How important is it to interpret a biblical text well? Obsession with details of theology, which is at least close to the same thing as obsession with a good interpretation of a sacred text, has been compared to speculating about how many angels fit on the head of a pin.
Cliches like splitting hairs, chopping logic, quibbling over details, or making fine distinctions come to mind as the probable result of insisting on a good interpretation of a few words from an ancient saying. After all, do the differences really amount to much?
Well, I think they do. Take the phrase “poor in spirit” for example.
I was explaining the Beatitudes at a “Yeshua in Context” seminar this past weekend. It was the third lecture in a few hours and the whole experience for me was like an intensive meditation on the meaning of being a disciple, of being a follower, of thinking about what it meant to be near to Messiah and learn from him. I was learning at least as much as those I was speaking to. Sometimes inspired texts do that.
Of course, following the example of Yeshua, I started the talk with something unexpected. Predictability is often not the best tactic in teaching. So we started by thinking about the Beatitudes in Luke 6 instead of the more familiar ones in Matthew 5.
Matthew’s version is easier to take, especially Matthew’s version of the very first Beatitude about the “poor in spirit.” As you probably know, in Luke’s version, Yeshua makes a very similar point, but not about the “poor in spirit,” but rather “the poor.” Blessed are the poor.
Why is “poor in spirit” easier to take?
It’s because there is no alternate way to understand “blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the poor” is an antithesis, pure and simple. It’s truth standing on its head, logic upside down. It’s crazy to say “blessed are the poor.”
But “poor in spirit” is capable of a few comfortable interpretations. The common one goes like this: “Blessed are people who exhibit humility, who think more of others than themselves. They are poor in spirit but rich in rewards from God.”
It’s a nice interpretation and the main point of it is certainly true. So if we just read Matthew’s version of the saying that way, we can’t go wrong. Right?
Why not just read all of Matthew’s Beatitudes in a parallel manner? Meek people are humble. Those who hunger and thirst in Matthew do so for righteousness (of course, in Luke, they just hunger and thirst). Being merciful is good. Peacemakers and people will to be persecuted are good.
Maybe all the Beatitudes are about something we do to earn a blessing. God gives the kingdom to humble people, the poor in spirit, and the meek and merciful. Maybe that’s what Yeshua meant.
But I don’t think so.
I think there is plenty of evidence that the “poor in spirit” are the broken and devastated. And the meek are not the “saints of humility” but rather the stepped on and oppressed, the ones always overlooked and never assumed to be important.
I think there is a long tradition of this in the Psalms and Prophets (and also the Wisdom) before Yeshua ever comes to teach God’s way to a band of disciples.
Job exhibits repeatedly a Wisdom tradition concerning care for the poor as a sign of righteousness, such as in 30:25, “Did not I weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor?”
In Psalms the poor or needy one is the special subject of God’s care, as in 34:7(6), “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”
The Prophets rail against the injustice done to the poor, as in Isaiah 3:14, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?”
So, a good interpretation of the Beatitudes does matter and it gives a different message. It is not, “Blessed are the righteous for they will earn a reward.” It is, rather:
Blessed are the crushed people, devastated, for theirs is the kingdom.
Blessed are those suffering grief, for they will be comforted by God.
Blessed are the overlooked and oppressed, for these will own the world to come.
Blessed are those who cannot find justice and true goodness in this broken world, for they will see goodness in the kingdom.
Blessed are those who have mercy now, for all will see how mercy is needed then.
Blessed are those who work for the One Thing, for they will see the One.
Blessed are those who heal fights and bitterness, for this is what God does.
Blessed are those who suffer for the mission of healing and serving, for their reward will redeem the persecution.
And the underlying message is also clear: My disciples will work to make this world as much like the world to come as they can.