The Need and Help Beatitudes
Frederick Bruner, one of the masterful commentators of Matthew, helpfully reflects on the idea of the “need” and “help” nature of the Beatitudes.
“It can be said fairly, I think, that a certain post-Reformation exegesis stressed the need Beatitudes too much, emphasizing that the Sermon on the Mount was intended to drive us to our knees, to our sense of need, to our impotence before the law of God. This exegesis did take seriously the almost insuperable difficulty of living the Sermon on the Mount, and it took seriously the central content of the gospel’s Cross and Resurrection. Yet Jesus calls us not only to our knees, and the purpose of his sermon is not only to make us feel weak. Half the purpose of his sermon is to set us on our feet again and to give us the strength to go out and be a help. The help Beatitudes belong as much to jesus’ teaching as the need Beatitudes, and deserve equal time.
God helps those who cannot help themselves (the need Beatitudes), and he also helps those who try to help others (the help Beatitudes), but he does not in any Beatitude help those who think they can help themselves—an often ungodly and antisocial conception. Jesus wants faith and love. Only faith justifies, only love proves faith real. There is no contradiction between the fact that God helps the helpless (that is God’s free mercy) and that he helps the helpful (that is God’s justice). The Beatitudes reward not only helplessness—Reformation exegesis has always delighted in knowing this; the Beatitudes also reward helpfulness—we have been reluctant to see this from a fear, often enough legitimate, that a teaching of merits might creep in. But if we can stick closely to Jesus’ definition of the righteous deed in the Beatitudes, and see the exact nature of that deed—that it involves people at center and not first at their works—we will be half way to freedom from new legalisms. The need Beatitudes engage us deeply with God; the help Beatitudes engage us deeply with people. The need Beatitudes enlist us in all that we are not. The help Beatitudes enlist us in all that we are. In the need Beatitudes we are salted (passively); in the help Beatitudes we are salt (actively). In the need Beatitudes we are picked up from the earth; in the help Beatitudes we are thrown into it. What happens to us when we hit earth is described in greater detail in the final double Beatitude.
F.D. Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Matthew 1-12, The Christbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 152.