In a recent post titled “Radical Beatitudes,” I embarked on the first of a series of posts dedicated to the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew. In that post, I sought to establish a context for the radicalism of Jesus’s teachings to a Jewish audience in the 1st century of the common area when Rome was the dominant political reality.
Today I endeavor to write about the first of these Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But before I get into “poor in spirit,” I will briefly discuss the notion of “blessed,” for each of the Beatitudes begin with this term which, as I discussed in my previous post of the series, can, thanks to issues of translation, be problematic to an understanding of Jesus’s teachings.
Just one note before beginning: in no way does this (nor any other upcoming posts) claim to be an exhaustive interpretation of the text. I recognize the text is open to a multitude of interpretations, this being just one based primarily on the text’s linguistic implications.
The English beatitude is a translation of the Latin beatus, meaning “‘happy, fortunate, blissful'” (Forest 17). Meaning “something consecrated to or belonging to God,” blessed, in turn, is used is employed for the Greek term markarios which is “used throughout the beatitudes” (Forest 18, 19). Typically reserved for the gods in Classical Greek thought, markarios meant “‘being deathless, no longer subject to fate” (Forest 20). The gods were the blessed ones. So what does Jesus mean when he is saying one is blessed? In the Christian use, it “came to mean sharing in the life of God…a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it” (Forest 20).
So who then are those who come to share in the life of God?
According to the first beatitude, it is those who are poor in spirit.
Poor in Spirit
First thing to note is the “in spirit.” Many times have I heard the phrase cut to “Blessed are the poor” as if God is interested in one’s economic status. No. It is poor in spirit. The Greek term used here translated as poor is ptochos which means more than poor–it means utterly destitute (Forest 24). (Penes is the word that best suits the English “poor” and you can be poor without being destitute.) Ptochos contained within it the meanings of begging, on “being dependent on the help of strangers” (Verbrugge 503).
So what of spirit? The Greek is pneuma which, like the Hebrew ruah, also referred to the “dynamic movement of wind,” to blow, breath and to breathe (Verbrgge 473). Ruah is that which God blew into Adam in the Book of Genesis–its is the animating life force and it “denotes the power that humans experience that relates them to the spiritual realm, the realm of reality that lies beyond ordinary observation and human control” (474).
In The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus, Neil Douglas-Klotz attempts to reconstruct Jesus’s teachings based on the Peshitta, the Bible for many Eastern Christians, written in Western Aramaic. Since Jesus spoke Aramaic, Douglas-Klotz’s perspective is that in looking at Jesus’s teachings as presented in an Aramaic text, we may gain deeper insight into Jesus’s message since the Gospels, written in Greek, contain, then, an understanding of Jesus as informed by Greek nuances and worldview which, in many ways, is radically different than an ancient Jewish worldview. Like the Hebrew ruah, the Aramaic ruha (and the Greek pneuma) “must stand for several English words: spirit, wind, air, breath” (42). English translations miss these important nuances. An understanding of “spirit,” that is, must include the ideas of wind, air, breath.
Putting the Two Together
So what do we have in the first half of the first Beatitude? Again, just to emphasize:
2) Poor means utterly destitute, dependent on others, and begging–that is recognizing one’s destitution and doing something about it.
3) Spirit–that power that connects one to God, to a reality greater than oneself.
So what does it mean to say “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”
It seems to me that Jesus is saying those who recognize their utter destitution, those who recognize their dependence, their lack of connection with a reality greater than themselves (many call that God) and are willing to do something about it, to change their destitute state, can share in the divine life.
[As an interesting side note, the connection of spirit to breath, I think, is crucial as is demonstrated by the importance of meditation, which often centers around the concentration on and control over the breath, is found in so many religious traditions across the globe. (This focus on breath, meditation, as a means of coming into contact with a greater reality is not limited to the so-called “World Religions” of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–it is also found within many indigenous traditions as well.)]
For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Heaven–that’s the place in the clouds where when I die I’ll (maybe) get angel wings and see my dearly departed loved ones right? Maybe listen to some angels playing harps?
At least not according to the Gospels.
Two things of import here, in the second half of the Beatitude.
First, Jesus is speaking in the present tense. He is speaking about the Kingdom of Heaven now. So in the case of this Beatitude, those who are beggars in spirit–doing something to change their destitute state–are already present in the Kingdom.
Second, the Greek term used for heaven in the Gospels is ouranos, of ancient mythology. Eventually, as the ancient mythology dissolved, ouranos was associated with the sky. The Aramaic word translated as “heaven” is shemaya, derived from shem, which means light. And like most Aramaic words, a one to one translation of shemaya as light is misleading, for it can also mean “word, sound, reputation, and atmosphere” (Douglas-Klotz 69-70) and even in the Gospel according to Matthew (which, many scholars suggest was written for a Jewish-Christian audience) “the air can also be called heaven” (Verbrugge 423).
A connection perhaps with the Beatitude’s first half? Spirit–again, implying wind and breath. What is wind? What is breath? It is air, the sky. Heaven, in other words, is all around us all the time. We just don’t see it and in not seeing it we are likely not to participate in it let alone seek it. This is why Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven in the present. He is not talking about a place we go to after we die. He is talking (much like the so-named “heretical” Gospel of Thomas) about seeing the Kingdom of Heaven spread out before our very eyes.
It is of no inconsequence that “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is the first beatitude. It is the starting point.
How does one start? Seems to me that nestled in there, in Jesus’s teachings, when we look beyond the English (or any other language in which the text is translated), we find that perhaps the starting point is, much like Heaven itself, there all the time.
Can we begin to see the Kingdom of Heaven start with something as simple as breath? Again, just a starting point, but a point from which to start. It’s something we all do already. Perhaps it is not something many of us do consciously.
But it is easy: all you have to do is close your eyes (heck, you don’t even have to do that) and just focus on your breath one breath at a time.
And if you want it, if you beg for it, if you keep it up, perhaps you will see that Kingdom of Heaven that is yours, for you are blessed. You share, that is, in the life of God.
Go ahead, try it.
And a question to end: Have you ever felt spiritually impoverished? If so, what did you do about it? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experience.
Douglas-Klotz, Neil. The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of Aramaic Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1999.
Forest, Jim. The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.
Verbrugge, Verlyn D. (ed). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.