1. Along with obvious differences, there also are similarities between the role of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and that of the Beatitudes in the New. As God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, and then the rest of the law is unfolded from them, so Jesus gives the Beatitudes to his followers, and then the rest of the moral implications of the new covenant are unfolded. The Beatitudes provide a properly Christian moral framework. Although their relationship to the rest of the moral content of faith has never been clarified in detail, they have had an important place in moral instruction throughout Christian history. These are extrinsic, but not insignificant, reasons for taking the Beatitudes as organizing principles in analyzing Christian norms and virtues.
2. Of greater importance is a theological consideration. Although the New Testament provides no detailed moral code, one can expect to find in Jesus’ teaching and example the basic guidance needed for Christian life (25‑F). St. Matthew’s Gospel is in a special way the New Testament book of moral teaching.1 The Sermon on the Mount is the primary synthesis of such teaching, and the Beatitudes are placed at the start of this synthesis (see S.t., 1–2, q. 108, a. 3). Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the Beatitudes express specifically Christian moral principles.2
The beatitude form is found in many other places in the Old and New Testaments. Beatitudes are especially common in the wisdom literature (see, e.g., Sir 25.7–11). Psalms begins with a beatitude: Happy the person who follows the law of the Lord, not the way of sinners (see Ps 1.1–2). There are a number of beatitudes scattered throughout the Gospels (see, e.g., Mt 16.17; Lk 1.45; Jn 20.29) and several in Revelation (see 14.13; 16.15; 19.9; 22.7, 14).
The Beatitudes with which we shall be concerned are the eight stated at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 5.3–10). Some commentators believe they find a ninth (in Mt 5.11–12), but sound scholars agree with the tradition in regarding these verses as an expansion of the eighth Beatitude, not as an additional one.3 Luke places the sermon on a plain and has four beatitudes together with four corresponding woes (see Lk 6.20–26). Luke’s version will not be considered here.
It is significant that in his expansion on the ancient creeds, the Credo of the People of God, Paul VI mentions the Beatitudes in his summary of Jesus’ teaching. Our Lord proclaimed and established the kingdom, gave us the new commandment to love one another as he loves, and “taught us the way of the Beatitudes of the gospel: poverty in spirit, meekness, suffering borne with patience, thirst after justice, mercy, purity of heart, will for peace, persecution suffered for justice sake.”4 Thus the Pope suggests that the Beatitudes be taken as the model summary of the specifically Christian content of Jesus’ moral teaching.
3. Reflection on the Beatitudes confirms this view. The Beatitudes propose norms of Christian life which are clearly more specific than the first principle but do not deal with definite kinds of acts (as, for example, the Ten Commandments do). In other words, they are Christian moral principles at a level, midway between the general and the particular, corresponding to that of the modes of responsibility. Thus, the Beatitudes express, in language suited to the audience, the modes of Christian response, which transform the modes of responsibility.5
4. The beatitude formula (“Blessed are . . .”) is not so much a prayer as a declaration of fact. Beatitudes are propositions asserted as true. They state conditions under which people will share in or be fulfilled by goods, and they describe the goods in question. Thus they state the connection between certain dispositions or actions and the fulfillments to which these lead. Since those who do good merit the fulfillment in which their good action is a participation, the beatitude formula is suited to express the blessing enjoyed by those whose actions are meritorious inasmuch as their attitudes are pleasing responses to God’s gifts (see S.t., 1–2, q. 69, a. 1; q. 114, aa. 1, 4, 10).6
5. The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount express principles of Christian moral life as blessings. This is so because these modes of Christian response transform the modes of responsibility. The latter limit the inclinations of one’s flesh; the former rejoice in the inclinations of a mind led by the Spirit (see Rom 7.22–8.9). The latter forbid what does not conform to a will toward the ideal of integral human fulfillment; the former commend what is characteristic of a will, enlivened by charity, hoping confidently for the reality of the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. Still, the modes of Christian response are like the modes of responsibility in proposing eight distinct conditions met by a person whose life is oriented toward true human fulfillment.7
For the poor in spirit and the persecuted, the blessing is the kingdom of God; for the sorrowing, it is consolation; for peacemakers, being called children of God; and so forth. Most commentators, ancient and modern, agree that these are all the same reality, conceptualized in a way proportionate to each of the dispositions to the fulfillment which is promised. There is some discussion whether the promised blessing in every case is eschatological. Since there is considerable continuity between Christian life in this world and heaven, especially with respect to goods (34‑E), one can consider the blessings mentioned in the Beatitudes to pertain both to this life and to life in the fully realized kingdom.
6. As Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins with Beatitudes proclaiming the blessings enjoyed by his followers, it ends with woes proclaiming the doom which awaits his adversaries, the scribes and Pharisees. Just as his apparently wretched followers are really fortunate, his apparently flourishing adversaries are really miserable. Thus, both Beatitudes and woes express the true state of those to whom they are addressed.8 Yet the woes correspond only imperfectly to the Beatitudes. While there is only one way to be good, there are many ways to be bad, and Jesus highlights only one style of life opposed to his. Still, the woes correspond to the Beatitudes sufficiently that reflection on the former will help to clarify the meaning of the latter.
1. See John P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 42–51. Some have attempted to deny that the New Testament really contains moral teaching except incidentally to the gospel, but this view is not sustained by historical evidence: W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 94–108.
2. For a plausible argument for this point based on literary genre, see Hans Dieter Betz, “The Sermon on the Mount: Its Literary Genre and Function,” Journal of Religion, 59 (1979), 285–97. For an argument that the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount is a key to St. Thomas’ moral thought, see Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “Esquisse d’une morale Chrétienne: Ses bases: la Loi évangélique et la loi naturelle,” Nova et Vetera, 55 (1980), 108–11; a fuller treatment by the same author: La quéte du bonheur (Paris: Téqui, 1979).
3. See Neil J. McEleny, C.S.P., “The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 43 (1981), 1–13.
4. 60 AAS (1968) 433–45.
5. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., “The Messianic Meaning of the Beatitudes,” The Bible Today, 59 (1972), 707–17, explains clearly and simply the Old Testament roots of the spirituality of the Beatitudes, defends the view that their promise begins to be fulfilled in this world, and sees them as “a portrait of Jesus himself” (717) expressed not only in words but in his life.
6. On the beatitude formula as it is used in the New Testament, see F. Hauck, “makarios,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:367–70.
7. Robert A. Guelich, “The Matthean Beatitudes: ‘Entrance-Requirements’ or Eschatological Blessings?” Journal of Biblical Literature, 95 (1976), 415–34, provides a scholarly and insightful examination of the Beatitudes, which, however, suffers from an unnecessary opposition between ethical requirements and blessings. He assumes that meritorious activity which meets an ethical requirement for ultimate blessedness is not itself a grace and part of the eschatological blessing insofar as this is already realized. To this assumption one must oppose Eph 2.10.
8. See Meier, op. cit., 163, esp. n. 177. The correspondence between Beatitudes and woes in Matthew not only seems obvious from their content and the neatness of the inclusion, but from their evident relationship to Lk 6.20–26, where blessings and woes are paired somewhat as the blessings and curses of the covenant are in Dt 28. Of course, the Beatitudes of the new covenant correspond precisely neither to the stipulations nor to the blessings of the old, for in Jesus the requirements of friendship with God are one with the fulfillment of these requirements.