1. the poor
Blessed are ‘the poor’–and all those who are with them ‘in spirit’(*)
When we want to reflect on the Beatitudes – or “the roll call of the blessed” – articulated by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount, we usually turn to Matthew’s version, which – as we all know – starts “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5.1)
But to consider the full significance of what Jesus is saying in his controversial hillside discourse, we also need to turn to Luke’s version, which says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” ( 6.20/24)
When we read Matthew’s version, most of us feel comforted. Because we feel “poor in spirit”, and Jesus’ promise of blessing is of great comfort to all of us who struggle. But when we read Luke’s version, if you are anything like me, you will feel very uncomfortable indeed. Because, though none of us like to admit we are “rich”, (the “rich” are “people who have more than us”), we know deep down that in global terms even those of us in capitalist economies on social security are comparatively “rich” (with an income level that is in the top 20% in the world!)1 So we read Jesus’ affirmation of the “poor” – and condemnation of the “rich” – with great personal discomfort. It is very confronting stuff indeed.
When we read other passages in scripture, in the hope of finding a more accommodating gospel, we are confronted with the same uncompromising message everywhere we turn. His mother Mary, said that through her son Jesus, God would “fill the hungry with good things” and “send the rich away empty.” (Luke 1.53)
In Jesus, God “became poor”.(2Cor.8.9) and preached “good news to the poor” (Luke4.18) He was “born in a manger”. (Luke2.7) He had “nowhere to lay his head”.(Luke 9.58) He didn’t have any money in his pocket. When he needed a coin, he even had to ask somebody else to give him one. (Mark12.15) He constantly associated with “poor” people – embracing outcasts and healing the sick. (Matt.11.4-5); and courageously advocated for “poor” people – driving out the money changers in the temple who, no doubt, exploited them in the same way as they had exploited his parents years before. (Mark11.15-17)
Jesus criticised people’s obsession with “riches” (Matt.6.19) and ridiculed “rich” people (Matt.6.25-29). He used to tell a story about an investor who had a successful business, calling him a “rich fool” (Luke 12.16). He asked: “What good is it, to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Luke9.25).
Jesus unpacked what he had in mind about the “rich” losing their “soul” in a scandalous parable. He said: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’.But Abraham replied,`Son, remember in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony’.”(Luke16.19-25)
This parable illustrates Jesus’ passionate commitment to the “upside-down society” he believed God would one day establish. A society which is the exact opposite of our own – the first are last, the last are first, and the fate of the rich and the poor are reversed. To the great consternation of the key stake-holders in the status quo, with God’s help, the early Christians were ‘able to do immeasurably more’ than one might have imagined they would have been able to do, to make Jesus’ dream a reality. (Eph 3:20) They chose the “things that are not” – to nullify “the things that are.” (I Cor.I:26-28). And time and time again they helped ‘foolish’ people confuse the ‘wise’ and ‘weak’ people confound the ‘strong’ (1 Cor.1:26) in their quest to develop inclusive and egalitarian communities of faith in the midst of religious traditions which had previously disenfranchised them. In fact, they succeeded to such an extent, one horrified observer is recorded as saying – ‘these people have turned the whole world upside down!’ (Acts17:6)
In the light of these scriptures, it is very clear why the gospel of Jesus is “good news for the poor.” The poor are “blessed” because, in the “upside-down society” that is the kingdom of God, the poor have a place of honour they can find nowhere else; and God says that “the kingdom of God is theirs”. They are “blessed” not because they’re “poor”; but because, even though they’re “poor”, they are loved. And because they are loved, people will share their wealth with them, and help them meet their basic needs. When the early Christians were “one in heart”, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”, so “there were no needy persons among them!” (Acts 4.32-34)
What is not so clear is how the gospel of Jesus can be “good news” to the “rich” – like you and me. When a “rich” man came to Jesus and asked him what he could do to recover his “soul” and discover “eternal life”, Jesus said: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor…then come, follow me.” (Luke18.22). Now, for those of us who are “rich” its hard to see where the “good news” is in that for us. Which makes sense. Because there isn’t any. The “good news” in it is for the “poor” – who are going to get everything we’ve got. But there is “good news” in it for us too. Its just we are so shocked about the demand to “sell everything and give it to poor… then come, follow me”, we don’t hear Jesus say “and you will have treasure in heaven!” But he does. (Luke18.22) And it is our salvation. (Luke18. 8-9) The “poor” are indeed “blessed”. But, so also are all those of us who are with the poor “in spirit”.
Whom do we think Jesus had in mind when he is reported as saying ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’?
Well I think that in order to understand whom he was talking about we need to start with the word ‘poor’. The word ‘poor’ used in Matthew’s version of the beatitudes is exactly the same word used in Luke’s version of the beatitudes. It is ‘ptochos’ It is not the word ‘penes’ used for ‘relative poverty’; it is the word ‘ptochos’ used for ‘absolute poverty’. It is connected to the root word ‘ptossein’ which means ‘to crouch’ or ‘to cower.’ In other words, ‘ptochos’ refers to ‘the poor and oppressed’ rather than ‘the poor and depressed’.
Though our record is in Greek, Jesus would have originally presented his beatitudes in Aramaic. And the word that Jesus would have used in Aramaic to talk about the ‘poor’ probably would have been ‘ani’.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the ‘ani’ referred primarily to ‘people who were oppressed’ and who were as a result suffering ‘economic poverty’. The oppression might be political (Gen.15:13), social (Ex.22:22), sexual (2 Sam.13:12-32) or economic (Isa.11:4), but the essential defining experience of the ‘anawim’ or ‘aniyim’ was of real, material, economic poverty. (Ex.22:25; Lev.19:10; Dt.15:11; Job 24:4; Ps. 10:12,17, 72:12; Isa.3:14; Jer.22: 16; Ezek.18:12; Amos 6:4) When Jesus himself referred to the ‘anawim’ or ‘aniyim’ he was referring to ‘the poor of the land’ (Jn.7:49) – tenants (Mt.21:33) labourers (Mt.20:1-9) slaves (Mt.8:6) debtors (Lk.16:5) beggars (Mk.10:46).
Carlos Abesamis says, ‘on the lips of Jesus, “poor” referred to “the really poor”.’
So it is clear whom Jesus was talking about when he referred to the ‘poor’ in Matthew and in Luke. When Jesus said ‘blessed are the poor’, he was talking about ‘the really poor’. But whom was Jesus talking about when he said ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’?
Many commentators suggest that when Jesus talked about ‘the poor in spirit’ he was talking about people who experienced ‘poverty of spirit’ – people who were bankrupt spiritually. They argue that the primary meaning of the word ‘ani’ means ‘poor’, ‘really poor’. But as the ‘anawim’ lacked power because of their poverty, they say its secondary meaning could be ‘the powerless’; and as the ‘anawim’ were ‘powerless’ because of their poverty, they say its tertiary meaning could be ‘the hopeless’ or ‘the spiritually destitute’.
That is certainly a possibility. However, if we interpret Matthew’s version of what Jesus was talking about in the light of Luke’s version of what Jesus was talking about, we must say that Jesus’ focus in the beatitudes was on the concrete, physically poor, not on the abstract, spiritually poor. After all, when Jesus had the chance himself to clarify whom he was talking about, he said he was not talking about the rich who were fat and happy and comfortable, but suffering from some kind of inner psychic inadequacy – he said he was talking about the really poor who were in tears because they were really hungry, really insulted and really excluded from fat, happy, comfortable, polite society. (Lk.6-20-26).
When Jesus was talking about ‘the poor in spirit’ I don’t think he was talking about people who experienced ‘poverty of spirit’ but experienced ‘poverty in spirit’ – or those who experienced poverty ‘in the spirit’ or ‘in their spirit’ – like Jesus and his disciples.
Because he was filled with the Spirit, Jesus identified with the poor. He said ‘the spirit is upon me…to preach good news to the poor’(Lk.4:18) In this spirit of identification with the poor, Paul says of Jesus, ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.(2 Cor.8:9).
And because they were filled with the same Spirit as Jesus, his disciples felt inspired to ‘continue to remember the poor’ wherever they were. (Gal.2:10) When the spirit fell on the disciples in Jerusalem, ‘all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his (sic) possessions was his (sic) own, but they shared everything they had. …There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.’ (Acts 4:32-35)
So I would like to suggest that when Jesus was saying ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ he was blessing those – like his disciples (who were sitting right there in front of him) – who were experiencing ‘poverty in the spirit’ because they were seeking to be true to the spirit that was upon Jesus. Which is why Jesus says in Luke, ‘blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”(Lk.6:22) and in Matthew ‘blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me’ (Mat.5:11)
I believe Jesus is saying we too will be blessed if we, as Jesus’ disciples, are willing to experience ‘poverty in the spirit’ by identifying with the poor ‘in spirit’ like Jesus did. .