Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3 (NRSV)
In early first century Israel, there was no middle class the way we think of it. At the top of the heap were the rich few. These were typically government officials or religious officials who cooperated with the government. Archaeological finds in Jerusalem tell us, for instance, that Herod’s mansion quickly gave rise to a rich neighborhood (inhabited by the Sanhedrin) who began to copy the features and styles of Herod’s house.
The Roman Empire boasted some truly magnificent accomplishments in architecture, engineering, monuments, etc. Those things did not come without a price. That money had to come from somewhere, and where it came from were taxes and levies against the provinces Rome had conquered. In your region, your tax collectors were probably your own people working for the Roman government, and they didn’t mind charging a little extra for themselves.
In this way, wealth was a uniter of the power structure in Rome and in Judea in specific. If you were the government-appointed High Priest, you were wealthy. If you were a tax collector, you were wealthy. If you were a Senator or a governor, you were wealthy. If you were Sanhedrin, you were wealthy. With few exceptions, wealth identified you as being on top of the heap and generally in cahoots.
Most of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, however, was inhabited by the poor – the people who paid taxes, fines, etc. And these taxes were crippling. If you had a farm, the odds were good Rome would own your farm in short order and you would be a sharecropper on it. Most Israelites who owned their own land quickly lost it to the rich because of these taxes. This debt led to indentured servitude, sharecropping, and a cycle you were unlikely to break out of. The odds of you and your children getting that land back were slim to none, because the engine of Empire just kept slowly grinding you down, down, down financially.
This provides some context as to why the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was such a clever trap. If Jesus says yes, then he loses his following of the common people longing for the restoration of Israel. If Jesus says no, then he becomes an insurrectionist and subject to punishment by Rome.
The insidious power of money! Taxation, wealth, and poverty were not just bare facts of economic life, they were a political tool used to strengthen Rome and her supporters and weaken those who might dare to raise their heads up. This is such an important thing to keep in mind as we think about Jesus’ comments about money. Every coin is covered in the blood of Israel and the breath of the Dragon.
Imagine with me, if you will, the utter hopelessness of the vast majority of Israelites living in slums and temporary housing to work fields and vineyards that might have belonged to their fathers, only to yield up all their labor to the Empire in exchange for some morsels of food and basic staples. If you have ever been in debt that you felt you would never see the end of, perhaps you can begin to understand that feeling of anxiety, hopelessness, and futility that Israel must have felt a hundred times greater.
In Luke’s version of this verse, he simply says, “The poor,” not “the poor in spirit.” The spirit part is Matthew’s inclusion and has prompted all kinds of speculation, most of which involves trying to keep Jesus from talking about actual poor people.
But this addition makes sense, especially as the introductory Beatitude, against the Old Testament background Matthew has so freely drawn from.
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;
Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV)
The word “oppressed” in the NRSV is often translated “poor” in other translations, but the net effect is the same.
This is part of an extended passage in Isaiah about the great Day of the Lord where God will answer the oppression of Israel by Assyria. From the previous chapters in Isaiah, we learn this Day will include:
- The repentance of Israel and the forgiveness of her sins
- The removal of corrupt judges and cheating merchants
- The overthrow of Israel’s corrupt rulers
- The return of God’s presence
- The leading of the other nations to the worship of YHVH
- The gathering of the exiled
- A kingdom of shalom and justice
- The deliverance of Israel from her enemies and their destruction
All these things are announced by the Lord’s anointed by the Spirit. He brings with him the Good News that this deliverance has arrived, and the poor rejoice to see it. And now we are in a position to understand why Matthew uses the phrase, “ptochoi to pneumati.” It’s not technically “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “blessed are the poor in THE Spirit.”
The Spirit has anointed Jesus to bring this gospel – this good news – this ministry of the kingdom of God – to the poor. Luke makes this connection overt when he has Jesus read Isaiah 61 in a synagogue and announce that the Scripture was fulfilled that very day in their hearing. Matthew takes us down a slightly different trail, but we end up at the same place.
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Matthew 11:4-6 (NRSV)
Jesus has brought good news in the Spirit to the poor: the Day of the Lord is at hand. The power structure that crushes them is about to itself be crushed. The downtrodden are about to be restored. Those who are needy now will soon need nothing.
That’s all fine and good for the poor Jesus spoke to, but what about the poor, today? What about people who live in cyclical poverty – people who are ground under that same engine of power and wealth that makes itself powerful and wealthy at their expense? The historical moment where Jesus comes to liberate Israel from her oppression has come and gone. That Empire, that High Priest, those tax collectors (with a couple of notable exceptions) are dust. Is Jesus still good news for the poor, even though this specific expectation and time in history has passed?
I will say yes, because to hope in Jesus on our side of history is to hope in the new creation. As we speak, believers are living with and caring for these poor. They are selling their possessions and giving their money. They are prophetically speaking out against the corruption and the evil practices of power and wealth in the empires of this world and calling people to a better way – a way of life under the risen Lord Jesus where we sacrificially care for the poor. These people are spreading new creation. They carry the kingdom wherever they go, in an ever-expanding sphere.
The poor have a reason to hope when they hear the feet, not of Jesus as the people heard him in Matthew, but of the people filled with his Spirit. To them belongs the power to bring good news. To them belongs the authority and mission to heal and restore, not just in Israel, but in all the nations. In some places and in some times, this mission may go better than others, but even should poverty not be wiped out by love in our time, resurrection and a new world are waiting, and Jesus is already there, beckoning us forward.
- Why do you think both Testaments show such a strong bias for the poor?
- Some have said that proclamation of the gospel must take precedence over taking care of physical needs. Are these different things? Were they different to Jesus?
- In what ways might you be a blessing to the poor in the Spirit?