The Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Luke, Prima Pars

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My life has been insanely crazy lately as I am in the middle of a major career change.  This in part explains my absence from these pages.  My apologies, but hopefully the following three-part piece will be of interest to the readers of American Catholic while my work schedule settles down into something more manageable, or at least something that allows for more time dedicated to writing.


1. The text and an introduction.
Luke 6:20-26

20. And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21. Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh.

22. Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man?s sake.

23. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold your reward is great in heaven. For according to these things did their fathers to the prophets.

24. But woe to you that are rich; for you have consolation.

25. Woe to you that are filled; for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh; for you shall mourn and weep.

26. Woe to you when men shall bless you; for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets.

Thus begins the greatest sermon ever composed. These blessings are commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, which stems from the Latin word beati, meaning “Blessed.” Servais Pinkares writes, “[T]he sermon on the Mount has been one of the chief sources of spiritual renewal known to the Church through the ages. Its fruitfulness is amply attested by its constant reappearance. There are few passages in Scripture that touch the Christian heart more surely and deeply, or that have a greater appeal for nonbelievers. Then Sermon on the Mount was one of Ghandi?s favorite texts; he reproached Christians for their neglect of it” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, 135). As familiar as the words are to Christians and non-Christians alike, there is one word in particular that can very easily go unnoticed: is. In verses 21-23, every blessing promises a future reward for a present circumstance. Consider the first half of verse 21: “Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled.” This indicates that those who experience hunger during their earthly time will be filled in the eschaton. The first beatitude (verse 20), however, seems to deliberately use the word is: “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

I have three goals in this article. The first is to conduct a brief textual analysis of the Latin and the Greek from which the translation comes. The second is to present a gloss of several interpretations of the passage from the Church Fathers. The third is to address the question why Luke would speak of poverty in this manner and what Christ means when he says, “Yours is the kingdom of heaven.” This last part will involve a discussion about the nature of the kingdom of God, the nature of poverty, and a commentary on the role of the beatitude as a whole for the Christian moral life.


2. An interpretation of tense based on the Latin and Greek manuscripts.

To begin with, let us examine the Latin for this text from the Nova Vulgate:

20. Et ipse, elevatis oculis suis in discipulos suos, dicebat: “ Beati pauperes, quia vestrum est regnum Dei.

21. Beati, qui nunc esuritis, quia saturabimini. Beati, qui nunc fletis, quia ridebitis.

22. Beati eritis, cum vos oderint homines et cum separaverint vos et exprobraverint et eiecerint nomen vestrum tamquam malum propter Filium hominis.

23. Gaudete in illa die et exsultate, ecce enim merces vestra multa in caelo; secundum haec enim faciebant prophetis patres eorum.

24. Verumtamen vae vobis divitibus, quia habetis consolationem vestram!

25. Vae vobis, qui saturati estis nunc, quia esurietis! Vae vobis, qui ridetis nunc, quia lugebitis et flebitis!

26. Vae, cum bene vobis dixerint omnes homines! Secundum haec enim faciebant pseudoprophetis patres eorum.


In verse 20 we find the verb est, translated “to be.” This particular conjugation is the third-person singular form of the verb in the present tense. It uses third-person because the subject of the sentence is “the kingdom of God.” Contrast this with verse 21. We find the construction, “Beati, qui nunc esuritis, quia saturabimini.” The Latin word nunc translates as “now,” and the verb saturabimini is the second-person plural form of the verb saturo, meaning “to satisfy.” The “-bimini” ending indicates a future passive tense, hence the rendering “you shall be satisfied.” An identical construction governs the verb ridebitis (from rideo, meaning “to smile” or “to laugh”) in the second half of the verse. The only difference is that the ending isBold not future passive, but future active, thus the rendering “you shall laugh” (with “you” as the subject). It is clear from the Latin the the Douay-Rheims translation is accurate. In verse 20, the action is clearly written in the present tense (“for your is the kingdom of God”) while in verse 21 the verb tense is future (“your shall be filled” and “you shall laugh”).

Verse 23 is more interesting. The Douay-Rheims reads, “your reward is great in heaven.” At first glance this appears to be a present tense verb. However, the state of receiving a reward in heaven must be a future event by its very nature as the faithful are not yet in heaven. Using a present tense verb to indicate a future state is commonly known as “future-present” tense. This tense is often used as opposed to simple future tense to indicate either the immediacy of event or the assurance of its future occurrence. Consider another example: in the middle of an athletic competition we exclaim, “The game is won.” Clearly the game has not yet been won, but it is a way of describing the assurance we have of a future event. While it seems very reasonable to interpret this verse as a future-present tense, we should nonetheless examine the Latin. The corresponding Vulgate text reads, “ecce enim merces vestra multa in caelo.” Ecce means “behold” (as in Pilate?s devastatingly concise, “Ecce homo!” translated “Behold the man!”) Enim is best translated “for” or even “truly.” Merces means “reward,” and vestra means “yours.” Finally, the phrase multa in caelo is rendered “great in heaven.” This exhausts all the words in the phrase, and we must note that the verb “to be” (in this case “is”) is found nowhere in the sentence. While the absence of a conjugation of “to be” is more common in Latin than in English (it is often implied), we should note that this particular sentence is not without a verb. At the start of the phrase we find the imperative ecce (“behold”). This phrase is essentially a command, and therefore is rendered literally, “for behold your great reward in heaven.” The Douay-Rheims places the verb “is” in as a deliberate choice, probably as a literary device intended for clarification purposes and for aesthetic enhancement. Without it, the meaning of the phrase can be ambiguous. Are we to behold a reward that is in heaven or to behold a great reward while we are in heaven? The present tense of the imperative (ecce) is fitting as Luke is commanding the reader to “behold” in the here-and-now, but the reward which will be received in heaven is (from context) a future event. Thus, it seems reasonable to interpret the Douay-Rheims tense for this passage as future-present instead of merely present.

In light of this, why could we not interpret verse 20 as a future-present tense? Why could we not see the phrase, “yours is the kingdom of God” in a similar vein as “the game is won” and “your reward is great in heaven?” The key to this is found not merely in verse 20, but rather in the contrast between 20 and 23. The absence of the verb est in verse 23 draws our intention even more to its presence in verse 20. The Latin could have chosen a similar construction here as it used in verse 23. A possible English rendering could have been, “Blessed are ye poor, for behold your kingdom in heaven.” If this had been the case, we could perhaps make a case for an implied future-present tense in verse 20 to parallel the tense in verse 23. It seems more reasonable, however, to see the placement of the verb in verse 20 as deliberate, and hence to interpret it as a present tense phrase.

We next turn to the Greek. To do so, we use the Textus Receptus. While I recognize that this might not be the best source to use for Luke?s Gospel, it is representative of the other Greek sources in terms of the verb tenses. My experience in textual criticism is quite limited, but I from what I understand, the verb tenses in most of the respectable Greek sources are consistent in the passage I am considering.

20. ??? ????? ?????? ???? ????????? ????? ??? ???? ??????? ????? ?????? ???????? ?? ?????? ??? ??????? ????? ? ???????? ??? ????

21. ???????? ?? ????????? ??? ??? ????????????? ???????? ?? ????????? ??? ??? ????????

22. ???????? ???? ???? ????????? ???? ?? ???????? ??? ???? ?????????? ???? ??? ??????????? ??? ????????? ?? ????? ???? ?? ??????? ????? ??? ???? ??? ????????

23. ??????? ?? ?????? ?? ????? ??? ?????????? ???? ??? ? ?????? ???? ????? ?? ?? ?????? ???? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ????????? ?? ??????? ?????

24. ???? ???? ???? ???? ????????? ??? ??????? ??? ?????????? ????

25. ???? ???? ?? ????????????? ??? ????????? ???? ???? ?? ???????? ??? ??? ????????? ??? ????????

26. ???? ???? ???? ????? ???? ??????? ?????? ?? ???????? ???? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ?????????????? ?? ??????? ?????


As with the Latin, we begin with verse 20. As a side note, we must recognize that some English translations will use the phrase “poor” while others use the phrase “poor in spirit.” This difference is due to variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts. While “poor in spirit” is common in many of the Greek variations, two of the most prominent manuscripts use the construction “poor” (without the addition of the modifier “in spirit”). The first is Papyrus 75, which contains the earliest known transcription of Luke?s Gospel. This is a key manuscript because of its early dating (175-225 A.D.). The second, dating to the middle of the fourth century, is the Codex Vaticanus. While this phrase is not the essential part of the passage under discussion at the moment, it will become important when we later discuss the meaning of Christ?s words.

Moving on to the question of verb tense, we note that the Greek word humetera, meaning “yours,” is an adjective that is modifying the noun “kingdom” (basileia). While at first it seems that this construction need not contain a verb at all in English we could simply say “your kingdom” instead of “the kingdom is yours,” it should be noted that Luke deliberately places the present tense form of the verb eimi (“is”) here. Thus, much like in the case of the Latin, there is a clear emphasis on the present tense.

The deliberateness once again becomes more obvious when looking at the subsequent passages. In verse 21, as in the Latin, the Greek uses a future passive voice. The Greek word kortasthaysesthe is rendered “you shall be fed,” as the passive voice is indicated by the thay and the s (indictating a future tense) preceding the esthe (indicating second-person plural). In the second part of verse 21, we find a similar construction but for the lack of passive voice (again parallel to the Latin). Gelasate is best translated as “you shall laugh.” It should be noted that other Greek manuscripts contain the word gelasousin instead, which is still the future active tense verb for “laugh” but is in the third-person plural (rendered “they shall laugh”). While this is certainly a variant worthy of discussion in its own right, it is not critical for our analysis at this time.

Verse 23 remains an interesting verse as it was in the Vulgate. Recall that the Douay-Rheims translated the second part of the beatitude in the present tense, “your reward is great,” but we made an argument that this carries with it a future indication based on (1) context and common sense, and (2) the fact that the Latin specifically does not contain the verb est (“is”), so a more literal translation would be “Behold your great reward in heaven.” In Greek we have a similar construction. Where the Latin used the imperative ecce, the Greek uses the imperative idou. Where the Latin was missing a form of est, the Greek is missing a form of eimi (“is”). However, in Greek it is more common to leave off the verb “to be.” For instance, in verses 20 and 21, the phrase “blessed are the” is missing a form of eimi. Instead, the word “are” is implied. While this is consistent with the Latin Vulgate and the English Douay-Rheims, it is more profound in Greek. Because the Greek (particularly in Luke, whose syntax is quite refined alleviating him of the need to add the unnecessary forms of eimi) more often leaves out the verb of being it is all the more pertinent that Luke chooses to include it in verse 20. It strengthens the argument that the evangelist is deliberately emphasizing the present tense in the phrase, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and not simply allowing for an implied future-present.

Before moving on to the Fathers of the Church, let me briefly mentioned the parallel passage in Matthew?s Gospel. In Chapter 5, beginning with verse 3, we find perhaps the more familiar version of the Beatitudes. While the Nova Vulgate for Matthew?s first beatitude differs slightly from Luke?s (Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum) the text still maintains the present tense verb est to allow for the accurate translation “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Because of the rapid listing of the next six verses (4-9), the consistency of future tense is perhaps more striking than in Luke. We have ipsi consolabuntur (“they shall be comforted”), ipsi possidebunt terram (“they shall possess the land”), ipsi saturabuntur (“they shall have their fill”), ipsi misericordiam consequentur (“they shall obtain mercy”), ipsi Deum videbunt (“they shall see God”), and filii Dei vocabuntur (“they shall be called children of God”). The interesting verse is 10. The English reads, “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice? sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This serves as a complimentary bookend of sorts for the first beatitude as the “promise” portion of the first and last beatitude is identical (both in the English and the Latin). Many scholars have seen this as Matthew?s way of indicating that the promise “yours is the kingdom of heaven” is to be included not only in the first beatitude and the last beatitude, but indeed everywhere in between. This only begs our question, though. Given the deliberate use of the present tense, what does it mean to say, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” in the here-and-now? Moreover, why would Luke choose to place this construction only with the beatitude of poverty? To answer this question, we begin with the Church Fathers.

(Note that while I did not go into the Greek for Matthew?s rendition of the Beatitudes, the verb tenses are consistent with both the Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims.)

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