Honored are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Jesus chose words carefully. If he spoke Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) rather than Greek (the language of the first century church), then the First Beatitude could be stated in only seven (Matt 5:3 HNT) which aided memorization, a common first century practice because of the high cost of the written word. Because the disciples memorized his words, Jesus could speak playing word games with them, starting sentences and letting them finish them, much like a good preacher will pause to let his audience catch up (Crawford and Troeger 1995, 17).
Interpreting the Beatitudes
Jesus also used this technique—common in repressive cultures—in disputing with the Pharisees, as in Matthew 21:16 where he cites the first half Psalm 8:2 and, by inference, slams them with the second half (Spangler and Tverberg 2009, 38). Jesus’ careful choice of words and use of word associations helps us interpret the Beatitudes. For example, the first word in the phrase in Matthew 5:3—“Honored are the poor in spirit”—brings to mind the first Psalm:
Honored 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. (Ps 1:1–2)
The phrase, poor in spirit, brings to mind Isaiah 61:
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.” (Isa 61:1–3)
The first text, Psalm 1, plainly references the Law of Moses and the second text, Isaiah 61, references a messianic prophecy that Jesus himself cites in his call sermon in Luke 4. Together, by using the word—μακάριος, Jesus associates with both the Law and the Prophets which for a first century Jewish audience added gravitas.
Today’s commentators normally highlight the expression, “poor in spirit” (οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι), that is not used elsewhere in the Bible. Luke’s version of the Beatitude refers only to poor (πτωχοὶ), as in: “honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) Poor here refers not just to low income, but to begging destitution—someone utterly dependent on God (Neyrey 1998, 170–171). Matthew, unlike Luke, was one of Jesus’ disciples, which makes it likely that his phrase, poor in spirit, is more accurate.
Taken as a whole, the First Beatitude appears hyperbolic for two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus uses a form borrowed from case law, if X, then Y. Using a legal form suggests something like the reading of a will. Second, Jesus associates things not normally associated. Unlike princes, poor do not normally inherit kingdoms; kings (those with kingdoms) are not normally humble. Thus, the First Beatitude suggests by its form and content that Jesus is using hyperbole to warm up his audience for what is obviously a serious discussion (Isa 42:1–3).
Kingdom of Heaven
The seriousness arises because the phrase, “kingdom of heaven,” was previously associated with judgment, as in: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17). Judgment may be implied in the converse of this Beatitude—do those who refuse to be poor in spirit (the proud) stand in opposition to the “kingdom of heaven”? Potentially, yes. Two candidates for judgment are almost immediately given:
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments [in the Law and the Prophets] and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19–20)
Those least in the kingdom of heaven are those who teach against the law and those not to be admitted are those less righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, according to Jesus’ own words (Matt 5:20).
Jesus chose words carefully.
Crawford, Evans E. and Thomas H. Troeger. 1995. The Hum: Call and Response in African American Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon 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.
Honored are the Poor in Spirit
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