Poor in Spirit

We’ve heard the phrase, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or, as I translate it in Divine Reversal, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” so often that we don’t think too much about what poor in spirit might mean. Oddly, one clue to its meaning is an apparent contradiction in the gospel accounts. According to Luke, Yeshua just says “blessed are the poor,” with no reference to “in spirit,” as in Matthew’s version. I’m enough of a Bible literalist to believe there’s no real contradiction, though. Doubtless, Yeshua said it both ways—not at the same time, but in slightly different forms of a message that he gave more than once. (Which seems to give us preacher-teachers warrant to recycle our messages too . . . until we realize we’re talking about the Sermon on the Mount here. That one bears a repeat performance!)

Luke’s account is the most Jewish-positive of the gospels, so perhaps Luke chooses to record the simpler version because in second-temple Jewish usage, “the poor” or anavim in Hebrew, had a specific meaning. The term appears in the passage that Yeshua reads when he visits his home synagogue in Nazareth one Shabbat morning:

 The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
 Because he has anointed me
 To preach good news to the poor;
 He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
 To proclaim liberty to the captives
 And recovery of sight to the blind,
 To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD. (Isaiah 61, cited in Luke 4:18-19)

One commentator describes the poor in this passage:

These are people who suffer because they have walked in humility with their God, so they are meek, mourning, brokenhearted now. Mercy, purity of heart, and a desire for righteousness and peacemaking drive them. Jesus promises that God will recognize and reward that pursuit . . . because they have sought to walk in his steps and reflect his character as his children.[1]

“Poor in spirit,” then, is an amplification of the simpler “poor” in the sense of anavim. The problem, though, is how we can say “Happy are the poor” in the presence of the grinding and relentless poverty of 21st century global economics. And “blessed are the poor” sounds even more other-worldly, more readily dismissed as a pious platitude, as in the old protest song to the tune “Sweet Bye and Bye,” which I cite in Divine Reversal:

Long-haired preachers come out every night

To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right

But when asked how about something to eat

They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and pray, live on hay 

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

That’s a lie.[2]

Karl Marx stated this position more simply and famously: religion “is the opium of the people.”[3] In other words, we might ask, when Yeshua pronounces the poor and meek to be the truly happy, is he telling them to be content with their lot and not to complain against the oppressive system? Worse, is he telling the representatives of the system that they need not consider changing?

In my book, I list several factors in Yeshua’s teaching that make it clear he is not defending the status quo. But we’ve still got a problem. How do we say, “Happy are the poor” to the desperately poor of Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake? It’s clear from Yeshua’s example that we don’t say it, or anything else, that we are not ready to enact ourselves. Better, that we enact it instead of saying it at all. The true response to the mystery of suffering is not a matter of better words, but of taking on a portion of the suffering somehow to relieve it. I don’t know how to do that on behalf of Haiti or Darfur or the back alleys of Juarez. I am sure that targeted prayer and careful giving are a start, and perhaps others can suggest where to go from there. In the meantime, let’s make sure we don’t use “Happy are the poor” to dodge helping the poor. Instead, it’s a rebuke of our pursuit of advantage and accumulation—not something to tell others, but to tell ourselves.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002) , pp. 128-129.

[2] By Joe Hill. Accessed 11/8/2008 http://www.ciscohouston.com/lyrics/pie_in_the_sky.shtml.

[3] In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, referenced at http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/31765.html, accessed 11/8/2008. The entire quote reads, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”

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