Matthew 5 and Matthew 23

K. C. Hanson[1] asks us to consider the blessings and woes of Matthew’s Gospel. He comments that the beatitudes (Matt.5:3-12) “are customarily interpreted as Jesus’ authoritative pronouncement of divine blessing on those who embody the listed characteristics. Some scholars have emphasised the eschatalogical nature of these formulas as promises. English translations, however, obscure the linguistic, and therefore the cultural and theological, distinctions between blessings and makarisms.”[2]

Interestingly, in view of our interest in honour and shame, Jerome Neyrey suggests that a better translation of makarioi, traditionally rendered ‘blessed’, or in some recent translations ‘happy’, would be ‘honoured’:

“In Greek the term is “makarism,” which basically means “how honorable” or “how worthy.” It does not mean that this person is “happy” for being thus. Rather the focus is on the approval and worth which Jesus gives to disciples who have had shameful experiences because of him. This may sound strange, but we ought to think of it as Jesus’ validation of and canonization of those who have paid a great price to follow him.”[3]

“Corresponding to the makarisms, the interpretation of the reproaches (or ‘woes’) in Matt.23:13-36 has been similarly misconstrued. Some have/ taken them to be pronouncements of curses or threats, while others treat them as if they were prophecies of judgement or cries of anguish.”[4]

“Makarisms constitute a positive challenge, affirming the honour of another, calling for a subsequent positve response. Reproaches constitute a negative challenge to another’s honour.”[5]  Essentially they are saying, ‘shamed …’ or ‘shameful are they who …’.

Blessings and curses are formal pronouncements by someone in authority, “not only are they formal proclamations, but they are understood as words of power; the words bring the desired result to fruition. … (Numb.22:6).”[6]  “The blessing is not merely a promise, but a formal conferring of favour and an empowerment which cannot be taken back or transferred (cf. Gen.27:30-40).”[7]

Matthew 5:3-10 – The makarisms of Matt.5:3-10 “offer honour … to whomever behaves in like manner. … The second parts identify the grant of honour for those who act appropriately.”[8]

Matthew 23:13-36 – These reproaches or woes “do not include any formal sentence or threat. Their power, therefore, lies in their success at uncovering shameful behaviours, not in legal or theological adjudication. They are implications of shame on specific groups: scribes and Pharisees.”[9]

There are a large number of these ‘makarisms’ throughout scripture and they share a common perspective on honour and shame. [10] What is particularly interesting in Matthew’s Gospel is that Matthew 5:3-10 provides the introduction to Jesus’ public ministry and Matthew 23:13-31 its conclusion. Consequently these makarisms and reproaches form an honour/shame bracket around Jesus’ public teaching!


[1] K. C. Hanson; “How Honourable! How Shameful! A Cultural Anaysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches“; in Semeia 68; “Honour and Shame in the World of the Bible“; 1996; pp81-111, cf. Neyrey; op. cit; p164-189.

[2] Ibid., p81.

[3] Jerome H. Neyrey; “Year A: The Gospel of Matthew;” Univeristy of Notre Dame, 7th March 2011. Web. 28th November 2013. http://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/Matthew-a.html.

[4] Hanson., op. cit., p82.

[5] Ibid., p84.

[6] Ibid., p85

[7] Ibid., p87

[8] Ibid., p100

[9] Ibid., p102

[10] Ibid., p104

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