The First Stanza – Promises of Reversals to the Unfortunate

This coming weekend is the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel is the beginning of Matthew’s well known “Sermon on the Mount.” In yesterday’s post we drilled deep into the nature of the first part of the Sermon known as the Beatitudes. In today’s post we consider the first stanza of the the beatitudes (vv.3-6)

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. 6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. 

Powell states: “All four of the beatitudes in the first stanza may reasonably be interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate, and some of the beatitudes in this stanza can be reasonably interpreted only in this way” (122). With this approach, these are not virtues that one should aspire to, but they are circumstances in which people find themselves.

Poor in spirit. The word ptochoi (poor) is used to translate Hebrew ʿănāwîm in the LXX, the dispossessed and abandoned ones in Israel. The phrase alludes to an Old Testament theme which underlies all the beatitudes, that of the ‘poor’ or ‘meek’ (‘ānî or ‘ānāw) who occur frequently in the Psalms and elsewhere (Isa. 61:1–2, alluded to in v. 4, and Ps. 37, alluded to in v. 5), those who humbly trust God, even though their loyalty results in oppression and material disadvantage, in contrast with the ‘wicked’ who arrogantly set themselves up against God and persecute his people. The emphasis is on piety and suffering, and on dependence on God, not on material poverty as such.

It is likely that Matthew extends the image beyond Israel to the dispossessed and abandoned people of the world in general. The ʿănāwîm were often noted as much for their piety as for their poverty. The general thought seems to be that they trust in God more profoundly than most because they have no hope in this world. However, Matthew’s inclusion of “in spirit” indicates something more than just financial poverty, but also spiritual poverty: the loss of hope.

Powell (124) notes that in Matthew’s Gospel the poor in spirit are not people who trust in God because they have no reason for hope in this world. They are people who have no reason for hope in this world, period. Boring (178) says it a little differently:

From the time of the composition of the Psalms, “The poor” had been understood as a characterization of the true people of God, those who know their lives are not in their own control and that they are dependent on God. … What is at stake in the phrase … is neither economics nor spirituality, but the identity of the people of God – a Matthean theme (1:21).

Being “poor in spirit” is not a characteristic one would seek, but it is a characteristic of the people of God.

Remembering the earlier point that the Beatitudes are unconditional performance language that those who are x will be y, Powell suggests that in the main clause of this beatitude

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

The Greek hoti autōn estin hē basileia tōn ouranōn (lit. because they are the kingdom of heaven) can also validly be translated as

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for of them is the kingdom of heaven”

It is in this translation that one sees the honor bestowed upon them by God – they are no longer the ptochoi but have become the kingdom themselves by placing themselves under heaven’s rule. It is in this that they possess dikaiosynē. This further emphasizes the idea of the formation of a messianic community.

Those who mourn. This is not necessarily the bereaved, or even the penitent. Boring (178-9) notes that at one level Matthew here taps into the deep biblical tradition that one of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God’s people and God’s program in the world (see Lamentations; the lament Psalms; etc.). In Isa 61:1-11, on which the beatitudes are based, the community laments the desolation of the holy city. Those who mourn do not resign themselves to the present condition of the world as final, but lament the fact that God’s kingdom has not yet come and that God’s will is not yet done (6:10) ).

At another level, those who mourn are the suffering, those whose life is, from a worldly point of view, an unhappy one, and particularly those who suffer for their loyalty to God (see on v. 3). This meaning too echoes Isaiah 61:2, which promises consolation as a part of the Messiah’s work. In God’s salvation they will find a happiness which transcends their worldly condition. Powell (135) writes: “If the poor in spirit are those who find no reason for hope in this life, then the ones who mourn are those who find no cause for joy. They are blessed because ‘they will be comforted,’ a divine passive that implies God will act, so they need mourn no more.”

The meek. Meekness as a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry is stressed by Matthew (11:29; 12:15–21; 21:5). The meek echoes the same Old Testament idea as the ‘poor in spirit’. The Greek praus is a term also used in the LXX for the ʿănāwîm. It can have a positive sense of “humble” or “gentle,” but it can also have the negative sense “humiliated.” The language here clearly alludes to Ps 37:11, where the context stresses the oppression of the poor by the wicked. It is likely that this beatitude speaks of those who have been humbled, bent over by the injustice of an oppressor. They “inherit” their blessing. It is not a reward that one earns, but a gift for which one must wait.

“Meekness” is a key Matthean word that characterizes the reversal of this-worldly ideas of kingship (11:29; 12:18-21; 21:5); “Meekness” is here a synonym for “poor in spirit” (v. 3); it is not a matter of a particular attitude one is urged to adopt, but characterizes those who are aware of their identity as the oppressed people of God in the world, those who have renounced the violent methods of this-worldly power.

In Ps 37 the concern is primarily with the land of Palestine. Jesus applies it not territorially, but in terms of the ultimate vindication of the meek. God will give them the high place they would not seize for themselves. In Matthew, the gift of “earth” or “land” (ges) indicates what the praus are lacking: “The praus are ones who have not been given their share of the earth. They have been denied access to the world’s resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people” (Powell, 126).

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The images of “hunger” and “thirst” not only depict desire, but also deprivation – the people who do not experience justice –  the people who know that God’s will is not being done on earth. Righteousness is a key Matthean concept, which retains both its primary meaning of actively doing the will of God (as in 6:1-18) and, like its Old Testament counterpart (sedada), the eschatological activity of God (6:33; cf. Isa 51:1, 5). Thus persons who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not those who merely long to be personally pious or idealistic dreamers or do-gooders, but, like those of 5:4, they are persons who long for the coming of God’s kingdom and the vindication of right, which will come with it, and who on the basis of this hope actively do God’s will now. This longing is no empty hope, but God will satisfy it.

Summarizing the First Stanza. In short, the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Paradoxically, these are conditions that characterize no one at all when God’s will is done.

A summary about the first four:

Theologically, then, the point of these first four beatitudes is not to offer “entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven” but to describe the nature of God’s rule, which characterizes the kingdom of heaven …. The people who benefit when God rules, Jesus declares, are those who otherwise have no reason for hope or cause for joy, who have been denied their share of God’s blessings in this world and deprived of justice – in short, people for whom things have not been the way they ought to be. For such people, the coming of God’s kingdom is a blessing, because when God rules, all this will change and things will be set right. (Powell, 129-130)

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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