In the first of the eight beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says those who are in a state of poverty possess the kingdom of heaven. But who are the poor in Matthew 5:3?

The word poor (ptōchos, πτωχός) normally refers to economic poverty, and this particular word refers to the poorest person in a society, people who are dependent on others to survive. There are other words Matthew could have used for poverty, but he chose a word to describe the lowliest of the low.

Jesus and the PoorJesus is using poverty here to describe a spiritual state, they are “poor in spirit.” In Luke 6:20 the saying is only, “poor in spirit.” There are several options for explaining the difference. First, Jesus may have said something like Matthew 5:3 on many occasions, adding “in spirit” sometimes and other times omitting it. Second, Matthew may have added the phrase to clarify what kind of poverty Jesus had in mind, or Luke may have omitted it for his own theological reasons. Third, both Matthew and Luke are trying to tease out what Jesus said in Aramaic and translated the word ʿānî (עָנִי or ʿānāw, עָנָו) with a slightly different nuance of meaning. McKnight calls the followers of Jesus the Anawim, the “poor ones” who are disciples of Jesus.

McKnight argues the “poor in spirit” here should be understood in the context of the ʿānî (עָנִי), the poor of Psalm 149:4, the Lord “adorns the humble with salvation.” But there are other texts which refer to the poor in the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 49:13, when Zion is renewed the Lord “will have compassion on his afflicted ʿānî (עָנִי)” (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2; 66:2). The noun has the sense of wretchedly poor, which McKnight relates to the extreme poverty of the post exilic community who still completed the task of rebuilding the temple and anticipated the coming of the messiah to render justice. This is a fair analogy, but the LXX does not always translate the noun the ʿānî (עָנִי) with πτωχός.

The Qumran community described themselves as the poor (Nolland, Matthew, 200). The noun ʿānî (עָנִי) appears some 25 times in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, 1Q28b Col. v:22, when the Lord renews his covenant with the Qumran community “to establish his kingdom forever,” the poor will be judged with justice and the “humble of the earth” will be judged with uprightness. This is at least some evidence of another Jewish group besides the followers of Jesus thought of themselves as “the poor ones” the Lord will adorn with salvation when the Kingdom of God finally comes.

In contrast to what might be expected by the Jewish or Greco-Roman world, these utterly poor people will be the ones who receive the Kingdom of God. For a Jewish person, a righteous person expected to enter into the future kingdom of God. One way to determine whether a person was righteous or not was observe their material blessings (remember Job?) After all, the Law says the one who kept the Law would be blessed, the one who does not is cursed. In both cases, this is a material physical blessing. A wealthy person may have consider themselves righteous because they had been blessed by God.

Jesus reverses this expectation in his daily practice of reaching out to the poor, the outsiders and people considered to be sinners by the righteous who expect to enter the kingdom. There are two important passages later in Matthew which illustrate this beatitude. First, in Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus says many will come from the east and west to sit at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the self-righteous Pharisees will be thrown outside where there is darkness, weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Second, in Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding banquet points out the ones who thought they ought to enter into the banquet (the coming kingdom) will be destroyed and not enter the kingdom they thought was theirs. Instead, the poor will be gather up and enter into the banquet.

Here is the problem for a contemporary application of this saying: The original Jesus followers really did live out a life of voluntary poverty. They left everything in order to follow Jesus, and continued to live out that life of poverty even after the resurrection. Acts 2:42-47 indicates the earliest Jesus followers sold property to meet the daily needs of the community. James the Just becomes the leader of this community and has a great deal to say about the dangers of wealth in the letter of James to Jewish diaspora communities. The earliest Jesus people often lived a life of voluntary poverty because they were following Jesus and living as he did.

But that is not the way contemporary Christian lives in the western world. For many in America, church is “big business.” So the poverty Jesus is talking about must be some kind of spiritual poverty (for example, this explanation from the Billy Graham website). Is that really what Jesus is talking about in these open lines of the Sermon on the Mount? How does a western Christian live out the ideal found in this beatitude?