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'Blessed are the poor in spirit'
This month's reflection consists of the edited text of a sermon preached by Fr Ian Falconer SJ at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew, Melbourne, earlier this year.
The majority of the Dead Sea scrolls, complete and fragmentary, are written, not in the vernacular Aramaic of daily life, nor in Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world, but in Hebrew. This shows that the biblical scholars who, until this discovery, had maintained that Hebrew was a dead language in Our Lord's time were mistaken. It was not a dead language. It was written and read, spoken and understood, in addition to Aramaic. And it would seem that Hebrew was chosen especially for writing. So the Gospels could have been written in Hebrew rather than the Greek we now have.
Some recent biblical scholars have in fact argued, convincingly I think, that our Greek texts of Matthew and Mark are translations of Hebrew originals. Luke wrote in Greek, but he based his Gospel partly on Hebrew documents, translated by or for him, including the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and partly on his own researches while travelling with Paul.
Before he met Paul he was a disciple of the apostles in Antioch. He resided in Palestine for the two years during which Paul was a prisoner of the Romans in Caesarea. He surely made good use of the opportunity to read some of the many accounts of events in Our Lord's life which he tells us in his prologue were in existence then. These accounts would almost certainly have been written in Hebrew. He would also have interviewed eye-witnesses of some of those events. He is the only evangelist to give the names of some of the women who attended to the needs of Jesus and his apostles.
If the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written, as early Christian writers tell us they were, for Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians, they had to be, and were, quickly translated into Greek, for the sake of the thousands of Gentiles pouring into the Church who would not have known Hebrew. Not only does this confirm the traditional view that the Gospels were composed in the life-time of the apostles, who had lived with Our Lord for more than two years, it also accounts for some of the differences in parallel passages of the Gospels.
The Hebrew language of those days had a comparatively small vocabulary, so a Hebrew word usually had a wide range of possible meanings. Besides this, Hebrew words were written without vowels, with the result that different readers could easily put in different vowels and so produce different words and therefore also different translations of one and the same original.
In today's Gospel St Luke is translated as "Happy are you who are poor". This suggests physical, financial poverty. St Matthew's Greek text is translated as "Happy are the poor in spirit". The Hebrew word behind both renderings into Greek has both meanings. In fact, depending on the context, the Hebrew word for "poor" can also mean oppressed, afflicted, wretched, miserable, helpless, humble, patient, meek. Luke, writing after Matthew and drawing on Matthew's Gospel, takes it for granted that his readers will know what meaning he intends by the word "poor" in the context of the beatitudes.
In such a religious context, the poverty intended is poverty in spirit, that is, the humble recognition of one's utter nothingness before God, that without His gifts one is and has nothing. It is worth noting, as an example of different translators at work, that Luke in quoting our Lord uses direct speech, "Happy are you who are poor", whereas Matthew uses reported speech, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Also, the ancients were concerned to give the meaning, not necessarily the exact words of a speaker.
This poverty of spirit, this humility, this recognition of one's absolute nothingness before God, is a virtue Our Lord says should characterise all members of His Kingdom. He said of Himself "Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart". Elsewhere in the Gospels we are told that He said to the rich young man who asked what more he could do to win heaven: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell all you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come to be with me". Here Jesus is talking about a special vocation, the call to those who take the religious vow of poverty.
Incidentally, I myself regret the Jerusalem Bible's choice of the translation "Happy" in place of the old translation "Blessed". Can a normal person feel "happy" when destitute, mourning, suffering injustice, persecuted? With the help of God's gift of grace we can struggle to bring ourselves to accept whatever He allows to happen to us through no fault of our own. It is a privilege, a blessing, in disguise, if you like, to be able to share our Lord's suffering, in atonement for our own sins and the sins of the world. And after Calvary came the Resurrection. We remember, too, the parable about the poor beggar Lazarus; dying, he was taken up into Abraham's bosom, to enjoy for ever in heaven the happiness he had lacked on earth.
Why God allows pain and evil in the world is the oldest mystery facing thinking men and women; but by God's gift to us of the light of faith, we know with utter conviction and we trust completely that He loves each and every one of us with an infinite love. It is because, as St John writes in his first letter, "God is love", that He created us in order to love us and to take us, in His own good time, to be with Him in bliss for ever.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 14 No 4 (May 2001), p. 20
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