Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
The Beatitudes are some of the most treasured verses in the Bible. Even nonbelievers tend to appreciate these gentle expressions of hope for the downtrodden.
Some people imagine the Beatitudes to be the antithesis of Judaism’s harsh legalism. Those people must not have much real experience with Judaism, however. The teachings of Yeshua in the Beatitudes have numerous parallels in rabbinic literature. He was not contradicting Judaism; he was drawing attention to some of the most important Jewish ideas.
However, our English translations struggle to convey the full meaning of these expressions. What does it mean that such people are “blessed”?
This section is one case where it is easy to figure out what Yeshua said in Hebrew. The Greek word we translated here as “blessed” corresponds to the Hebrew word ashrei (osh-RAY).
Ashrei literally means “happiness” or “contentment,” but taking that at face value would make no sense. “Those who mourn,” for example, are clearly not happy. However, as a common figure of speech, ashrei is a term of congratulations. It’s a way to declare that a person will have a favorable outcome when all is said and done. Think of it like “Good for you!” or “You’ve got it made!” The word ashrei is particularly applicable when a person’s current situation is not as good. Their self-sacrifice, suffering, or a difficult decision will have paid off handsomely in the end.
In essence, Yeshua is telling his listeners that despite their current challenges, the poor in spirit will be doing quite well in the future. Not only that, but their happy ending is the direct result of their current ordeals.
While in Matthew 5:3, he says this about the “poor in spirit,” in Luke 6:20, he says the same about the “poor.” There is not a big difference between the two. The Hebrew word ruach, meaning “spirit,” has a lot of uses. In this context, it’s talking about one’s mental and emotional state. One who is poor in spirit feels dejected and humiliated due to poverty.
But what exactly is their positive outcome?
Yeshua says that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He does not mean that only poor people go to heaven when they die. Rather, when Yeshua speaks of the “kingdom of heaven,” he means the Messianic Era—a period of peace on earth.
The Messianic Era (or kingdom of heaven) is a fundamental Jewish belief because the biblical prophets constantly talked about it. It’s the Messiah’s job to bring the earth into a state of joy, peace, prosperity, and the knowledge of God. Yeshua called it the “kingdom of heaven” because “heaven” is a common Jewish way to refer to God. In that time, the Prophet Zechariah tells us, God’s kingship will be revealed and known to everyone:
The LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:9)
That future world will have some strange differences from ours. A few verses earlier, Zechariah tells us:
On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. (Zechariah 14:6)
Some Hebrew words in this verse are unusual. To this day, translators are uncertain what they mean. To some of the ancient rabbis, this verse confirmed their belief that there would be a great reversal in society in the Messianic Era. The words for “cold” and “frost” sounded to the ancient rabbis as though they meant “highly esteemed” and “insignificant.” Rabbi Joshua son of Levi explained, “This refers to people who are highly esteemed in this world, but who will be insignificant in the world to come.”
Rabbi Joshua had a personal reason to see it that way. His son Joseph became so ill that he had a near-death experience. When he recovered, Rabbi Joshua asked, “What did you see?” His son said, “I saw an inverted world. The highly regarded people here were lowly there, but the lowly people here were highly regarded there.” His father explained that it is our world that is inverted, not the future world. “What you saw was a world of clarity.”
Still, Rabbi Joshua felt concerned. “What about people who are esteemed because of their Torah studies?” Joseph assured his father that they would continue to be highly regarded in the kingdom of heaven. He added, “Blessed [ashrei] is he who arrives with his studies in hand!”
This helps us to unravel what Yeshua meant by “Blessed [ashrei] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The rich seem to possess and control everything in this world, while the poor languish and struggle to survive. But in the Messianic Era, an even more precious world, God will reverse the roles. He will grant ownership, leadership, and esteem to those who were downtrodden in this life. While others will surely be present, the kingdom of heaven will literally be “theirs.”
Yeshua’s words serve both to encourage those who are suffering now and admonish those who are well-off. To those who can never seem to make ends meet: Take courage and persevere in faith. God sees you and cares about you. Your future is brighter.
To those who have much: Recognize that everything you have comes from above. Invest in the future by storing up treasures in heaven through acts of charity and self-sacrifice. Choose generosity over comfort. Keep in mind that the neighbor asking for help with rent and groceries today might be your landlord in the future world!
- But didn’t Yeshua speak Aramaic and not Hebrew? Among first-century Jews, it was not so clear-cut. Hebrew was influenced by Jewish Aramaic, and Jewish Aramaic was influenced by Hebrew. Teachers alternated between the two depending on what they were saying. In this case, Aramaic lacks a decent way to express ashrei and substitutes a generic term for “good.”
- b.Pesachim 50a.