Historical Cultural Context
Honor in the Beatitudes
The 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.
The 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 the one who ...”). Luke gives them a more personally direct orientation by using the second person singular (“honorable are you who …”). Matthew’s sermon will occupy our attention from now to the ninth Sunday in this cycle.
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 think.
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
John 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.
**From St. Louis University