“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-3, NRSV)
So opens Matthew’s account of the first beatitude. Luke’s version is a bit different: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20, NRSV).
A generation of commentators sometimes found the differences important. They argued that Luke’s simpler account was probably older and often drew a contrast between what they thought to be Luke’s focus on the economically poor versus Matthew’s “spiritualization” of poverty.
I tend to agree with more recent commentators who argue both Matthew and Luke have something similar in mind: those who have learned to place their hope in God rather than economics or self-righteousness.
While some in the first century may have seen poverty as blessed, most did not. In fact, many viewed wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as punishment from God. Jesus’ statement, therefore, runs counter to at least one significant strand of popular first-century piety. Certainly, the beatitude challenges our own culture’s myth that wealth equals blessing.
“Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” should be regarded as interchangeable. Both refer to the active “rule of God.” Christian theological language was fluid throughout the first century, and we ought not to demand excessive precision.
“Blessed” (makarioi) is an interesting term. Our term “beatitudes” actually comes from the Latin. The Greek term, though, means “fortunate,” “happy” and the like.
“Happy” is a fine translation, but it may miscommunicate Jesus’ intent. We tend to think of happiness as a feeling. Jesus, I think, had something else in mind. Let’s assume he thought in terms of the Hebrew Bible. If I understand correctly, ashrei is a Hebrew term that may be translated as “blessed” or “fortunate.” We find it used, I believe, in Proverbs 3:13: “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom.” The section goes on to say of wisdom (verse 17), “…her ways are pleasant ways.” The key idea is that a person is blessed or fortunate if he finds and follows the way of wisdom. Genuine happiness is found in taking the right journey or embracing the right perspective.
The first beatitude teaches that real happiness lies in recognizing and embracing our poverty, our need of God. When our eyes are opened, we see the futility of clinging to the lie of self-sufficiency and are freed to accept the help which comes only from God. The old Edenic lie (“you shall be as god” unto yourself, and this will make you complete) dies, to be replaced by an acceptance of our finitude and God’s grace. To put it another way, profound humility before God turns out to be key to joy.
Mike Smith is pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.