormous influence over Jewish (and early Jewish Christian) thought—cf. for example in Baruch 4-5, especially in 4:23; 5:1 with the image of sorrow and weeping being replaced by joy and gladness. In the Lukan Infancy narrative (Lk 2:25-38) we see two figures in the Temple precincts—Simeon and Anna—who represent the “righteous poor [±an¹wîm]”, devout Jews who are looking toward receiving [i.e. waiting for] “the help/comfort [para/klhsi$] of Israel” (2:25) and “the ransom [lu/trwsi$] of Jerusalem” (2:38). Broadly speaking, early Christians (followers of Jesus) identified themselves with these same “poor” (Matt 5:3; Lk 6:20b)—those who suffered and endured hardship while awaiting the (eschatological) “comfort” of Israel.

The Lukan Woe (Lk 6:25b). Returning to the “Woe” corresponding to the Lukan Beatitude (see above), there are two elements in particular to note:

  • The relationship between weeping/mourning (klai/w/penqe/w) and laughing (gela/w). The verb gela/w is extremely rare in the New Testament (occurring only here in Lk 6:21, 25, but the related noun ge/lw$ [“laughter”] is in James 4:9, cf. below). In the Old Testament (LXX) it typically refers to mocking laughter or ridicule (Job 5:22; 17:6; Psalm 52:6 [51:6]; Prov 10:23; Eccl 7:4, 7; Sir 21:20; 27:13; Lam 1:7; also Gen 17:17; 18:12ff). In the Woe the verb is probably meant in this sense, i.e. that those who “laugh” now, often mock or ridicule the righteous (see Wisdom 2:20-24 for a summary of the mindset of the ungodly). In the Beatitude proper, however, a different nuance would seem to be required:
    • Weeping now by the righteous (oppressed by earthly, human affairs), laughter in the end (in response to divine, heavenly joy)
    • Laughter now by the wicked (dominated by earthly, human affairs), weeping/mourning in the end (in response to divine Judgment)

The exchange of joy/laughter in place of mourning/weeping is a common Scriptural motif (Psalm 30:11; Isa 25:8; 30:19; 60:20; 61:3; 65:19; 66:10; Jer 31:13, 15ff; Rev 5:4-5; 7:17; 21:4).

  • The expression mourn and weep (penqe/w and klai/w used together). As noted above, the Matthean Beatitude uses penqe/w (“mourn”), the Lukan uses klai/w (“weep aloud”), but here the Lukan Woe uses both. This could be meant to amplify the fate of the wicked, though, on the whole, it may simply reflect a traditional idiom (Mark 16:10; also Jn 16:20). In the LXX 2 Esdras 18:9 [Neh 8:9] the people are told: “This day is holy… do not mourn or weep“. In Ezek 27:30-32 and Rev 18:9-15, the expression is part of lamentation for the destruction of a city—a long-standing genre in the ancient world (cf. the famous Sumerian lamentation for the destruction of Ur). In these examples, “mourning and weeping” is done by the wicked and unfaithful.

The closest Scriptural parallel to the Lukan Woe is found in James 4:9, which will be discussed in more detail in a concluding note on the Woes.

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