Living 10 years in Latin America, where one inevitably encounters poverty and is therefore affected by it, has shaped my life, my priorities, and my thinking.
What’s more, I was lucky enough not to live at arms length from those who were poor. Our family and the work of my parents had us building relationships with those who were poor. I got to listen to, had friendships with, and walked side-by-side with those who were struggling with poverty. These experiences and relationships have changed my life. Now, being formed by these relationships, I find myself continuing to walk with those who are poor. This has led me to work in prisons, homeless shelters, and in communities in South Africa where my hope is that I can be in solidarity with those whose lives are spent struggling against that which systemically causes, creates, or keeps people in poverty. This is, after all, a struggle for justice.
One reality, however, that continues to cause confusion, especially among Christians, is the question of whether the gospel message deals with economic or material realities. One verse that has caused much confusion is Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This verse begins one of the most powerful and revolutionary “sermons” or teachings ever articulated. The Sermon on the Mount, as it has become known, flipped many assumptions, expectations, and understandings of the day upside down. In fact it continues to do so. It articulates a seeming foolishness that we are called to trust, follow, and embody. In our world it seems to make no sense to love our enemies, go the second mile for those who are willing to exploit, forgive and pray for those who persecute us. Yet this is the upside down logic Jesus provides.
This sermon’s revolutionary nature is noteworthy. When we moved to Bolivia in 1980, the dictator Garcia Mesa had just come to office. Mesa made a list of books that were banned to Bolivian people. Included in this list were Matthew chapters 5-7! Why would a ruler ban these chapters? Because he recognized the danger they posed to his power, authority, and rulership. Mesa recognized that if his citizens were actually to practice what is taught in these three chapters, he would have a difficult time achieving his political goals. These chapters are revolutionary!
Unfortunately, we often interpret these passages (and even Jesus’ life and teachings in general) in ways that dilute its revolutionary character. We mold and interpret these passages in ways that are easier and safer to grasp, both politically and economically, so that, if we are in a position of power, we don’t have to feel too threatened by its message. We alter its good-news message so that it does not have to affect our positions of power and status.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is one such example. Sometimes it seems that North Americans gravitate towards Matthew’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to Luke’s version, perhaps in part because Matthew seems to “spiritualize” the situation–“Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew) as opposed to “Blessed are the poor” (Luke). Surely, it is thought, the good news is not just for the poor. For this reason we tend to understand that those who are spiritually poor are also somehow blessed. Surely, one might say, the gospel message isn’t making an economic statement. Matthew’s rendition provides more ambiguity than Luke’s, making its message easier to swallow, especially if we are not in a position of poverty.
Matthew 5:3 has been variously interpreted, with the hope that its ambiguity can be clarified. Several elements in this verse affect how it is interpreted. Let me identify some of these:
- Some translations include the verb “to know”: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor…” (Good News Bible). The Greek text does not include the verb meaning “to know”.
- Matthew’s version, as opposed to Luke’s, includes “in spirit.” The Good News Bible states, “spiritually poor”. These versions seem to reduce poverty to a form of spiritual poverty.
- In the Greek text, “spirit” is a noun not an adjective. The noun appears with a definite article “the”. The impact of this article is not present in many translations. In English this changes the meaning drastically. Instead of “Blessed are the poor in the spirit” (the poor who walk in the spirit), it is “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (those who have a poor spirit or who are spiritually poor). If the sustantive character is maintained, it points to a spirit that exists within poverty that is also foundational to the character of the kingdom of God. In other words, there is a particular spirit that the poor possess that is blessed. Author R. J. Suderman in Calloused Hands, Courageous Souls: Holistic Spirituality of Development and Mission states “…The poor recognize their dependence on others, understand human interdependence, see the evil of oppression, comprehend that their situation is unjust and struggle for the change they deserve. In other words, the spirit of the poor is a blessed spirituality.”
- The Greek text could also be translated: “Blessed are the poor through the spirit.” This translation puts the poor in a favored position. The word “with” could also be an option (“Blessed are the poor with the spirit”).
- “Blessed” is often used in a passive tense. In We Belong to this Land author and scholar Elias Chacour suggests that Jesus used the word ashray from the verb yashar. Both very active words that mean to act, move, turn around, repent or put oneself on the road.
These elements provide a potentially different way of translating this verse. If we were to incorporate these insights, it could read:
“May the poor get up, move, walk, and act in-with-through the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Put this way, the phrase sounds familiar and is in line with other teachings of Jesus:
- It affirms that the Spirit is with the poor.
- It suggests that the Spirit of the poor fits very well within the coming kingdom of God.
- It encourages the poor to move in the direction of the kingdom that has arrived.
- It suggests that as the poor move toward the kingdom, the kingdom will also be revealed in the world.
The situation of the poor will change with the presence of the kingdom. The poor are both the principle subject of the inauguration of the new kingdom and the necessary objects of its benefits. It is the poor and their situation that will be drastically transformed with the coming of the kingdom. R. J. Suderman writes, “Their situation will be transformed because the lack of equality, the oppression and the hunger and mistreatment that we understand as part of the situation of the poor in our world do not coincide with the character of this kingdom.”
R.J. Suderman suggests that this highlights the preferential option of the poor in God’s plan: “God opposes the oppressors, the wealthy and the powerful, who struggle to keep the situation as it is.” What’s more is that the spirituality found in poverty aligns with the spirituality required by God to enter the kingdom. Suderman continues, “To recognize the injustice that surrounds us, to discern the roots of oppression, to depend on the direction of the Holy Spirit, to share what little one has with the needy, to open oneself to new revelations of God and to recognize one’s dependence on God and our human interdependence are only some of the characteristics already present in the world of the poor and in the purpose of the kingdom of God.”
Such an alternative understanding moves us away from the ambiguous translation that somehow blesses a poor spirit. Poverty itself is not blessed. This understanding does not advocate that those who are poor should remain poor. This verse does not speak about poverty: it speaks about the poor. This alternate reading highlights that the spirit that the poor possess aligns better with what the kingdom of God is about, and with the economic, political, and social realities that are associated with the kingdom.
Blessed indeed is the spirit that the poor possess for it is a revolutionary spirit that challenges the political and economic assumptions that do not match with God’s alternative kingdom.
This article leans heavily on Calloused Hands, Courageous Souls: Holistic Spirituality of Development and Mission (R.J. Suderman, Monrovia, California: MARC books, 1998).