Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Matt 5:3 - those who Lack the Spirit?

Dr. Bob Robinson was my teacher for Kingdom Ethics: A Study of the Sermon on the Mount paper, and it was fantastic.  We discussed the Beatitudes. After the class I sat down with the text and just worked through them one by one. What struck me was the usual interpretation of Matt 5:3.
Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι,
ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
There is some interesting discussion on the translation of Μακάριος, which I translate as Blessed by God or Privileged by God... The interesting thing that I noted however, was the translation of πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι - which is usually translated as the poor in spirit - a reference taken to mean those economically marginalised and bankrupt. However, I'm not convinced this is accurate. Instead I'm thinking through a translation like this:
Privileged by God are those who lack the Spirit,
for Heaven’s Kingdom is theirs.
Here's my rationale: Matt 3:11; 12:28; 22:43 all refer to the Spirit of God. Matt 3:11 has noted John's prophecy that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Scholars agree that a background to the beatitudes is probably Isaiah 61, which notes that:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners...
If this is true, then we could have Jesus' announcement of blessing/privilege to his audience consisting of an announcement concerning the Holy Spirit, which is now available through Jesus to anyone who lacks the Spirit. What a blessing!
I recognise that there are possible problems with the construction (See the criticism of Luz, Matthew 1-7, pg. 191 n. 59), but it does appear to make more sense than the usual interpretation, which ignores τῷ πνεύματι.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, pg. 165 sees this as a "poverty in spirit" but in a positive spiritual orientation, the converse of the arrognat self-confidence which not only rides roughshod over the interest of other people but more importantly causes a person to treat God as irrelevant. This is closer to my understanding, but again, it forces πνεύματι to refer to the human spirit which is impoverished or lacking, when Matthew's usage suggests a reference to the Divine Spirit.
Thoughts? Have I missed something?


Eddie said...


If Matthew intends Jesus words to be understood as reference to the Spirit of God, then how do we relate this to the parallel in Luke where Jesus simply says 'poor' with no reference to 'Spirit'? (Lk 6.20) Surely Luke intends material poverty ('but woe to you who are rich...' 6.22)

Because of this parallel, should Matthew's additional (?) reference to the Spirit then be understood in the tradition of the 'righteous poor' who plead their case before God against their oppressors?

Sean said...

Luke's account is either a redaction from Matthew, or drawn from an independent tradition (Q?). So I'm not sure we can determine Matthew's meaning, with reference to Luke. Luke has a special interest in the poor, as in those economically disadvantaged. But given the reason's above, I suggest that Matthew is using "poor" as a metaphor.

The reference to the "righteous poor" in the psalms is only of limited value, perhaps helpful in interpreting Matt 11:5; 19:21; 26:9, 11. So yeah.