Jesus: Honored are the Poor in Spirit


Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)

Jesus honored 3 tensions within ourselves:  poverty of spirit, grief, and meekness.  Today, we look at poverty of spirit.

Jesus chose words carefully. If Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than the Greek recorded in the New Testament [1], then Matthew 5:3 could be written in only 7 words [2]. This is a remarkable economy of language [3].

In cultures where books are enormously expensive, as in first century Israel, important texts are memorized.  Today we see this behavior among young Islamic students in Afghanistan who memorize the Koran.  An audience of such students would immediately associate words with such familiar texts, like a long-married couple completing each other’s sentences [4].

Following this line of thinking, the first phrase in Matthew 5:3, “blessed are the poor in spirit”, would for Jesus’ disciples bring two texts to mind:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV)[5]

The first text links through the Greek word, makarios, which would seem an odd choice because the more typical word for blessed in Greek would be eulogetos (France 2007, 161). The second text links through the word, poor (πτωχοὶ).  Psalm 1 plainly references the Law of Moses;  Luke 4 comes from Jesus’ own “call sermon” and it closes paraphrases Isaiah 61.

The expression, poor in spirit [6], is frequently highlighted in sermons because in Luke’s version of this Beatitude reports Jesus only referring to being poor. Luke writes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 ESV) The word, poor, here refers not to low income, but rather destitution to the point of begging for food (Neyrey 1998, 170-171). The inference in both Matthew and Luke is according one of total dependence on God—someone entirely humbled by the circumstances of life. As a disciple and likely eyewitness to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s rendering of poor in spirit is likely a better statement of what Jesus was trying to say than Luke who was probably not an eyewitness.

Jesus’ use of a legal framework—a form borrowed from case law, if X, then Y—to make his points is highly ironic, even subversive. In this case, the basic idea is that the poor will inherit a kingdom could be taken as obvious hyperbole (we expect rich—not poor—children to inherit from rich parents). A refined notion of the humble becoming kings is equally hyperbolic. Kings are not normally thought to humble people! In this context, Neyrey’s (1998, 164) notion that Jesus is re-framing the honor code of his culture makes more sense. After all, humility is fundamental to the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s suffering servant [7]—a biblical example of someone described as poor in spirit.

Still, Jesus’ tying of the poor in spirit to the kingdom of heaven also carries a sense of judgment. The idea here is that those who refuse to be poor in spirit (in other words, the proud) stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Remember that Matthew’s previous two uses of the phrase, kingdom of heaven, come in the context of judgment: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2,4:17 ESV) We can either hear these words aspirationally or feel the tension between a kingdom that has arrived and still not yet.  In any case, the judgment in focus here falls on those refusing to be humble—the proud—who are expressly named in Matthew 5:20 as the scribes and pharisees who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven [8].

Jesus chose words carefully.

[1] Early church historian, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16) records that Apostle Matthew wrote early drafts of his gospel for a Jewish audience in Hebrew (or Aramaic) which was later translated into Greek.  Early church historian, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16) records that Apostle Matthew wrote early drafts of his gospel for a Jewish audience in Hebrew (or Aramaic) which was later translated into Greek. More recent interpretations of Eusebius have questioned this conclusion (Knight 1992, 527).

[2] שְׁרֵי עֲנִיֵּי הָרוּחַ כִּי לָהֶם מַלְכוּת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃ (Matt 5:3 HNT)

[3] Bivin and Blizzard (1994, 20) argue that Jesus spoke primarily Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek. Outside of liguistic evidence from the New Testament itself, they cite discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls that show commentaries written primarily in Hebrew. This suggests that the dominant language in the first century in Israel was Hebrew.

[4] Spangler and Tverberg (2009, 38) write: “To increase the impact of a statement, rabbis would quote part of a Scripture and then let their audience fill in the rest.” For example, Jesus does this in Matthew 21:16 citing Psalm 8.2.

[5] “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1-3 ESV)

[6] The expression, poor in spirit, is used no where else in the bible.  The Latin phrase used for this characteristic is:  Hapax legomenon.

[7] “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:1-3 ESV)

[7] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20 ESV)


Bivin, David and Roy Blizzard. 1994. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

McKnight, Scott. 1992. “Gospel of Matthew” pages 526-541 of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Spangler, Ann and Lois Tverberg. 2009. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


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