Friday, February 4, 2011

Matthew 5:3 The Pentecostal Beatitude - Blessed are they who lack the Spirit…

…because in the kingdom of heaven, which is theirs, they receive him." (JBP, aka the Joe Bonham Paraphrase) I have never thought of this first beatitude as talking about the Holy Spirit until I was convinced by the sermon on the mount. I recently found out that the sermon on the mount is actually a form of rabbinic midrash on the Beatitudes. In other words, the sermon on the mount illustrates and applies each beatitude to real every day life, one by one, in reverse order.
When I correlated the sections, some were obvious. Some were not. I am convinced that the only section that makes perfect sense for ‘being poor in spirit’ is Mat 6:7-11. At first glance you might be puzzled by this assertion. Neither the words ‘poor’ nor ‘spirit’ appear in this passage, and there are other sections that speak of being poor in regards to the treasures of this world. If you compare Mathew’s version of this teaching with Luke’s record/interpretation of it in Luke 11:9-13, you will see that Luke knows that Jesus is not speaking of just any good gift the Father gives, but THE GOOD GIFT the Father gives, the Spirit. This also makes good sense with Isaiah 61:1-3, from which all the Beatitudes are in some way derived. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me….” Since all the Beatitudes are really veiled commands to emulate the characteristics in them, the implication is that we should all humble ourselves in realizing both the lack of the Spirit in our lives, and our need for him. It is a question of attitude. Do we feel we need the Spirit? Do we want the Spirit? Do we hunger for this Spirit?

The only debate left in my mind is how many other sections of the sermon on the mount are related to being “poor in Spirit”. The following section on false prophets (verse 15-27) might be tied to it since the implication is they speak by a false “spirit”. The section on lawlessness might also make sense since there is a connection in Hebrew thought between the breath/spirit of the mouth and the commands the same mouth utters. In other words those without the Spirit are lawless individuals, and no amount of miracles will save such false prophets who live like the devil. The lesson in the whole section is that you don’t have to depend on false prophets to give you the words, commands, and miracles of God. You can ask the Father and he will give you the Spirit. By having the Spirit you will have the words of God, follow the commands of God, and experience the power of God. No false messiah offering to usher in the age of the Spirit need lead you astray.

So why would Jesus say the poor in Spirit “have the kingdom of heaven” instead of “receive the Spirit” or “receive the promise”? The other Beatitudes make at least some logical sense, the merciful receive mercy, the hungry are filled, the humble/poor inherit the earth. But what about this one? One reason is the poetic structure in the original languages, where “belongs the kingdom of heaven” is mirrored with “inherit the earth”. Another reason is that receiving the Spirit was synonymous with the coming of the kingdom of heaven in Jewish apocalyptic thought. When God shows up in the end times to judge the wicked, reward the righteous, fix everything wrong with the world and set up his kingdom here, passages like Joel 2 made it clear that the Spirit would be poured out. In fact, many times the reward that the righteous receive in Jewish writings is the Spirit. The two ideas are inherently related to the end-times-kingdom-at-hand message Jesus preached.

The other reason this is the likely understanding of the first Beatitude is that it would have been indistinguishable from the third beatitude in the language Jesus originally spoke them had it not been for the addition “in Spirit”. While “poor” and “meek” are distinguishable words in Greek, in Hebrew (and Aramaic for that matter) they are essentially the same word, אנו. Why have two Beatitudes with no difference between them? Repetition is common in Semitic poetry, but then the other Beatitudes would have been repeated too if this were an example of Hebrew parallelism. The two Beatitudes are so similar in fact that some early Church Fathers thought the third to be a mere interpretation of the first. Some ancient manuscripts even go so far to switch the order of the beatitudes to have these two together. All this had led some modern scholars to believe that Jesus never said the third Beatitude at all. When compared to the sermon on the mount, not only are the first and third Beatitude distinguishable in meaning, they appear in their proper order. When Jesus comes to explain the third Beatitude he talks of it in its Hebrew/Aramaic meaning, אנו “poor, afflicted, humble, lowly” and warns of laying up treasures only in this world and not in the world to come. But when he comes to the first Beatitude, he does not speak of אנו as poverty or prosperity. He speaks of it as lacking and asking the Father for “good gifts,” aka the Spirit. I also think this is persuasive evidence that the phrase “in spirit” was not just an interpretation added by Mathew when compared to Luke. There would be no reason to add “in spirit” in the Greek language, for the two Beatitudes already use different words. But you would need to add “in spirit” to the first Beatitude when it was originally spoken in Aramaic. While most think that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is ‘more historically accurate’ and Mathew’s version has lots of interpretive expansions, I think the opposite is likely true. Luke’s version is a slimmed down bare bones version of the Beatitudes whereas Mathew represents a more literal rendition of them.

One question remains. Why would Mathew hide the fact that Jesus was talking about the Spirit in 6:7-11? It certainly makes it very difficult to make the connection we’re supposed to make. Mathew is known for quoting common phrases in distinct ways. For example, whereas every other book of the Bible always calls it “the kingdom of God”, this phrase in Mathew often comes out as “the kingdom of heaven”. Other sections of the sermon on the mount seem to do the same thing. For example, Mat 5:43-48 is very obviously in the section talking about the 5th Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.” The difference between love and mercy in Rabbinic thought is thin, and their opposites of judgment and hate are obviously correlated here. All of these verses have parallels elsewhere in the Gospels, but here Mathew changes a few key words. Verse 43, instead of the expected “love” we have the word “persecute” (making this verse easily confused with the 8th Beatitude). In verse 47 we have “greet” instead of “love”. And in verse 48 we have “perfect” instead of “merciful”. Why is this cover up happening? One suggestion is that it is an unintentional side affect of the telephone game where Jesus’ spoken Aramaic gets orally transmitted in Hebrew and then written in Greek. Perhaps the alteration is more intentional though. Perhaps Mathew is making the sermon on the mount a living parable, so that only the faithful and devout who take time to think critically about it will see its meaning clearly. Another possibility is that a later scribe was deliberately trying to connect this passage, rather artificially, to the 8th Beatitude, rather than the 5th. Whichever the answer is, the over arching chiastic structure of the sermon in relation to the Beatitudes is indestructible. It would take more than changing a few words to miss. Whole sections would have to disappear or appear to obscure Jesus' message here. Here is the Spirit. Come, believe, and receive.

My interpretation of the first Beatitude runs contrary to a lot of smart scholars and commentaries I consulted, that basically all say that this is either the “spiritually bankrupt”, or “pious poor” who depend on God. They have good linguistic arguments, but I think they are wrong because context trumps everything. Their definitions are better suited for the third Beatitude. But the heart and soul of any interpretation is friendly debate. It could appear that my interpretation serves my Pentecostal bias, nothing more. What do you think? Personally, I think my third paragraph about the Spirit’s connection to “having the kingdom of heaven” is my weakest argument and needs more support/quotes. Have any?

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