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.

February 10: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

The Beatitudes of Jesus, which occur at the very beginning of both the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) and the parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (Luke 6:17-49), must surely be regarded as one of the most famous (and extraordinary) portions in the entire New Testament. The contexts of the two accounts are similar, but different enough to lead more traditional-conservative commentators at least to regard them as separate sermons, preached on different occasions. Critical scholars, on the other hand, generally view them as two versions the same basic sermon (or collection of sayings), derived from a traditional source common to both Matthew and Luke (so-called “Q”, Quelle, source). On the whole, I find this latter view more likely. But, if so, then either Luke reduced the material considerably, or Matthew expanded it (most of Luke 6:27-49 can be found in Matthew as well); or, perhaps both took place. Part of the inspired, creative process in composing the Gospels involved incorporating authentic traditions and sayings of Jesus into an original arrangement, within a specific narrative framework. That details occasionally differ are not necessarily indications of ‘errors’, nor do they always need to ‘harmonized’—in most instances they are literary, not historical, differences.

Consider, in particular, the so-called Beatitudes (beatus, beatitudo, “blessed, blessedness”), or, more properly, Macarisms (from the Greek maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”). It is here that we find the greatest differences between the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, most significantly:

    1. Luke’s account (6:20-23) is considerably shorter, containing just four beatitudes, compared to nine in Matthew (5:3-12)—Luke’s four are paralleled in the 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 9th of Matthew
    2. Luke includes a series of corresponding ‘Woes’ (6:24-26) not found in Matthew
    3. For the first two Lukan beatitudes, the parallels in Matthew have qualifying phrases—”poor in the spirit” instead of “poor”, “hunger (and thirst) for righteousness/justice” instead of “hungry”

I wish to focus on this third aspect, especially as it relates to the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). Some scholars have thought that Matthew modified the ‘original’ saying (preserved in Luke), softening or ‘spiritualizing’ a harsher statement. If Matthew indeed modified the saying, it was more likely for the purpose of clarifying and providing deeper insight into the meaning of the terse statement. A comparison (points of difference italicized):

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
[1. I have left “spirit” in lower case for the moment; 2. o%ti introduces a reason/purpose clause, conventionally translated “for, because”]

It should be noted here in passing that, while the text of the Beatitudes (in both Matthew and Luke) is fairly certain (there are few substantive variants), it abounds with difficulties of interpretation. The following questions can be raised:

    1. The “poor” (oi( ptwxoi)—what sort of poverty is meant: physical, material, spiritual, or some combination? and in precisely what sense?
    2. Does “spirit” (pneu=ma) refer to: physical life, the spirit (spiritual component) of a human being, or the (Holy) Spirit of God?
    3. Is the dative case (tw=| pneu/mati) instrumental (“by the spirit”) or locative/referential (“in the spirit”)?
    4. How seriously should we take the differences between Matthew and Luke—how, indeed, should we understand them?

I offer the following brief comments for consideration:

1. The Poor—What sort of Poverty?

In the case of Luke, especially in the context of the four beatitudes together (“poor, hungering, weeping”), along with the Woes (ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, “woe to you the rich [ones]!”), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that here Jesus is speaking of real physical and material poverty. Certainly, throughout the Gospel, Luke gives special emphasis to the poor and outcast. This can be seen already in the Infancy narratives—especially the canticles—with strong parallels to the so-called ±an¹wîm piety of late pre-Christian Judaism and early Jewish Christianity: God looks upon the poor and humble, rescuing them and lifting them up from oppression and suffering. The same theme runs through many of Jesus’ most famous parables (10:25-37; 15; 16:19-31; 18:1-14, etc). However, before continuing, it is necessary to address the second and third questions.

2. The “Spirit”

The phrase in Matthew (oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati) is difficult; it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and this occurrence is virtually unique in the Greek language. The term pneu=ma more literally and concretely would be translated “breath, wind” so here it could simply be another way of referring to physical poverty (we might say, “short/faint of breath”), which would accord well with the context in Luke. There are also Old Testament and other Semitic parallels—jwr rxq, vpn rxq (“short of breath” or “short in soul/spirit”) that may relate. However a more direct Greek parallel is oi( tapeinoi\ tw=| pneu/mati, “the (ones) low/humble in the spirit” (see the LXX Psalm 33:19), which conveys a different sense (referring to the human soul/spirit), and that has a parallel in the Qumran texts jwr ywnu (1 QM 14.7; 1 QH 5.21-22, etc) which almost exactly matches the expression in Matthew. The phrase, then, most likely reflects a certain humility—a humble nature, recognizing one’s own weakness and mortality, faithfully and patiently enduring whatever hardship or suffering might come to pass.

3. “In” or “by” the “Spirit”

Given the likely reference to the human “spirit”, an instrumental sense for the dative is not likely. A locative or referential sense of “in the spirit” is better, locating the center of the poverty in a person’s own spirit or soul. But this is not so much a matter of anthropology (the nature of man as a created being) as it is of psychology (how one understands his/her created nature in relation to God). Is the poverty voluntary, or is it, like most instances of material poverty, the product of external conditions forced upon a person? Given the original setting of the Beatitude form (a pronouncement set at the last judgment), and the ethical context of Jesus’ teaching to his followers, the poverty should be understood primarily as voluntary, though often involving a willing response to conditions around us. The words of John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel (3:30) come to mind e)kei=non dei= au)ca/nein, e)me\ de\ e)lattou=sqai (“it is necessary for that one [i.e. Jesus] to grow, but for me to become less”); or Jesus’ own prayer to the Father on the eve of his death ou) ti/ e)gw\ qe/lw a)lla\ ti/ su/ (“not what I wish, but what you [wish]”; Mark 14:36 par.).

4. The Differences between Matthew and Luke

So what of the differences between the two forms of the Beatitude? One ought not gloss over them, or rush to harmonize in a facile manner, in order to avoid possible discrepancies. Rather each form should be studied carefully and prayerfully, with the understanding that they both stem from authentic sayings of Jesus. And, if one studies Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels, several clear facts emerge: (a) those who follow Christ faithfully will live modestly, without attachment to worldly possessions, and they are also likely to live in some form of poverty due to oppression or persecution; (b) we are called to follow like children, in innocence and humility, avoiding evil (both purity and poverty are a kind of “emptiness”); (c) our real poverty stems from our relationship to God, according to Christ’s own incarnate example (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:1-11). Both forms of the beatitude surely can be read in this light.

For more on the Beatitudes, I will be posting here this week several Exegetical Study Series that were previously up on Biblesoft’s earlier Study Blog site, including an in-depth series on the Beatitudes.

For an outstanding critical treatment of the entire Sermon on the Mount (and the Beatitudes), see especially Hans-Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (translated in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press, 1995), which includes many useful Classical parallels and references.