When you Presbyterian women asked me to write this study, one of your instructions was that I should tackle Jesus' beatitudes both in the gospel according to Matthew (Mt. 5:3-12) and in the gospel according to Luke (Lk. 6:20-26). [You can find all of your “marching orders” to me on the inside front cover of your study book.] That's not as easy as it sounds as there are some significant differences between the two.
Take, for instance, the first beatitude. The author of Luke records Jesus saying, “Greatly honored are you who are ptochoi (destitute).” The author of Matthew records Jesus saying “Greatly honored are the ptochoi (destitute) in spirit.” These seem to be saying quite different things.
It is tempting to ignore the rendering of the first beatitude in Luke, and insist that the first beatitude in Matthew has to do with humility and piety. While that is certainly a valid way to interpret these ancient teachings, perhaps it doesn't take Jesus seriously enough. Let's consider what Jesus actually says in Greek:
First of all, both in Matthew and in Luke, Jesus uses the word ptochoi. This is the masculine, plural form of the Greek adjective ptochos. (Masculine plural, in the ancient world, was often used to include women and men, just as mankind was used in the 1950s in the USA). What does ptochos mean?
According to the most recent Bauer, Danker, Ardt and Gingrich (BDAG) lexicon, (what scholars call the “gold standard” of biblical Greek lexica), ptochos primarily means “dependent upon others for support.” This is distinguished from those who are the working poor, or the penes. BDAG says the penes are “obliged to work for a living but not reduced to begging.” To take Jesus seriously, we must reflect upon Jesus' use of the word for the destitute in the first beatitude.
In Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking economically. After he calls the beggars in the crowd “greatly honored,” he turns his scorn on those who have, as BDAG puts it “an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience.” To these, Jesus says “Woe to you” or “Shame on you” who are affluent (plousioi) now, for you already have your reward."
Why does this matter?
Even before we tackle the last two words in the beatitudes of Matthew ("in spirit"), we who live and work in the rich, global north are confronted with an uncomfortable truth. In Luke, Jesus is distinguishing between those who have an abundance of possessions and those who are destitute and dependent on others. Jesus is intentionally reversing their order of importance in the kingdom of God. To take Jesus seriously, we must realize that poverty and wealth mattered to Jesus. And as Jesus' disciples, if poverty and wealth mattered to Jesus, both should matter to us.
Now that we have a little bit more insight into the beatitudes in Luke, let's consider: what do we do with the last two words of Matthew? What might it mean to be destitute in spirit?
Many have suggested that destitution in spirit is a sense of spiritual mourning—a recognition of one's state of sinfulness and dependence upon God for grace. And, it is true that one act of the grace we are given by the sovereign God is the gift of self-recognition, of acknowledging our own sinfulness and our own need for the grace and goodness of God.
But what if we hold Luke and Matthew together, rather than reading them as two radically different sermons by Jesus? What if we read Jesus' first beatitude in Matthew as a call to honor those for whom physical destitution has started to eat away even at their spirits—for whom the reality of life at the mercy of others has begun to destroy their very souls, and their sense of hope?
This is going on today in India, the nation to which some of you will be traveling for the Global Exchange this October. For the last few years, India has been facing a massive economic crisis in its farm belt—a crisis brought on by environmental change, the depletion of the water table, industrially-produced seeds and pesticides that wreak further damage on the environment and insurmountable debt. This economic crisis has left working farmers penniless, losing everything including their family land.
The result of this destitution has been despair—a ripping at the souls of these farmers to the point that thousands of them have been committing suicide every year. According to a May 11, 2011 report Every Thirty Minutes from the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide for these reasons in the last 16 years.
I learned about this crisis one summer day in 2008, as I sat in worship at the United Theological College of Bangalore. And as I listened to the sermon preached that day in chapel, I wondered whether this too was what Jesus might have meant by the “destitute in spirit.” What might it mean to be so impoverished that your very spirit is shattered, and you feel that life itself is not worth living? What might it mean to be in so far over your head that the only reasonable escape you can find is to drink poison?
And what might it mean to us today, as Jesus' disciples, to honor those who are both destitute and destitute in spirit: to honor them not because they are sinless or in any way perfect, but because we are the disciples of Jesus Christ, he who proclaimed good news to the poor (Lk. 4), and who taught that what we do to “the least of these” we do to Christ himself (Mt. 25)?
So what do you think? How do you read the first beatitude? Feel free to respond with a comment below.
I will leave you with a confession of faith from one of the workshops from the 2011 Alabama/Mississippi Women's Conference.
We believe God is a compassionate God who cares about creation. God is loving and just. God calls us to be hands working to honor the destitute. Our loving, just, gracious God includes the poor in the kingdom. Hidden survivors of discrimination by material society, government and the church are destitute and are in the kingdom of God. If we honor the destitute, it would open our churches to include everyone, and connect us to our sisters and brothers in Christ. Presbyterian Women are called to build an inclusive, caring society that opens its heart and arms to all of God's children and bears witness to the steadfast love of Christ. Presbyterian Women are called by God in Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to find ways and means of feeding, clothing, housing and nurturing the poor and the destitute, the affluent and wealthy, and all created in God's image so all may glorify God and sing praises to God forever. “Forgiven and freed by God in Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit we commit ourselves to nurture our faith through prayer and Bible study to support the mission of the church worldwide, to work for justice and peace; to build an inclusive, caring community of women that strengthens the Presbyterian Church (USA) and witnesses to the promise of God's Kingdom.” (Montgomery, AL, 21 July 2011)