Saturday, November 26, 2011

What does Jesus (and Matthew) mean by the term "the poor"?

τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν, λεπροὶ καθαρίζονται καὶ κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν, καὶ νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται· (Mt. 11: 5)

The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the leprous are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised and the poor have the Gospel preached [to them] (Mt. 11:5. Own translation)

In the midst of writing papers, I decided to do some [assigned] reading notes on the Greek text. Matthew 11:5 was a very interesting verse in this regard when seen afresh in the Greek, and I would like to call attention to it.

In this verse in context, Jesus was responding to the disciples from John. John was imprisoned by the tyrant Herod for condemning Herod's illicit relation with his brother's wife (Mk. 6:18). Perhaps wondering if his ministry was in vain, as the coming of the kingdom of God seems not to be happening some time soon, John sent his disciples to question Jesus if he is indeed who John had thought he was. Jesus' answer is interesting in its own right, but we will focus primarily on what this verse teaches on our topic.

Verse 5 as it can be seen shows Jesus answering the various plights of the people. Those who are blind receive sight, and thus their blindness is cured. Those who are lame walk, and thus they are no more lame. In the last clause, the "poor" have the Gospel preach to them. If we follow the plight-healing motif of the rest of the clauses in the verse, then having the Gospel preached to them is the solution and healing for being poor. But what does this mean?

The verb εὐαγγελίζονται is a deponent verb. This means that it can take an active or passive function, and Greek does not have a separate passive form for the present tense (unlike the aorist tense) We can be confident however that the verb is supposed to be take as passive in nature, for the rest of the clauses speak about what happened to the ones who have the particular plights. Or we can say that the transitive verbs in the verses are found always in the passive form (καθαρίζονται - are cleansed; ἐγείρονται - are raised) whereas the intransitive verbs are in the active forms. εὐαγγελίζομαι is a transitive verb ("I preach the Gospel), so taking it as passive here is better.

If having the Gospel preached to them is a solution for the state of being poor, then there are two ways we can interpret it. Either we define the Gospel as being the solution for poverty (e.g. the "social Gospel"), or we define what being "poor" means in light of the Gospel. The latter is preferred as the Scriptures elsewhere are clear about what the Gospel is. Furthermore, Matthew in the Beatitudes in Mt. 5:3 seems to define being "poor" with being "poor in spirit" or "poor with respects to the spirit" ("spiritually poor"). If we take a robust view of the typological significance of material poverty in the Old Testament (a typology unique to theocratic Israel), then we realize that the social gospel is the wrong way to go. Rather, being poor in the message of Jesus and the Gospel according to Matthew means being bereft of hope and salvation. It refers to those who are alienated from God especially those are ceremonially and morally unclean (lepers and sinners). Having the Gospel of salvation by free grace preached to them therefore is indeed the solution to their spiritual poverty and alienation from God.

The idea of being poor therefore in Jesus' teaching is mainly the idea of spiritual poverty, not of material poverty. This is not to say that Jesus is not concerned about those who are materially less well-of, but that is to say that the Gospel message of Jesus has to do with spiritual salvation, just as what Paul teaches. Jesus is no social revolutionary (although he may seem to be one) but one whose kingdom is not of this world. His goal is the cross and salvation, not the creating of a better earthly kingdom.


Charlie J. Ray said...

It would be odd that the blind are really blind and the lame are really lame but the poor are not really poor. Jesus is no social revolutionary. But obviously the wealthy have little need for God. The poor, like the blind and the lame, are helpless. Only God can supply the basic necessities of life. "Give us this day our daily bread . . ." is not just a spiritualized prayer for the Word of God, although that is surely part of it (Matthew 4:4). No, in the first century the primary job for the poor was subsistence farming, not industry.

Jesus used metaphors and parables about real life. The poor represent the helpless. Only God's grace can help the helpless. That's the point of miracles I believe.

Allegorizing where allegory does not exist is a bit inconsistent, imo.

Daniel C said...

I don't think I have given the impression that poor here is only allegorical. My point is that the focus of this passage is that the Gospel defines what the primary problem of poverty is as seen by Jesus. As you have said, it represents the helpless. "The poor" is not allegorical but rather the real idea of spiritual poverty reflected in being an outcast in theocratic Israel.