The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3 (continued)

Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20b, continued

Luke:      Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/, o%ti u(mete/ra e)sti/n h( basilei/a tou= qeou=
“Happy the poor (ones), that yours is the kingdom of God
Matthew:  Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati, o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Happy the poor (ones) in the spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens

The first Beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20b) was discussed in the previous article; today, both versions will be examined in more detail, focusing on several areas of interpretation:

    1. The Meaning of “Poor in (the) spirit”
    2. Poor vs. Rich in the Lukan Beatitude
    3. “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God”

1. The Meaning of “Poor in (the) spirit”

The basic meaning of this difficult phrase was addressed in the prior article; however, it is worth looking at it more closely here. As I indicated, the nearest parallel is found in the Qumran texts—jwr ywnu (±anwê rûaµ), “poor/afflected of spirit” (see especially 1 QM 14:7, where it is applied to the “sons of light” [roa yn@B=]; cf. also 1 QM 14:3, 1 QH 5:21-22, CD 19:9, and parallel expressions in 1 QM 7:5, 11:10, etc). The nearest expressions in the LXX and New Testament are found in Psalm 34:18 [LXX 33:19] (oi( tapeinoi\ tw=| pneu/mati, translating Hebr. j^WrÁa@K=D^) and Matthew 11:29 (tapeino\$ th=| kardi/a| “lowly [in] the heart”). The Hebrew word wn`u* (from hn`u*) more properly means “lowly, afflicted” rather then “poor” (i.e. poverty per se), which is close to the Greek adjective tapeino/$ (tapeinós, “low[ly], humble”). It is also noteworthy that in the Qumran texts (and elsewhere in Judaism of the period), the <yw]n`u& (±an¹wîm, “lowly/afflicted [ones]”) were identified largely with the <ynoyb=a# (°e»yônîm, “poor/wanting [ones]”), with both used as terms for the righteous. So here in the Beatitude, there would seem to be a clear identification of poor (ptwxo/$) with lowly (tapeino/$). But poverty/lowliness in exactly what sense? There are number of possibilities for interpretation:

  • It involves a recognition and acceptance of the essential poverty inherent in the human condition. This interpretation is argued cogently by Betz, Sermon, pp. 112-119, largely on the basis of parallels in Greek philosophy and wisdom literature.
  • It is a spiritualizing motif which expresses that the righteous (or the wise and virtuous) person is truly rich, even in the midst of his/her material poverty. Indeed, material poverty actually serves as an aid to gaining wisdom; Socrates was a prototypical example, cf. Plato Apol. 23c, etc, and frequently in later Stoic and Cynic teaching.
  • It implies freedom from care and desire (a)pa/qeia, apátheia), largely as a result of a life devoted to abstinence and self-control (e)gkra/teia, enkráteia). This was tied closely to the idea that the happiness/blessedness [ma/kar] of the gods involved a lack of want or desire (reflecting a divine “poverty”). It is fairly typical of most Greek ascetic philosophy (again Socrates was a prime example, cf. Xenophon Mem. 1.5, 6ff). The concept and goal of a)pa/qeia was a prominent feature of Christian mysticism and monasticism (especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition).
  • The “lowliness” of spirit contrasts specifically with “highness” of spirit—that is, of pride, vanity, haughtiness, worldly ambition, desire for power, and so forth. Instead, the humility of the follower of Christ eschews all these things.
  • The “lowliness” is to be understood specifically in relationship to God—to place one’s life and thought completely in trust and dependence on God.

Arguments can be made for each of these avenues of interpretation (and others as well), however, I would say that the last two are closest to the mark. A warning against what we could call “highness” of spirit appears frequently, in various forms, throughout the New Testament. Of the examples in the Gospels alone, see Mark 10:42-45 par; Matt 18:3-4 par; Lk 9:23-25; 10:19-20; 12:13-21; 14:7-11; 16:15; 17:7-10; 18:9-14. In the Gospel of Luke, especially, this emphasis on the humble and lowly is prominent—see particularly, in the parables (esp. Lk 18:9-14), and the example of Mary in Lk 1:38, 46-55. Cf. also the Christian maxim uttered by John the Baptist in Jn 3:30.

2. Poor vs. Rich in the Lukan Beatitude

The principal difference between the Matthean and Lukan forms of the first Beatitude is striking. Instead of oi( ptwxoi\ tw=| pneu/mati (“the poor [in] the spirit”), it is simply oi( ptwxoi/ (“the poor”). The exact relationship between the two versions continues to be debated. However, it is all but certain that the Lukan version essentially refers to poverty in the customary sense (i.e., material/economic poverty); the corresponding Woe in v. 24 would confirm this. Also, it is noteworthy that Luke references the “rich” (plou/sio$) and “riches” more often than the other Gospels, and always in a negative sense, or in contrast to the followers of Jesus (i.e., the “poor”)—see Lk 1:53; 8:14; 12:16-21; 16:9, 11-13, 19-23ff, etc. Even in the case of traditions shared by Matthew/Mark, Luke’s version occasionally adds the detail of riches to a negative portait, cf. in the parable of the Sower (8:14), the emphasis of the man being rich [plou/sio$] in 18:23 (in relation to v. 25), and also the narration in 21:1. Only in the case of Zaccheus (Lk 19:2ff) are riches shown in anything like a positive sense.

Even so, the stark juxtaposition of the “poor” and the “rich” in 6:20, 24 is jolting (especially for modern-day Western Christians). Here is the “woe” of v. 24:

Plh\n ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, o%ti a)pe/xete th\n para/klhsin u(mw=n.
“(All the) more, woe to you the rich (one)s!—that you have your help/comfort (from riches)!”

Plh\n is an adversative particle, placing the woe in contrast to the beatitude of v. 20—i.e., “happy the poor… but woe to you the rich!” It also serves as an intensive particle, perhaps in the sense of “happy the poor…even more so woe to you the rich!” It could even indicate that there is nothing more for the rich, who (in the end) only receive the help/comfort of their riches. This is certainly the basic idea expressed here—the rich have already received their reward. On the surface, this seems unduly harsh, almost over-simplistic, as though riches and poverty as such were all that mattered. Jesus’ famous parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) presents the same sort of dualism (rich vs. poor), which is also expressed in the Magnificat (esp. 1:52-53); and, for comparison, see similarly harsh descriptions in the epistle of James (1:9-11; 2:6-7; 5:1-6). What are we to make of this? For the moment, I leave this as an open question, which I will address more thoroughly in an upcoming discussion of the Lukan Woes.

3. “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God”

There are two other differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions:

Matthew: au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n (“theirs is kingdom of the heavens“)
Luke: u(mete/ra e)sti/n h( basilei/a tou= qeou (“yours is the kingdom of God“)

With regard to the personal pronoun, all of the Beatitudes in Matt 5:3-10 use the 3rd-person plural form, while those in Luke use 2nd-person plural forms. If we accept the critical assumption that the Matthean and Lukan forms ultimately derive from a single set of sayings by Jesus (rather that two sets of sayings), then it stands to reason that one or the other has been modified at some point. The Beatitude form suggests that the 3rd person pronoun/verb is more likely to be ‘original’. In preserving and transmitting the sayings as part of a basic core of Christian instruction (catechesis/catechism), adaptation to the 2nd-person—addressing the believer directly—would only be natural.

The expression “kingdom of the heavens” (h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n, usually translated “kingdom of Heaven”) is unique to the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. Even in parallel passages within the Synoptic tradition (shared by Mark and/or Luke), where “kingdom of God” (h( basilei/a tou= qeou=) occurs, Matthew nearly always uses “kingdom of the Heavens”. Only on five (certain) occasions (Matt 6:3; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43) does he use “kingdom of God”. Despite claims to the contrary, there would seem to be little difference in meaning between the two expressions. It remains uncertain just why Matthew opts for “kingdom of the Heavens”. However, perhaps it is appropriate to consider here two aspects of the Kingdom, related in turn with two key points of emphasis in the Beatitude:

  1. It is of God—that is, it belongs to God. As discussed in an earlier article, a seminal aspect of the Beatitude was its declaration that the righteous person (or initiate in the mysteries, believer, etc) would become like God (or the gods)—this would occur in the afterlife, but was already “realized” in the present. From the standpoint of ethical and philosophical instruction, the disciple is effectively encouraged and exhorted to become more like God (cf. Matthew 5:48).
  2. It is of the Heavens—that is, it is identified with the heavenly realm where God dwells (“above the [physical] heavens”); cf. the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, the [one] in the Heavens…”, Matt 6:9). The eschatological background and setting of the Beatitude clearly relates to the idea of the righteous person entering into heavenly bliss in the afterlife. In the earlier discussion on the Beatitude format of Psalm 1, I emphasized the locative element—that is the place or domain of the wicked (Ps 1:1) against the place of Judgment (i.e. the heavenly/divine Court) where the righteous gather (Ps 1:5). This, too, in addition to the promise of future destiny, may be “realized” in the present (cf. Ps 1:3). In terms of the ethical instruction of Jesus’ teaching, his followers are exhorted to seek after this heavenly kingdom or domain (where God dwells, and the righteous belong); cf. Matt 5:20, 48; 6:10, 19-20, 32-33; 7:7-11, 13-14.

Another small difference between the Matthean and Lukan versions related to the form of the pronoun: Matt 5:3 has the pronoun in the genitive case (“of them” = “theirs”), while Lk 6:20 uses the possessive pronoun (or adjective, “yours”). This difference is minimal, but it serves to point out the emphasis of the Kingdom belonging to the righteous (to the one declared “happy/blessed”). Perhaps it is better to consider it the other way around: the righteous as belonging to the Kingdom. The identification is such that both sides of the relationship are true.

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