Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 305-314
Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE "POOR" IN THE BEATITUDES
OF MATTHEW AND LUKE
GARY T. MEADORS
The identification of the poor in Luke has been disputed.
Some have seen them as the economically impoverished. However, it
must be noted that Jesus was specifically addressing his disciples when
he uttered the beatitude of the poor. Furthermore, Luke (-26)
stands in the literary tradition of an eschatological reversal motif
in Psalm 37, Isaiah 61, and in certain
comparison of Luke 6:20-26 with these materials indicates a
connection between ptwxoi< Luke and the Hebrew term Myvnf which
had become metaphorical for the pious. This connection is supported by the fact
that Matthew records the same logion of Jesus as ptwxoi<, thus the term “poor"
in Luke is used in reference to the pious.
* * *
Do the "poor" in Luke's account of the beatitudes refer to the
economically impoverished whereas the "poor in spirit" in
Matthew's account refer to the pious? It has become quite common to
answer such a question in the affirmative and thus to see a dichotomy
between the two accounts. Indeed, redactional studies have correctly
observed that Luke's gospel contains more unique material concerning
the poor and oppressed than the other gospels. However, the reason
for this has been much debated. This study argues that the "poor" in
both accounts of the beatitudes refer primarily to the pious. (This is
not to deny, however, that they may also have been economically
oppressed.) Thus, in the beatitudes Jesus sought the spiritual reversal
of life situations.
THE BEATITUDES IN LUKE
NT scholarship today generally recognizes that underlying the
Matthean Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5- 7)1 and the Lukan
1Cf. the helpful survey by Warren S. Kissinger, The Sermon on the Mount: A
History of Interpretation and Bibliography (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1975).
306 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Sermon on the Plain (Luke -49; cf. -19) is "one basic piece of
tradition."2 However, the two recountings of this tradition are not
identical. Nevertheless, I believe that Matthew and Luke are faithful to
the ipsissima vox of Jesus (i.e., 'the same voice”, meaning that the
essential meaning is maintained although the very words may not be).
Although the gospel writers may have altered the words of an
individual logion or discourse of Jesus to emphasize a particular
aspect, they retain the essential meaning. For example, the beatitude of
the poor (Matt 5:3; Luke ) is generally considered to have its
source in. the same logion of Jesus. Its meaning, therefore, in both
Matthew and Luke should correspond although its use in.context may
reveal individual emphases.
A Word About Audience Analysis in Context
It is essential in determining the teaching intent of a passage to
ascertain to whom it was addressed. Matthew and Luke both indicate
that the primary recipients of the sermon are the disciples, including
more than just the twelve (Matt 5:1-2; Luke 6:20a). It is interesting,
however, that while Matthew's statement is clear, Luke's is strikingly
specific. Luke pictures Jesus' delivery of the beatitudes as an eye to eye
encounter with his disciples and uses the second person rather than the
third person throughout his beatitude pericope. The statement in Luke
6:20b concerning their present possession of the kingdom further
supports the assertion that Jesus was addressing a restricted audience
although the curious multitudes were surely present () and were
privileged to eavesdrop and to consider what import Jesus' teaching
might have for themselves.
To understand Jesus' teaching intent, two additional factors are
important within the general and immediate context. The resentment
and deepening rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders are quite clear
in Luke's context (6:1-11). The conflict would result in harassment
and eventually murder (). Immediately after revealing the vicious
intent of the religious leaders, Luke records the beatitude pericope
which centers upon the theme of conflict, rejection and persecution.
This conflict and persecution theme is stated in terms of poor and rich
within an eschatological reversal motif.
In light of these initial observations of the general and immediate
context, it may well be that poor and rich primarily serve a literary
function and that "the expressions rich and poor function within the
(NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 243; cr. Raymond Brown, "The Beatitudes
According to Luke," in New Testament Essays (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968) 265-66;
and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX) (AB; Garden City:
Doubleday, 1981) 627.
MEADORS: THE "POOR" IN THE BEATITUDES 307
story as metaphorical expressions for those rejected and accepted
because of their response to the prophet.”3 The poor are those who
follow Jesus as do the disciples and the rich are the religious leaders
who oppress those who are followers of God. Jesus' teaching is not in
response to economic conditions but is a result of the deep felt
rejection of his teaching and claims. Actual poverty which might exist
is merely the attendant circumstance of those who follow Jesus.
Audience analysis leads to at least one initial conclusion which
must be remembered in the following analysis. The interpreter cannot
go beyond the intended audience in the identification of the poor in
Luke 6:20. The poor cannot be the unbelieving hungry of the Third
World. Such assertions border on universalism in light of Luke 6:20b.4
As I. Howard Marshall has observed,
the description of them as being persecuted for the sake of the Son of
Man shows that the thought is not simply of those who are literally poor
and needy, nor of all such poor people, but of those who are disciples of
Jesus and hence occupy a pitiable position in the eyes of the world. Their
present need will be met by God's provision in the future. The effect of
the beatitudes is thus both to comfort men who suffer for being disciples
and to invite men to become disciples and find that their needs are met
The Presence of Isaiah 61 in Luke 6:20
In his study of Matt 5:3-5, David Flusser asserts that "the first
three beatitudes as a whole depend on Isa. lxi, 1-2.6 The Lukan
pericope also evidences the influence of Isaiah 61. Linguistically, the
presence of ptwxoi< (Luke 6:20b; cf. Isa 61:10), hunger (Luke 6:210; cf.
Isa 61:5, 6), and mournfulness as implied in weeping (Luke 6:21a; cf.
Isa 6:2lb, "brokenhearted"; 61:2b; 61:3; 61:7) reflect Isaiah.7 Theo-
logically, the motifs of eschatological release (Jubilee) and reversal are
dominant in both Isaiah and Luke.8
Luke T. Johnson, The Literary Function of Possessions in
Scholars, 1977) 140.
4 Cf. Ron Sider, "An Evangelical Theology of Liberation," in Perspectives on
Evangelical Theology, eds.
Kenneth S. Kantzer and S. N. Gundry (
Baker, 1979) 130-32.
5 Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 246.
6David Flusser, "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit," IEJ 10 (1960) 9; cr. Ernest Best,
"Matthew v. 3,n NTS 7 (1961) 255-58.
Asher Finkel, "Jesus' Sermon at
Vater: Juden und Christen in Gesprach uber die Bibel. Festschrift fur Otto Michel
(Leiden: Brill, 1963) 113; and Asher
Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of
(Leiden: Brill, 1964) 156-58.
8 Robert B. Sloan, The Favorable Year of the Lord: A Study of Jubilary Theology
in the Gospel of Luke (Austin: Schola, 1977) 123-27.
308 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
What would be the significance of the influence of Isaiah 61 on the
Lukan beatitude? Assuming Jesus' audience was familiar with Isaiah 61
and its promises, the catchwords, such as Myvnf or ptwxoi< and the
eschatological themes "would have been recognized as having more
than economic significance.”9 My earlier study on the vocabulary of
the poor in the OT,
poor motif had historically taken on religious nuances particularly as
evidenced in Isaiah and the Psalms.10 Jesus' audience was Jewish, not
the twentieth century Western world. The significance of his teaching
must be reconstructed in terms of his first century audience. F. C.
Grant's analysis of the mentality of the first century pious Jew in light
of the Magnificat and the beatitudes makes the following observation:
If we may judge from the first two chapters of the Gospel of St. Luke,
assuming that we have here, at the very least, an authentic example of
first-century Jewish piety and a suggestion of the atmosphere of our
Lord's boyhood, it would seem probable that those among whom He
grew to manhood were not political enthusiasts, but pious, humble
devotees of the ancestral religion. The Messianic hope, as they cherished
it, was conceived "in its more transcendent and less political form: pacific,
priestly, traditional, and non-militaristic....[The Magnificat] was the
hope of 'the poor in the land', for whom their poverty had come to have
a religious value since they hoped for salvation through none save God.
It was a confidence nourished by the Psalms, (as in Psalm "xxxvii), 'the
poor' and 'the humble' (aniim and anawim) become almost inter-
The question of economic status is not the issue in Isaiah nor in
Luke. The emphasis is upon following God and for the faithful
Israelite and for the disciples of Jesus in the present era it will often
result in being oppressed.
A TEXTUAL COMPARISON OF MATTHEW 5:3 AND LUKE 6:20
The Matthean and Lukan Sermons are quite divergent in form
and some general comparative observations would be helpful before
considering the beatitude concerning the poor. Matthew's version
(chaps. 5-7; 109 verses) is over three times longer than Luke's account
(6:20-49; 30 verses). However, sayings recorded as part of the Sermon
Thomas Hoyt, The Poor in Luke-Acts (
10 Gary T. Meadors, "The Poor in Luke's Gospel" (unpublished Th.D. dissertation;
the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977) 350-51.
F. C. Grant, The Economic background of the Gospels (
Russell, reprint 1973) 119-20.
MEADORS: THE "POOR" IN THE BEATITUDES 309
on the Mount in Matthew are found elsewhere in Luke (cf., e.g., Matt
with Luke -35; Matt -16 with Luke and ; and
Matt -20 with Luke 16:16-17).12
There are also many similarities between Matthew and Luke. The
sermons are both addressed to Jesus' disciples in proximity to a
mountain. They both begin with a beatitude pericope and end with an
exhortation to receive God's truth as communicated by the words of
Christ. The same sequence is followed by both even though Luke omits
much material. Many other similarities and dissimilarities have been
delineated in the literature on the sermons but it is not necessary to
repeat them in the present discussion.13
The beatitude of the poor is recorded by Matthew and Luke as
Matt 5:3 Luke 6:20b
Maka<rioi oi[ t&? pneu<mati, Maka<rioi oi[ ptwxoi<,
o!ti au]tw?n e]stin h[ basilei<a tw?n o!ti u[mete<ra e]stin h[ basilei<a
ou]ranw?n tou? qeou?
Line two in each is equivalent in word order but with some rather
interesting differences. Matthew uses the third personal pronoun
au]tw?n while Luke uses the second person possessive pronoun u[mete<ra.
Luke's use of the second person gives his beatitude a more personal
flavor.14 Matthew's use of ou[ranw?n rather than qeou? with basilei<a is
probably a metonymy since heaven is the place of God's abode.
The most discussed aspect of the beatitude of the poor, however,
has to do with the dative of relation t&? pneu<mati/’spirit' in line one.
Unless Jesus gave the same basic logion in the two different forms,
then either one or the other is more original. Jeremias has suggested
that the brevity of Luke's Sermon indicates that it represents the earlier
form. 15 Flusser, however, asserts that Matthew has faithfully preserved
the original logion and Luke abbreviated it without altering its
meaning.16 F. C. Grant long ago suggested a mediating position. He
wrote, "it is probably that the Lukan version is more accurate,
verbally; but it must be understood in a more Matthaean spirit. 'Poor,'
12 See Kurt Aland, Synopsis
Quattuor Evangeliorum (revised ed.;
tembergische Bibelanstalt, 1967) in. loc
13 Cf. Hoyt, The Poor in Luke-Acts, 99-102; Fitzmyer, Luke (I-IX), 627-29; and
C. H. Dodd, "The Beatitudes: A Form-Critical Study," in More New Testament Studies
(Manchester: Manchester University, 1968) 1-10.
14 Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His literary and Theological Art
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 68. Gundry asserts that in the OT beatitudes the 3rd
person is used more than the 2nd.
15 Joachim Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount (London: Athlone, 1961) 17.
16 FIusser, "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit," 11.
310 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
e.g., meant more than economically dependent; the word had a
religious connotation, which Matthew's elucidation, 'poor in spirit',
more accurately represents."17
FIusser's assertion is based primarily on the conflation of Isa 61:1
and 66:2 in the Dead Sea Scrolls (IQM xiv. 7). The result of his
comparisons render yynf Hvr yxkv Myvnf and Myynf as interchangeable and
synonymous expressions. Consequently, ptwxo<j and ptwxo>j t&?
pneu<mati would be the interchangeable Greek equivalents.18 W. D. Davies
makes a similar observation on the basis of
The Lucan 'poor' need not be regarded as necessarily more primitive than
the Matthaean 'poor in spirit'. But it is still more likely that Matthew
made the term 'the poor' more precise by the addition of 'in spirit' than
that Luke deleted the latter, although, as we indicated in the text, 'the
poor' and 'the poor in spirit' have the same connotation.19
The conclusion to the whole matter, if one is faithful to the
religious sitz im leben of pietistic Judaism, is that regardless of the
ipsissima verba (the actual words) of Jesus, the ipsissima vox is the
same. The ptwxoi< are the Anawim.20 In the case of the Sermon the
ptwxoi< are the disciples as a class of followers. In Luke it
designates a group; it does not describe a social state of being. A social
state of being may be attendant (cf. Luke -22), but it is not the
focus of the term ptwxoi<. If it were merely a social state of being, then
all of those who are in such a state would 'own' the kingdom (6:20c).
This would be soteriological universalism. Guthrie rightly cautions on
this point, "since possession of the
of this 'poverty', it seems to suggest a spiritual element, for the
'kingdom' cannot be understood in any other way.”21
THE ESCHATOLOGICAL REVERSAL MOTIF IN LUKE 6:20-26
The unique theme which is present in Luke's but not in Matthew's
beatitude pericope is the theme of reversal. This theme is present
elsewhere in Luke in the Magnificat (-56), the parable of Lazarus
and Dives (-31), and in the 'first shall be last' logion (;
cf. 9:48; ; ). This theme of reversal of conditions may
17 Grant. Economic Background, 118, n. I.
18 Flusser, "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit," 1-13; cf. E. Bammel, "ptwxo<j"
TDNT6 (1968) 896-92, W. F. Albright and C. S.
Mann, Matthew (AB;
Doubleday, (1971) 46.
19 W. D. Davies, The
Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (
University, 1964) 251, n. 2.
20 Anawim is a transliteration of the Hebrew term for poor. It has become
a term to refer to the class of pious Jews.
Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology:
A Thematic Study (
InterVarsity 1981) 900
MEADORS: THE "POOR" IN THE BEATITUDES 311
be observed in the OT in Psalm 37 and Isaiah 61. The reversal
is often stated in an antithetic formulation, such as rich/ poor or
A similar reversal was known in the Classical Greek world as a
peripe<teia.22 The reversal of human fortune was a dominant motif in
Attic drama and was discussed as a reversal of roles in philosophic
literature.23 The peripe<teia motif in Scripture has a particularly moral
overtone. It is also a divine reversal which is apocalyptic in nature. The
reversal comes by the action of God not the revolutionary efforts of the
proletariat. C. H. Dodd clearly describes the ethical nature of the
On the face of it, the Lucan pericope might appear to contemplate a
catastrophic revolution in which the proletariate achieves a signal
success at the expense of the privileged class. As such, it would fit into a
contemporary pattern of thought in the Hellenistic world. But it is clear
that it is a sublimated or 'etherialized' kind of peripe<teia that is here in
view: the reward is e]n ou]ran&?, and that clause conditions all the rest. If
the parable of Dives and Lazarus is allowed as an illustration, the
'etherialized' character of the reversal of conditions is emphasized.24
The structure of Luke 6:20-26 is best seen by comparing the four
“couplets” 25 The antithetical parallelism is not formal26 but it is
conceptually present. Reveral motifs are by nature dichotomous.
20. Blessed are ye poor: for yours 24. But woe unto you that are
21. Blessed are ye that hunger now: 25. Woe unto you, ye that are full
for ye shall be filled. Now! for ye shall hunger.
Blessed are ye that weep now: Woe unto you, ye that laugh
for ye shall laugh. now! For ye shall mourn and
22. Blessed are ye, when men shall 26. Woe unto you when all men
hate you, and when they shall shall speak well of you. for in
separate you from their company, the same manner did their
and reproach you, and cast fathers to the false prophets.
out your name as evil, for the
son of man's sake.
22 Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (London: Oxford University, 1939)
23 Ibid., 246.
24 Dodd, "The Beatitudes," 5-6.
25 The following translation is from the American Standard Version (1901).
26 Fitzmyer, Luke (I-IX), 636.
312 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The first question in determining significance is to ascertain to whom the
blessings and woes are spoken. Luke 6:20a clearly presents the primary
audience as a group of disciples within eye contact of Jesus. The blessings
are appropriate for this group, but the woes are incompatible for them except
as a warning not to neglect their commitment (Heb 2:1-4). Therefore, who is
the "you" in the woe section? They must be the perimeter crowd of privileged
eavesdroppers. Who in that crowd would fit the description given? The key lies
at the front door in Luke 6: 1-10.27 Jesus had just completed several Sabbath
controversies with the Pharisees and Scribes. This confrontation ended in a
deepening rift between Jesus and the contemporary leaders of Judaism (Luke
6:11). This division will broaden as Luke's story progresses (cf. Luke 8; -13:9).
The language of the woe section applies well to this group. Luke is especially
applicable as will be observed below. A second area which confronts the reader
in Luke 6:20-26 involves the nature of the language used in the pericope. The
temporal implications are indicated by the contrasting use of and the future
tense in 6:20-21; 24-25. The future aspect IS further indicated by "that day"
and "in heaven" in 6:23. The language of the pericope gives no hope for
reversal in the present age. At this point it is obviously not a call to revolution
but to hopeful resignation. It is divine realism for the present and divine
optimism for the future.
The language is also contrastive. It utilizes poetic extremes: hunger and
full, weep and laugh, hate and admire, and poor and rich. It is thoroughly semitic.
Psalm 37 is an OT example (cf. Isa 61:1-3 also) of the reversal of the poor and rich
under the rubric of wicked/evil and righteous. The language in reversal genre is
categorically symbolic. Poor and rich in Luke 6 are first of all categorical. The
social situation behind the language is real but not foundational. The close of
the sermon in Luke 6:46-49 illustrates this principle well from a different
perspective. The houses and their fate are symbolic of one's response to truth.
The symbolism of certain aspects of the language In 6:20-26 is well illustrated
by the expressions "hunger," "mourn," and "weep" in 6:25. In the eschatological
reversal, in what sense will the presently satisfied group experience lack? Will
they be huddled off into a corner without provisions? No. Rather the reversal
initiates their existence in hell in the eternal state. They are illustrated by
Dives in Luke 16, another Lukan reversal passage. Since we may safely assume that
27 Cf. The implication in the closing of the Sermon in -49 to the fate of the
religious status quo.
MEADORS: THE "POOR" IN THE BEATITUDES 313
mealtimes do not exist in the eternal state, the language is symbolic of
a real experience.28
The conclusions to the blessings (,23) and woes () sections
provide crucial information concerning the intended significance of
this pericope. The theme which permeates these concluding verses and
consequently the whole unit may be summarized by the word "identi-
fication." The devout followers are clearly identified with their Lord as
the e!neka phrase indicates, being better translated "because of the Son
of Man" (NIV). It is because of their identification with Christ that
they suffer in the present age. If o@noma refers to the name which
signifies them as followers, whatever that name of identification may
be (cf. James 2:7; I Pet ), rather than signifying their personal
reputation, the point of identification is strengthened.29
But with whom are those of to be identified? The key lies with
the phrase oi[ pare<rej au]tw?n. This phrase is doubly emphatic. It is
attributive and it is placed at the end of each section. One wonders if
Jesus' eyes did not glance away and gaze at the religious leaders for a
moment. The pate<rej theme recurs in Luke -48, where Jesus
reveals the deeds of the Pharisees' forefathers. Luke 11 falls within a
lengthy polemic between Jesus and the religious leaders (-13:9)
and contains six woes upon the Pharisees.
Not only is oi[ pate<rej au]tw?n emphatic, it is also unique
to Luke's structure (cf. Matt ),30 thus emphasizing further the crucial point
of identification within the Lukan context. Furthermore, Luke
uniquely emphasizes the "false prophets" in contradistinction to
Matthew, who only refers to the godly prophets. The contrasting
symbolism of identification, therefore, may be that "just as the
persecuted disciples are the representatives of the true Prophets, so the
wealthy hierarchy whom all men flatter are the representatives of the
false (Jer v.31; Comp xxiii. 17; Isa xxx. 10; Mic. ii. 11)”31 This
hierarchy within the context of Luke's gospel is constituted by the
Pharisees and their crowd.
The teaching intent of Luke 6:20-26 centers in the theme of
identification with God's messenger and program. Such identification
28 This language may be reminiscent of the future banquet as seen in
Luke 14: 12-24.
29 Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 253.
30 Fitzmyer, Luke (I-IX), 635.
31 Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel
According to St. Luke (ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1896) 183.
314 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
will entail persecution, including physical, mental, and social ramifica-
tions. But the transitory nature of life and its problems are not to be
compared to the eschatological hope (). Conversely, to refuse to
identify with God's program and pursue worldly ambition has disastrous
consequences. These consequences are intensified when they relate to
oppressing God's people and program. The religious leadership of
Judaism, whether ancient or contemporary, was perennially guilty of
not recognizing and following God's true prophets. This confrontation
in the earthly ministry of Jesus led to a fiery polemic in Luke's gospel
between Jesus and the religious leaders, a polemic which plagued the
It: apostles after Jesus was gone as the book of Acts so clearly portrays.
The greater context of Luke 6 seems to imply that the unique structure
of Luke's beatitude pericope may well be an early expression of this
polemic via the acceptance and rejection motif.
The signification of ptwxoi< in Luke is similar to that of a
developing usage of Myvnf in the Psalms, Isaiah,
symbolically relates to religious attitude. Matthew makes this quite
clear by the emphasis on e]n pneu<mati, and the sense of Luke's simple
ptwxoi< was the same in the ears of his auditors. On the other hand,
social and economic oppression are attendant to a faith commitment.
Jesus wanted his followers to know that they were getting into a
situation of oppression for the duration of their earthly sojourn; he was
not instructing them on how to get out of oppression. The only way
out is up (cf. e]n ou]ran&?, Luke )32 To assert that Luke's pericope
is merely "an essay on social concern" is to miss the point.
32 This solution is the essence of the reversal motif throughout its usage. Cf.
Bammel, “ptwxoi<,” 6, 893, 895, 898, 906, 910.
33 Grant Osborne, "Luke: Theologian of Social Concern," TJ 7 (1978) 136.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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