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Poor in Spirit

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  • E. Bruce Brooks
    Topic: Meaning of Poor in Spirit From: Bruce In Response To: MarkG (Synoptic-L My standard ( Dumb Guy ) response to this question would be to work inward
    Message 1 of 2 , May 13, 1999
      Topic: Meaning of "Poor in Spirit"
      From: Bruce
      In Response To: MarkG (Synoptic-L

      My standard ("Dumb Guy") response to this question would be to work inward
      from the Beatitudes as a whole. To me these seem to be, in typical cases,
      paradoxical inversions of normal expectation. A normal expectation would
      be: "Blessed are the rich, for they shall have political influence and thus
      enrich themselves further." The reversed expectations of the GMatt
      Beatitudes tend to be more along the lines of: "Blessed are those without
      seeming access to standard happiness or success, because their deficiency
      will be made good in the next world." Thus, those who mourn now (on the
      terrestrial plane) will be comforted later (by entering a higher state of
      felicity), and those without power now (the "meek") will later receive in
      some sense the whole world. Comfort is a blessing, but prior mourning is a
      condition of comfort; comfort has no meaning for, and is of no value to,
      the happy. Deprivation, far from excluding you, becomes your psychological
      prerequisite for bliss.

      From this angle, the "poor in spirit" are indeed interesting within the
      group. What deficiency is it that will later be supplied when they possess
      (or at any rate become part of) the Kingdom of Heaven? I would guess that
      it is a poverty of spiritual talent, the lack of a gift for mystical
      perceptions and ecstasies and the sense of direct communion with the deity
      through prayer, or lack of the suscepibility to be indwelt by spiritual
      forces such as produce the "speaking in tongues" phenomenon. That is, those
      presently without direct contact with the spiritual otherworld. These will
      in time be citizens of that otherworld, and thus possess in full and
      continually the now-esoteric knowledge which is only partially and
      intermittently channeled to their seemingly better endowed neighbors.

      The large point would then be that the message of Jesus is not exclusively
      for the rich, the happy, the conventionally pious, the spiritually
      talented, or those with other seeming material and spiritual advantages,
      but also, and especially, for their opposites. God is able to comfort and
      supply deficiencies, and is most Godlike when doing so.

      I can only suppose that this, to me obvious, explanation is the standard
      boring explanation (I have access only to philological and not to
      exegetical materials), and that MarkG is looking for something more
      interesting. I mention it here just to get it out of the way.

      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project

      NB: The above reading is challenged by #6 "Blessed are the pure in heart,
      for they shall see God." From the point of view of the meditation
      discipline (yoga and its descendants and cousins elsewhere), purity of
      heart/mind is the condition for access to the higher or other realm which
      is reached by cultivation of an undistracted and focused consciousness. It
      is precisely those who have stilled their hearts, technically, who proceed
      to have a vision of Ishvara or other local deity. In terms of that
      (esoteric) discipline, purity of heart is a good state and not a deprived
      state. This sentence thus does not function as a paradox, at least not for
      one who knows the technique. It is rather parallel to #4, those who hunger
      and thirst for righteousness, who shall eventually obtain their goal. If it
      proves analytically fruitful to analyze subsets within the series (and in
      terms of evolution within the Synoptic corpus, I think this quite likely),
      then #4 and #6 will be in the same subset; the esoteric or "seeker" subset.
      For unifying rhetorical purposes within the Matthean series, I imagine the
      common denominator is something like: Blessed are those without (or those
      still in quest of) spiritual and social advantages. As it might be:
      "Blessed are the confused innumerate, for they shall eventually behold the
      whole thing nicely added up, and Blessed also are the ardent math graduate
      students, for they shall yet solve one of the Hilbert Problems."


      Luke 6:17 has instead "blessed are the poor." And goes on in 6:24f to
      pronounce curses on those who are *not* deprived as abovementioned. The
      counterpart to the "poor" in 6:17 is the "rich" of 6:24. There is here no
      case of "spiritually rich;" money is involved. This difference is typical
      of Luke the social activist. His interest in the deprived class of women is
      merely another facet of it, as is the Magnificat, whose words are still
      very uncomfortable in the mouths of suburban choristers. GLuke's
      "this-world" social anger is one reason for its popularity in
      posttheological Christianity (the JS). GMatt's mainline status in
      still-theological Christianity is consistent with that version's spiritual
      focus. To see which better reflects the original thrust of the Jesus
      message, we perhaps have to go to GMark.

      Is there a directional pointer bretween Mt 5:3 and Lk 6:17? Assuredly there
      is a sequence, but I can imagine it being argued either way from the
      wording of the two passages. There may be something in the implied social
      conditions. GLk's audience seems concerned, doubtless among other things,
      about social justice in the here and now. GMt's audience seems more
      confined to a search for God or the Kingdom thereof. Both seem to be
      consistent with the presence of a Roman Imperial power, but GMt more with
      its impact on an Israel awaiting theological redemption (on one timescale
      or another) and GLk more with economic redistribution in the here and now.
      I would say that GLk reflects a Christianity spread to the
      extra-Palestinian Roman Empire, and GMt does not. The hypothesis that GLk
      is later is not inevitable, but it fits the large picture more easily than
      the opposite hypothesis. This and 999 other points ought to give us the
      answer. Or more precisely, ought to help us judge rightly among the many
      answers that we already possess, only one of which is right.

    • Fr. Donald Murphy
      Dear List Members, Even though I have been subscribed to Synoptic-L from the beginning and have read its messages, some very carefully, others more quickly, I
      Message 2 of 2 , May 30, 1999
        Dear List Members,

        Even though I have been subscribed to Synoptic-L from the beginning
        and have read its messages, some very carefully, others more
        quickly, I have been unable to respond to threads that particularly
        interested me because of the pressure of other academic and pastoral
        commitments here in Belize.

        It's unfortunate that, now that I have a little more time after
        finishing the academic year (we have graduation ceremonies today), I
        will not be able just now to respond to your responses to what I
        offer. Tomorrow I leave for a meeting (and continued dental care)
        in the United States and will have to unsubscribe tomorrow morning
        from all the lists to which I'm subscribed until I return on
        Thursday, June 17.

        Those of you -- or other list members who haven't so far
        participated in the thread -- who want to respond to what I offer
        could get your messages to me by being sure to add my e-mail address
        to the list's address. That way your messages will be awaiting me
        when I return, without being buried under the hundreds of messages
        that the lists wouldt be sending me if I didn't unsubscribe..

        In this message I want to comment briefly on a recent thread, the
        "Poor in Spirit" of Matthew 5:3. Started by Mark Goodacre (on May
        13, I think), there was a flury of messages that day and the
        following day contributed by, in addition to Mark, Jim West, Jeffrey
        Gibson, Jeff Peterson, and Jim Deardorff, and possibly others. (I
        had just turned in my grades to the Registrar the day before and was
        trying to deal with other fairly urgent matters; so I couldn't take
        the time to involve myself in the thread then.

        I was particularly struck by a paragraph in an early message by
        Jeffrey Gibson, in his and Jim West's fast interchange of messages:

        Jeffrey quoted: "There is, I think, in all of this a hidden
        assumption operating regarding who it
        is whom Jesus, according to Matthew, addresses when he utters the
        namely, that it is individuals. But it seems to me that we would
        have a whole new
        take on what is being said if we took seriously the cues in the
        Sermon that all
        that is said within it is proclaimed to a corporate body, to (the
        new?) Israel,
        and has to do with how Israel and not individuals are to be the
        people of God."

        When Mark Goodacre and Jeff Peterson asked Jeffrey to "unpack" (to
        use Jeff's expression) this brief comment, Jeffrey answered in a
        searching but, for me, less satisfying way than I had been hoping
        for, in light of his wonderful work on the Our Father: "Though I
        haven't given this much thought, I think 'poor in Spirit' is just a
        Matthean way of saying 'the powerless.' And those who have
        committed themselves to the lifestyle that in the eyes of the world
        makes them that way."

        I still think Jeffrey is presenting a crucially important insight.
        For many years I have been enormously grateful for having first
        developed a very similar insight when I was first working on the
        Gospel of John in France and Israel back in the sixties and for
        having been able to apply and develop the insight profoundly, in my
        judgment, in my work on the letters of Paul in the years I was
        working, at Union in New York on my dissertation on I Corinthians
        15. (Ever since Jeffrey inaugurated Corpus Paulinum, I have yearned
        to be able to participate and share such insights. I'm hoping maybe
        to be able to do some of that when I get back from the States and
        before the new academic year starts.) In the area which I'm
        focusing on in my teaching at present, the Gospel of Mark, I am
        finding ever more fully the ways in which Ched Myers uses and
        develops the same insight in amazing ways throughout his commentary,
        Binding the Strong Man.

        For the moment, however, I wish simply to suggest that in major ways
        Dominic Crossan, in The Birth of Christianity, develops the insight
        Jeffrey is talking about -- specifically, even, as regards Matthew
        5:3. The insight is central to all of his approach in this book,
        but it is specifically applied to Matthew 5:3 in the following
        comments (I have thought of the comments often while reading a
        thread of the past week on the new Xtalk list dealing with the
        probable socio-economic status of the Historical Jesus: both Jeffrey
        himself and Bill Arnal have referred very positivily to the soundly
        methodological way in which Crossan seeks to establish that status
        as having been among the very poor, i.e., the destitute):

        Crossan quoted: ""Terms such as *poor* and *destitute* must be
        taken *both* socially *and* spiritually, *both* religiously *and*
        economically. And that combined focus raises questions that are
        structural and systemic, not just individual and personal. there is
        no biblical delusion that the poor and the destitute are personally
        better and holier than the rich and the powerful. But since the
        biblical God is a God of justice and righteousness who prefers
        slaves to oppressors, to be poor or destitute gets you special
        protection and concern. You cannot take those terms as *only*
        economically indicative, but neither can you take them as *only*
        religiously indicative. Thus, for example, when *we* read that
        qualification 'poor in spirit' in Matthew 5:3, *we* tend to take is
        as exclusively spiritual. The poor in spirit are the humble, those
        who recognize their spiritual poverty before God. There is, of
        course, no such qualification in Luke 6:20b or *Gospel of Thomas*
        54, which means that 'in spirit' is best taken as Matthean
        redaction. If 'the poor' are understood only spiritually, it makes
        no difference whether the text is phrased as 'the poor' or 'the
        destitute'; for humans standing spiritually before God, both terms
        mean the same thing. But it makes a world of difference which term
        you use when you are speaking *both* economically and socially *as
        well as* spiritually and religiously -- and especially when you are
        speaking of spirit and religion *because of* society and
        economics." (p. 322; emphasis in the original)

        Again, if there are reactions any one wants to share with me
        regarding the above, please be sure to include separately, after
        tomorrow (Monday) morning, my personal e-mail address.

        Every best wish,

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