Properties of Blood I, Part C

Like most peoples everywhere, ancient Jews respected power and success.  In looking back at their own history, they admired the exploits of Joshua, Gideon, and Samson, violent men who would not have been out of place in the American West.  King David and his son Solomon were among their greatest heroes.  David was a man of war who smote his enemies and built a powerful (albeit minuscule) kingdom; Solomon was proverbial for his wealth and women as well as for his wisdom and power.

For more recent heroes, Jews could turn for inspiration to the Maccabees, who had led a bloody insurrection that liberated their people from the Macedonian kingdom of Syria ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes.  The successors to the Macedonians were the Romans, who had been ruling over the Jews, largely through proxies like the Herods, for more than 100 years.  In expecting a messiah or savior, Jews commonly believed he would come as a fighting prince, another David or Judas Maccabaeus, with sword in hand, to drive the Romans into the sea.  Yet here is this prophet or (as some would say) the Messiah, early in his career, calmly beginning an address to the multitude proclaiming the blessedness of “the poor in spirit” or simply, as in the parallel passage in Luke, “the poor.”

What do these words mean, really, “blessed” and “poor in spirit”?  Blessed, for example, can mean several things in English.  When we bless someone, we speak well of him.  In the Vulgate translation of the Bible, this is expressed by the verb benedicere (to speak well of), which gives us the English word “benediction.”  Benedicere is the word used to translate the Greek eulogein, as in “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” [Luke 1.64]  However the completely unrelated Greek word, μακάριος (makarios), used here in Matthew, means blessed or happy, in the sense of having good fortune. (It is translated into Latin here and elsewhere as beatus).  The more basic word μάκαρ makar, from which it is derived, is typically used in early Greek to refer to the gods as opposed to mere mortals, and makarios thus retains a strong whiff of divine favor.  In the plural (as Jesus uses it here), makarios is often applied to the rich and well-educated.

The English word “poor” is also ambiguous; it can mean either lacking in wealth or in a poor condition or quality, as in “the actor turned in a poor performance.”  In Greek the πτωχοί (ptochoi) or poor, by contrast, are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale; they are the beggars that crouch and cringe, fearfully, in the presence of their superiors.  There is really no good modern analogy for the ancient poor, since our homeless people are, for the most part, either mentally disturbed or "substance abusers" or both.  The ancient beggar, by contrast, might just be unfortunate, an otherwise decent person who had fallen on hard times.

One of Jesus' listeners who had been to school might have thought of Odysseus, the noble Greek warrior who disguised himself as a beggar and had to endure insults and abuse in his own house—a story that eerily anticipates Jesus’ own arrival in earthly form: the son of God who is born to a poor family, a man “despised and rejected and acquainted with grief.”  However, Matthew’s version “poor in spirit” takes us well beyond Homeric myth.  Odysseus may have been without resources and beggarly in appearance, but, as a proud and violent Greek aristocrat, he was anything but poor in spirit, as he would show when he put off his disguise and killed his wife's suitors.  (Poor in condition though he was, Odysseus was, nonetheless, in Aristotelian terms, megalopsychos, that is, possessed of a proper appreciation of his own virtues.)  Our Lord was telling his people that the greatest happiness one can have, the happiness usually associated with the prosperous and educated, is to possess the spirit of the cowering beggar.

What a strange statement, then, to make, that the abject and miserable, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, are the ones who have experienced divine good favor.  Most of us have read or heard this sermon so many times we take it for granted as either hyperbole—He could not have meant these things literally, could he?—or as a set of Sunday school clichés that we recite without any intention of living up to them.  But then they would not be the Beatitudes, but only the platitudes.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    I really enjoy this type of teaching. You are quite good at this craft and I wish you would go through more etymologies concerning The Sermon on the Mount. I have heard St Jerome was a choleric type who knew his etymologies. It was his preparation for the faith capable of redeeming souls of all types and temperments.. Why do our modern houses of studies, once modeled off the contemplative schools and ancient rules from Plato to Oxford, now little more than the state’s licensing bureaus for Marxist men and women living to work instead of working to live, still ignore Latin and Greek?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There will be quite a lot more etymologizing, both on the Sermon and on other passages. This is not an especially short book, and in finishing a late chapter on the positive aspect of kinship, I realize I should follow with the chapter on vendetta I had been saving for a later book. I still haven’t decided whether or not to conclude with a chapter on the commonwealth as embodiment of the love-hate tension that so dominates human life.