And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.” –Lk 6:20-22 DV
Thus begins the greatest sermon ever composed. These blessings are commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, which stems from the Latin word beati, meaning “blessed.” Servais Pinkares writes, “(T)he Sermon on the Mount has been one of the chief sources of spiritual renewal known to the Church through the ages. Its fruitfulness is amply attested by its constant reappearance. There are few passages in Scripture that touch the Christian heart more surely and deeply, or that have a greater appeal for nonbelievers. The Sermon on the Mount was one of Ghandi’s favorite texts; he reproached Christians for their neglect of it” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, 135). As familiar as the words are to Christians and non-Christians alike, there is one word in particular that can very easily go unnoticed: “is.” In verses 21-23, every blessing promises a future reward for a present circumstance. Consider the first half of verse 21: “Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled.” This indicates that those who experience hunger during their earthly time will be filled in the eschaton. The first beatitude (verse 20), however, seems to deliberately use the word “is”: “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
The aim of this article is threefold: (1) to conduct a brief textual analysis of the Latin and the Greek from which the translation comes, (2) to present a gloss of several interpretations of the passage from the Church Fathers, and (3) to address the question why Luke would speak of poverty in this manner and what Christ means when he says, “Yours is the kingdom of God.” This last part will involve a discussion about the nature of the kingdom of God, the nature of poverty, and a commentary on the role of the beatitude as a whole for the Christian moral life.
An Interpretation of Tense Based on the Latin and Greek Manuscripts
To begin with, let us examine the Latin for this text from the Nova Vulgate. In verse 20, we find the present tense verb est (“is”). In contrast, verse 21 contains the construction, “Beati, qui nunc esuritis, quia saturabimini.” Saturabimini is the second-person plural form of the verb saturo, meaning “satisfy.” The “-bimini” ending indicates a future passive tense, hence the rendering “you shall be satisfied.” An identical construction governs the verb ridebitis (from rideo, meaning “smile” or “laugh”) in the second half of the verse. The only difference is that the ending is not future passive, but future active, thus the rendering “you shall laugh” (with “you” as the subject). It is clear from the Latin that the Douay-Rheims translation is accurate. In verse 20, the action is clearly written in the present tense (“for yours is the kingdom of God”) while in verse 21 the verb tense is future (“you shall be filled” and “you shall laugh”).
We next turn to the Greek versions, which are numerous. The verb tenses in most of the respectable sources are consistent in the passage we are considering. For that reason, we will not dissect every word, but simply focus on the important verbs. As with the Latin, we begin with verse 20. As a side note, we must recognize that some English translations will use the phrase “poor” while others use the phrase “poor in spirit.” This difference is due to variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts. While “poor in spirit” is common in many of the Greek variations, two of the most prominent manuscripts use the construction “poor” (without the addition of the modifier “in spirit”). The first is Papyrus 75, which contains the earliest known transcription of Luke’s Gospel. This is a key manuscript because of its early dating (175-225 A.D.). The second, dating to the middle of the fourth century, is the Codex Vaticanus. While this phrase is not the essential part of the passage under discussion at the moment, it will become important when we later discuss the meaning of Christ’s words.
Moving on to the question of verb tense, we note that the Greek word humetera, meaning “yours,” is an adjective that is modifying the noun “kingdom” (basileia). While at first it seems that this construction need not contain a verb at all (in English we could simply say “your kingdom” instead of “the kingdom is yours”), it should be noted that Luke deliberately places the present tense form of the verb eimi (“is”) here. Thus, as in the case of the Latin, there is a clear emphasis on the present tense.
The deliberateness once again becomes more obvious when looking at the subsequent passages. In verse 21, as in the Latin, the Greek uses a future passive voice. The Greek word kortasthaysesthe is rendered “you shall be fed,” as the passive voice is indicated by the thay and the s (indicating a future tense) preceding the esthe (indicating second-person plural). In the second part of verse 21, we find a similar construction, but for the lack of passive voice (again parallel to the Latin). Gelasate is best translated as “you shall laugh.” We should note that other Greek manuscripts contain the word gelasousin instead, which is still the future active tense verb for “laugh” but is in the third-person plural (rendered “they shall laugh”). While this is certainly a variant worthy of discussion in its own right, it is not critical for our analysis at this time.
Before moving on to the Fathers of the Church, let me briefly mention the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter 5, beginning with verse 3, we find perhaps the more familiar version of the Beatitudes. While the Nova Vulgate for Matthew’s first beatitude differs slightly from Luke’s (Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum), the text still maintains the present tense verb “est” to allow for the accurate translation “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Because of the rapid listing of the next six verses (4-9), the consistency of future tense is perhaps more striking than in Luke. We have ipsi consolabuntur (“they shall be comforted”), ipsi possidebunt terram (“they shall possess the land”), ipsi saturabuntur (“they shall have their fill”), ipsi misericordiam consequentur (“they shall obtain mercy”), ipsi Deum videbunt (“they shall see God”), and filii Dei vocabuntur (“they shall be called children of God”). The interesting verse is 10. The English reads, “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This serves as a complimentary bookend of sorts for the first beatitude as the “promise” portion of the first and last beatitude is identical (both in the English and the Latin). Many scholars have seen this as Matthew’s way of indicating that the promise “yours is the kingdom of heaven” is to be included not only in the first beatitude and the last beatitude, but indeed everywhere in between. This only begs our question, though. Given the deliberate use of the present tense, what does it mean to say, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” in the here-and-now? Moreover, why would Luke choose to place this construction only with the beatitude of poverty? To answer this question, we begin with the Fathers of the Church.
Patristic Background from the Catena Aurea
Latin for “The Golden Chain,” St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea is the Angelic Doctor’s compilation of commentaries by the early Church Fathers on each of the four Gospels. What follows is a gloss of the provided commentaries for Luke 6:20-22.
We begin with Ambrose. While we have not said much about the first part of verse 20 (“And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples”), Ambrose asks, “What is lifting up the eyes, but to disclose a more hidden light?” Christ is calling his hearers to a deeper understanding of God and his plan for mankind. If we could, let us briefly return to the Greek for the word “Behold” (idou). An alternate translation of the imperative is “Look!” or even “See!” While Luke is using a common Greek word, this command to “See!” is reminiscent of Christ’s observation, “they have eyes but cannot see.” The Lord is not simply calling us to pay attention, but rather he is calling us to see with the eyes of faith. He is speaking directly to the heart of man. In a way, he is telling his listeners, “My friends, you have heard the Prophets, you have read the Scriptures, but you know not their fullness. I will, if you let me, show you the fullness of the heavenly mysteries. Everything you think you know is only the beginning. You have heard the ethic in the Ten Commandments, but I call you to the ethos of these Beatitudes.”
Saint Ambrose next observes that Luke mentions only four blessings, while Matthew, eight. Nonetheless, “those eight are contained in these four, and in these four those eight.” He ties each of the blessings in a specific way to a particular virtue. Poverty yields temperance because it “seeks not vain delights.” Hunger leads to righteousness in that he who is hungry suffers with the hungry, and this brings righteousness. In weeping, man learns to weep for those things eternal rather than those things of time, which requires the virtue of prudence to distinguish between the two realms. In “Blessed are you when men hate you,” one has fortitude, a fortitude which allows one to suffer persecution for faith. These virtues are then paired with Matthew’s Beatitudes in order to demonstrate continuity between the two Gospels: “temperance therefore brings with it a pure heart; righteousness, mercy; prudence, peace; fortitude, meekness. The virtues are so joined and linked to one another, that he who has one seems to have many.”
In both cases, each evangelist has placed the blessings of poverty first. For Ambrose, this is indicative that “it is the first in order, and the purest, as it were, of the virtues.” In other words, the subsequent blessings depend on the condition of being impoverished. If one is overcome by the desires of the world, he “has no power of escape from them.”
In a similar fashion, Eusebius observes, “But when the celestial kingdom is considered in the many gradations of its blessings, the first step in the scale belongs to those who, by divine instinct, embrace poverty. Such did he make those who first became his disciples; therefore, he says in their person, ‘For yours is the kingdom of heaven.’” St. Cyril agrees: “After having commanded them to embrace poverty, He then crowns with honor those things which follow from poverty.”
While Basil is consistent in placing the primacy of the blessings with that of poverty, he also warns that the blessing is not automatic, but requires the correct disposition: “(N)ot everyone oppressed with poverty is blessed, but he who has preferred the commandment of Christ to worldly riches. For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn. For nothing involuntary deserves a blessing, because all virtue is characterized by the freedom of the will. Blessed then is the poor man as being the disciple of Christ, Who endured poverty for us.” Perhaps this is why Cyril notes that in Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I have noted above the textual variants in this regard, but it should be recognized that the Fathers in no way see “poverty of spirit” as mere detachment that can exist even in the absence of actual material poverty. Instead, they see material poverty as a prerequisite for poverty of spirit, a disposition that must be had to convert the preexisting material poverty into a blessing.
Each of the Fathers then shows how poverty leads to the other blessings in Christ’s sermon. Cyril says, “It is the lot of those who embrace poverty to be in want of the necessities of life, and scarcely to be able to get food.” Continuing, “(P)overty is followed not only by a want of those things which bring delight, but also by a dejected look, because of sorrow. Hence it follows, ‘Blessed are you that weep.’” Finally, Theophilus indicates, “He then who on account of the riches of the inheritance of Christ, for the bread of eternal life, for the hope of heavenly joys, desires to suffer weeping, hunger, and poverty, is blessed. But much more blessed is he who does not shrink to maintain these virtues in adversity. Hence it follows, ‘Blessed are you when men shall hate you.’ For although men hate with their wicked hearts, they cannot injure the heart that is beloved by Christ.”
This gloss of the Catena Aurea is sufficient for examining the portion of the Beatitudes dealing with poverty. It is evident that each of the represented Fathers sees poverty as having a place of primacy among the beatitudes. This is indicated by both Gospel writers in their placement of the virtue first in their respective lists, lists that are renderings of the very words of Christ. However, we must not ignore the second part of the beatitude: “for theirs is the kingdom of God.” For patristic background on this, we depart from the Catena Aurea and take up Origen.
Origen referred to Jesus as the autobasileia, that is, the kingdom in person. In other words, for Origen, the kingdom is not a geographical location; Jesus himself is the kingdom, or rather the kingdom is Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth insists (in light of his reading of Origen) that the phrase “Kingdom of God” is a “veiled Christology.” The Holy Father states: “By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence” (Benedict, 49). Delving deeper into the linguistic nuances of the word “kingdom,” Pope Benedict (quoting Stuhlmacher) says, “The underlying Hebrew word malkut is a nomen actionis (an action word) and means—as does the Greek word basileia (kingdom)—the regal function, the active lordship of the king. What is meant is not an imminent or yet to be established ‘kingdom,’ but God’s actual sovereignty over the world, which is becoming an event in history in a new way” (Benedict, 55).
It should be noted that the Holy Father is not actually speaking of the Sermon on the Mount when he makes these linguistic observations. Instead, he is engaged in exegesis of Matthew 1:14-15, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Nonetheless, the Greek word basileia that is used in Matthew 1 is the same Greek word found in Luke’s first beatitude. Therefore, not only are the linguistic observations still relevant for us, but establishing the connection (both spiritually and linguistically) between Christ’s Proclamation of the Kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount will be of prime importance in the final part. We will have more to say about Pope Benedict’s thoughts in this matter, but this mention of Origen and his interpretation of the phrase “kingdom of God” as the person of Jesus is sufficient for this section on patristic background.
Commentary on the Kingdom and Poverty
There are two goals for this final section. The first is to investigate what is meant by Christ’s phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” and the second is a reflection on why the here-and-now-ness of the kingdom has particular relevance for the blessing of poverty in Luke’s Beatitudes.
As stated in the previous part, Christ’s promise, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” immediately harkens back to his own proclamation, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). We have already seen the interpretation given by Origen (via Pope Benedict), but let us diverge for a moment and examine one other interpretation. During the latter half of the 20th century, a particularly secular view (held mostly in Catholic theological circles) of the Kingdom of God gained considerable ground (Benedict, 53). This position is motivated by the desire to apply Christ’s supposed message to the widest possible audience. It is a slow process of moving from any kind of specificity with regards to God’s people to a meaningless generality. Beginning with the rejection of Judaism in general (for in Judaism the focus is on a specific people), Christ, it is claimed, came not for a chosen subset of people, but for the individual; he came to establish a Church that is inclusive of all people. This desire for all-inclusiveness is seen as violated by the Church in her so-called “pre-Vatican II nature,” a nature that was guilty of “ecclesiocentrism.” Thus, to continue this search for all-inclusivity, there was a move towards “Christocentrism” (and away from the Church herself), which strived for a less “divisive” message. However, the next two steps were quick to follow. Since Christ belongs exclusively to Christians, perhaps we should be concerned only with the general idea of God, hence a “theocentrism.” The final step was a surrender of the very idea of God, since even God can be a cause of division among people and the various religions of the world. In the end, we are left only with man, and in this stripped-down theology, the “kingdom” is simply a name given for a world governed by “peace, justice, and the conservation of creation” (Benedict, 53). In this distorted view, the task of religion is to work in harmony to bring forth this kingdom on earth.
On one hand, this seems laudable; it finally allows all people to enjoy Christ’s message in harmony, to appropriate it in their own belief systems and world views. On the other hand, there is not much left of the message itself; it has been stripped down to what amounts essentially to secular humanism.
To rescue Christ’s message from such deprivation, we must first recognize that the Lord never preaches simply a “kingdom,” but instead preaches the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven.” “When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history, and is even now so acting…. The new and totally specific thing about his message is that he is telling us: God is acting now—this is the hour in which God is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God, in a way that goes beyond anything seen before. ‘Kingdom of God’ is therefore an inadequate translation. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (Benedict, 55-56). This is consonant with the prior observation that the Hebrew word malkut and the Greek word baseleia are action words. It is also consonant with the use of the present tense in Luke 6:20.
To further our understanding of Christ as the incarnated Kingdom of God, let us examine Saint Thomas Aquinas’s observation that man’s final cause is identical with his efficient cause, i.e., from God we have come and to God we must return. Our fulfillment, our telos, is in nothing other than God himself. In order to be fully man, we must give our entire existence back to the very source of our existence. Man is unique in the world in that he alone can actively strive away from his proper telos. That is, man can, by the gift of free will, choose not to give himself back to God. To do so is to be inhuman, to remain unfulfilled. Given that man’s proper end is God himself, we can understand why Vatican II says, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes §22). Finally, if what it means to be human is to give of ourselves to God and to possess God deep within our souls, and if the kingdom that Christ promises is none other than his very self, we can conclude that the promise, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” can be understood as, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is Christ,” or rather, “Blessed are ye poor, for you have already within you what it means to be fully human.” When understood this way, if it is true that the poor already possess within their being their own fulfillment, then it is abundantly clear why they are “blessed.”
It remains now to try to come to grips with why poverty brings with it such blessing. What is it about poverty that is so authentically human? We must first make a critical distinction between poverty and destitution. All human beings are entitled to have their basic needs met. The fact that millions are living in our world in the state of destitution, where hunger and disease ravage entire cultures, is a great sin against humanity, and it cannot be ignored that Christ was relentless in his call for a preferential option for the destitute. Every time we withhold our cloak from the naked or our food from the hungry, we perform sin, not only against the human person, but also against Jesus himself. Poverty, on the other hand, is not identical with destitution. The Latin word used in the Vulgate is pauperes. It is true that this is best translated as “poverty,” but what is perhaps more noticeable is that the Gospel does not use the word egenus or the word inops, both of which could be translated as destitute (though inops is more often rendered as “helpless”). Nor did the author use a form of the verb destituo (forsaken). Poverty (pauperes), as opposed to destitution, is the state of having only what one needs. It is this state of simplicity that Christ calls “blessed” and to which he attaches the promise of the kingdom of heaven.
As the Fathers of the Church unanimously observed, to advance in the life of virtue, poverty must come first. This is due to the ontological difference between God and the world. It is the unique Christian distinction that God is absolutely other to the world. God is not part of the world, nor is the world as a whole equivalent to God. Because of this distinction and because of our call to return to God, this world becomes God’s gift to us to be used as a means for this return. Simply put: God is the end; things are means to this end. On one hand, when one is deprived of the basic needs of life, this physical state of destitution necessarily brings with it the challenge of spiritual destitution (for the human person is a body-soul unity). This is precisely why we must work to eliminate destitution in the world, not primarily because of the physical sufferings, but first and foremost to allow God’s people the freedom to worship him in health of body, mind, and soul, a concept at the heart of Pope Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est. On the other hand, the possession of goods beyond that of basic necessity brings with it the risk of using goods as ends in themselves. It is interesting that, while Christ cured the sick, made the blind see, made the deaf hear, to my recollection, he never once made a poor man rich. Illness, blindness, and deafness are deprivations; poverty, understood as having only what one needs, is not.
Christ, in this first beatitude, does not say, “To those who are impoverished, I say to you, do not think that this most unfortunate state is permanent, for the day will come when I will relieve you of this poverty and make you rich.” Instead, he says, “Blessed are you poor.” Poverty itself brings with it blessing, or rather, sanctity. If the possession of goods beyond that of basic needs bring with it the risk of treating this excess as an end in itself, then it follows that the more we possess, the further we find ourselves from pursuing our proper end: God. The further we are from our proper end, the less human we find ourselves. We are now in the position to reason our main thesis.
In proclaiming, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” Christ is making an ontological observation. Poverty brings with it the simplicity to give oneself to God, which is the final cause of all of humanity. In other words, poverty provides a more authentic human experience. In this, there is blessing. Of course, all of this is more pressing, given the large percentage of humanity that are living in the state of destitution, a state that potentially hinders their ability to know, love, and serve God. It becomes all the more crucial for us to divest ourselves of our excesses to satisfy the basic needs of others. However, we must be careful to avoid misrepresenting the Gospel as a kind of call for a distributive justice. Virtue is always performed in the heart of the individual. We cannot expect political agendas and government policies to force virtue upon the hearts of its citizens. To do so ignores the authentic freedom that is at the core of the dignity of the human person. The ends of such policies can only be atheistic ends, as history has aptly demonstrated. This does not mean that charity and generosity cannot be cultivated among groups of people, but the Church has consistently and wisely taught the principle of subsidiarity, that things are best handled by the smallest competent authority.
In summary, the state of poverty is not purely material; material poverty alone does not bring salvation. To reiterate Basil’s comment from the second part, “For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn.” On the other hand, neither is the state of poverty purely spiritual. There are those who want to reduce Christ’s call to poverty to the mere spiritual detachment from goods. This too is a distortion of the Gospel message. Recall from the first part that the two critical Greek manuscripts (Papyrus 75 and Codex Vaticanus) deliberately avoid the phrase “poor in spirit” and instead opt for simply “poor.”
Finally, there are many other aspects of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that could enrich this discussion, such as the connection the Beatitudes share with the presentation of the Ten Commandments. Many learned theologians (viz., Pope Benedict XVI, Servais Pinkares, and Fr. Thomas Dubay, to name only a few) have already laid out helpful guides enabling us to enter more deeply and richly into the “greatest sermon ever composed.” I thus humbly leave the reader to take up the various texts on this crucial component of our life as Christians for further spiritual enrichment.