For the Weak Ones


In my imagination, the breeze lifts off the Sea of Galilee, providing Jesus a brief respite from the heat of the day as he hikes two hours to the south. When he and the crowd that has gathered arrive at an open space, he finds a seat on the slope where folks can see him, hear his voice as they sit cross-legged or stretch out on their sides on the prickly grass. Maybe a crew of kids runs in a meadow somewhere below the adults.

This is the image that comes to mind at 6:00 a.m. while I practice what some of my favorite spiritual writers call imaginative prayer. Chris is making my coffee, so I have around eight minutes—his coffee making is a science—before he sits beside me, cup in hand, and we catch up. This is my moment to pray.

Maybe this is Jesus’s first sermon. If it is, I wonder if he feels ready. I wonder how long these ideas have been forming in his mind. I wonder if he changed his plan when he saw the reality of those who gathered before him. More than once, the gospel writer Matthew notes that Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowds. Maybe at the base of his ribs a flame begins to glow at the sight of them. Every prophetic word spoken over him, every conversation about purpose, every moment of knowing that sparked his imagination when he heard the Hebrew scriptures read aloud in the synagogue—these are becoming real. All of it has led to this moment.

“His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” Jesus sits on a rock where the path slopes upward. His voice carries downhill toward the crowd.

The New Testament offers two versions of Jesus’s most famous sermon and two versions of the macarisms that Jesus recites just before he preaches. In Matthew’s version of this sermon, Jesus begins his poem with a blessing for those who live with poverty of spirit, “the spiritual zeros, the spiritually bankrupt.” In Luke’s version, Jesus speaks these words in a completely different setting. He’s standing on a plain, and his poem consists of only four blessings, followed by four woes. Some scholars believe these divergent accounts suggest that Jesus might have given this sermon more than once, in different places. In Luke’s recounting, Jesus’s language is centered on physical experience. In both accounts, he uses the same word for poverty, ptōchoi, the Greek word we translate as “poor.” This poor didn’t refer to the 80 percent of those in the lower middle class in ancient Palestine, many of whom lived a hard-scrabble life and struggled to make ends meet under the oppressive Roman regime. This word meant the poorest of the poor, the ones deemed unnecessary to society, the rejected. Unlike in Luke’s version, in which the blessing falls solely on those who live in physical poverty, Matthew’s version refers to a kind of spiritual poverty.

Which does Jesus intend—a blessing for the materially poor or the spiritually poor? If he meant to bless only the physically and economically poor, then Jesus’s blessing could almost appear cruel. For those who live in extreme poverty, plagued by hunger, disease, and often abuse at the hands of a culture that has rejected their humanity, Jesus’s words seem to spiritualize their pain.

Maybe Luke’s telling of the story doesn’t allow his readers the full picture we find in Matthew, which offers a counterbalance. When we come to this first beatitude, we’re invited to incorporate both the spiritual emphasis of Matthew’s text and the social reality of Luke’s. When we read them in tandem, perhaps we get a fuller grasp of Jesus’s intention, the experience of two eyes working together.

God’s special attention and honor, Jesus says, belong to the impoverished, those who lack the physical stability and comfort needed for safety and health in this world. And they also belong to the impoverished of spirit, those who lack healthy and whole souls, who suffer under layers of human emotional and spiritual pain. In Matthew’s translation, we find language that points to blessings on those who feel their poverty. To the physically ptōchoi and the spiritually ptōchoi, Jesus is making a promise: I am here, and I am bringing a whole and flourishing life, especially for you.

Content taken from Blessed Are the Rest of Us by Micha Boyett, ©2024. Used by permission of Brazos Press.

Micha Boyett
Micha Boyett

Micha Boyett is co-host of The Lucky Few podcast and creator of The Slow Way podcast.