Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

All Saints Day - Year ABC


THE HISTORY OF THE WORD "MAKARIOS" ("BLESSED")

A Jewish Story

The old Rabbi said, "In olden days there were men who saw the face of God."
"Why don't they any more?" a young student asked.
"Because, nowadays no one stoops so low," he replied.

Who wants to be a lowly person? Who wants to be stooped down? Most of us spend a good part of our lives trying to pull ourselves up. We want to walk tall in society. But, according to this rabbi, it is the lowly those stooped low who see the face of God. According to Jesus in the Beatitudes, it is the lowly those stooped low who are blessed by God. This runs counter to the normal uses of that word for blessed, makarios.

What does it mean to be blessed? The Greek word for "blessed" used in the Beatitudes is makarios (plural: makaroioi). The following is a study of how this word has been used (mostly taken from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. To be blessed, you had to be a god.

Makarios took on a second meaning. It referred to the "dead". The blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other world of the gods. They were now beyond the cares and problems and worries of earthly life. To be blessed, you had to be dead. That is the origin of the different saints days -- they are remembered on the dates of their deaths. All Saints Day was for all the people who had died in the faith whose names we didn't know.

Finally, in Greek usage, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to people whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and problems and worries of the lesser folk -- the peons, who constantly struggle and worry and labor in life. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.

When this word, makarios was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it took on another meaning. It referred to the results of right living or righteousness. If you lived right, you were blessed. Being blessed meant you received earthly, material things: a good wife, many children, abundant crops, riches, honor, wisdom, beauty, good health, etc. A blessed person had more things and better things than an ordinary person. To be blessed, you had to have big and beautiful things.

In all of these meanings, the "blessed" ones lived in a higher plane than the rest of us. They were gods. They were humans who had gone to the world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of normal people.

Matthew (reflecting Jesus' thoughts) uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus pronounces God's blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. Throughout the history of this word, it had always been the other people who were considered blessed: the rich, the filled up, the powerful. Jesus turns it all upside-down. The elite in God's kingdom, the blessed ones in God's kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity.

COMMENTS FROM OTHERS ABOUT MAKARIOS

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) has some significant comments about beatitudes:

Neither Jesus nor Matthew invented the beatitude form, which occurs in the Old Testament and in both Jewish and pagan literature. Jesus and early Christianity, including Matthew, reflect the use of beatitudes in the Jewish tradition, where they are found primarily in two settings: wisdom and prophecy. The setting gives the form a distinctive function and meaning: In the wisdom tradition, makarisms declare the blessing of those in fortunate circumstances, based on observation and experience (e.g., Sir 25:7-9), and declare their present reward and happiness. In the Prophets [and I would also include Apocalypses, BS] makarisms declare the present/future blessedness of those who are presently in dire circumstances, but who will be vindicated at the eschatological coming of God's kingdom (Isa 30:18; 32:20; Dan 12:12). In the New Testament outside the synoptics, most beatitudes are found in the prophetic book of Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). [NOTE: I would not call Revelation a "prophetic book," but apocalyptic literature -- there are significant differences in genres.]

... Matthew's beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, but prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already-present kingdom of God. this perspective calls for the following hermeneutical corollaries:

(1) The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act, not subjective feelings, and thus should be translated with the objective "blessed" instead of the subjective "happy." The opposite of "blessed" is not "unhappy," but "cursed" (cf. Matt 25:31-46; Luke 6:24-26).

(2) The indicative mood should be taken seriously, and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation. ...

(3) There is, however, an ethical dimension to the beatitudes. The community that hears itself pronounced blessed by its Lord does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom. ...

(4) The beatitudes are written in unconditional performative language. They do not merely describe something that already is, but bring into being the reality they declare. ... As eschatological blessings, the beatitudes are not "entrance requirements" for outsiders, but a declaration about insiders. ...

(5) Understood as a prophetic pronouncement, the truth claim of the beatitude is not independently true, but dependent on the speaker. ... The beatitudes, therefore, are not observations about reality that others of lesser insight had simply overlooked, such as the truths of mathematics or logic. They are true on the basis of the authority of the one who speaks. ... In the first words of the Sermon on the Mount, we do not meet general statements, the truth of which we can investigate on our own terms, with our own criteria, but a veiled, implicit christological claim that calls for taking a stand with regard to the speaker, not merely the content of his speech.

(6) The beatitudes are not historical but eschatological. ...

(7) The nine pronouncements are thus not statements about general human virtues -- most appear exactly the opposite to common wisdom. Rather, they pronounce blessing on authentic disciples in the Christian community All the beatitudes apply to one group of people, the real Christians of Matthew's community. They do not describe nine different kinds of good people who get to go to heaven, but are nine declarations about the blessedness, contrary to all appearances, of the eschatological community living in anticipation of God's reign. Like all else in Matthew, they are oriented to life together in the community of discipleship, not to individualistic ethics. ... [pp. 176-178]

A sermon title that I have used in the past is "Just Because I Said So," that phrase all parents said that they would never use, but find themselves saying it. Why are these people blessed? Just because God said so. God's word has the power to create what is said.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com