The Teachings of Jesus: Blessed Are…(Part Two)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b ESV)

I want to begin this study of the first Beatitude from Luke’s gospel by stating something controversial.

I was thinking the other day about Scripture interpretation, and something struck me. Why do we interpret Scripture as we do? When we interpret Scripture, we have been convinced that we are supposed to let other books of the Bible interpret a passage for us, as with today’s passage.

In Matthew’s gospel, this verse says “poor in spirit”. And, because of that, we interpret Luke’s gospel as if it is saying the same thing as Matthew’s gospel. I don’t think this is the case, and I will explain this later. At the moment, I want to deal with how we interpret Scripture because this will have a bearing on the manner in which this study of Jesus’ teachings is conducted. Let me use an illustration.

When we read a book of essays on a particular topic, how do we read the essays? I would assume that most of us, unless the essays are by the same author and build upon each other, that we read each essay as a separate work. Each author has his own spin on the topic in the book, and each author has his own reactions and interpretations of the various aspects of the topic. Unless the book states otherwise, all the essays are in agreement about the topic, but how they deal with the topic is completely different and we take that into consideration when we read them.

Now take a literature text book. Those books have not just one genre of writing by many authors, but many genres of writing composed by many authors and at various times in history and even, sometimes, in different cultural settings. When we read this book of literature, we read each writing as a separate entity, taking into consideration the cultural setting and at what time in history it was written. We learn what we can about the author (most literature text books have a brief biography of the author before his or her contribution to the book) and we read the work in light of those facts.

Scripture is like a combination of these two types of book mentioned. It is like that essay book in that it specializes in one topic: God’s revelation of Himself to humanity and how we are to respond to it. And it is like that literature book in that it is made up of various genres of literature, written by different authors at different times to different audiences. We should interpret the Bible in light of this fact. Each author’s contribution takes a different spin on whatever the piece is dealing with. You see this most clearly in the 4 gospels.

Matthew and Luke, in the first beatitude, are saying two totally different things, but they are not in opposition to each other. All of Scripture is presenting an agreed-upon picture of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind and how he is to respond to Him.

Now to Luke 6:20. Here it is again.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b ESV)

We notice two major differences between this version of the beatitude and Matthew’s rendition. First, is who it is addressing. In Matthew’s gospel, the beatitude is directed to a third person audience,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3 ESV Emphasis mine)

whereas Luke is addressing a specific people.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b ESV Emphasis mine)

And, secondly, we notice the omission of “in spirit” in Luke’s account. It seems to me that there is something very important being done here.

We get really upset when we hear someone advocating material poverty as a vital part of the gospel. We hate to hear people tell us that being poor is what the Messiah wants from us. We are like that rich young ruler who came to Jesus wanting to follow Him. Jesus told him what he needed to do, namely sell all that he had and give it to the poor, and he went away sad because he was very wealthy. We hang on so tightly to our riches of this life. We refuse to let them go. But guess what: the kingdom of God belongs to the poor. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who acknowledge their need for God.

Those who are rich have need of nothing, but those who are poor have need of everything. Like I mentioned last time, Jesus did not come to make righteous those who were already righteous, but to make those who aren’t righteous to be so.

Material poverty is a vital part of the gospel. If we are unwilling to give up everything we think we have here, if we are unwilling to acknowledge that we are dependent of God for our food, shelter, water, and anything else we need, we will not, and indeed cannot, inherit the kingdom of God.

Luke and Matthew are not in contradiction, and Luke is not referring to being “poor in spirit”, as practically every commentary claims. Luke and Matthew are complimenting each other. Matthew is saying that unless we acknowledge our own spiritual poverty and need for God, we will not inherit the kingdom, and Luke is saying that unless we acknowledge that our physical needs can only be met by God, we will not inherit the kingdom. Combined, they are saying that we must acknowledge that everything that we need, physical and spiritual, come from God and that only by acknowledging our total dependence on God will we ever inherit the kingdom.

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