On an Evangelical but seeking blog that I follow, the topic came up recently about how to interpret the Beatitudes. This, like many sections of the New Testament, is hard for Protestants, especially Evangelicals, to deal with as they eschew anything that smacks of a works salvation. The blogger asserted that what Christ is saying is that anyone can come and receive Christ’s blessings, regardless of their state and how society views them. He says that the other way to phrase what Christ is saying is, “even if you are poor, come and receive my blessing, even if your mourn…” etc. The weakness in this argument is Christ is clearly not, then, saying “even if you are merciful come” as if being merciful is a bad thing, or even viewed as being bad by society.
So, I decided to look at what the Fathers of the Church have to say about the Beatitudes, and found that St. John Chrysostom interprets the first beatitude in this manner:
“What is meant by “the poor in spirit?” The humble and contrite in mind. For by “spirit” He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.
But why said he not, “the humble,” but rather “the poor?” Because this is more than that. For He means here them who are awestruck, and tremble at the commandments of God. Whom also by His prophet Isaiah God earnestly accepting said, “To whom will I look, but to him who is meek and quiet, and trembleth at My words?” For indeed there are many kinds of humility: one is humble in his own measure, another with all excess of lowliness. It is this last lowliness of mind which that blessed prophet commends, picturing to us the temper that is not merely subdued, but utterly broken, when he saith, “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit, a contrite and an humble heart God will not despise.” [Psalm 50 (51):7] And the Three Children also offer this unto God as a great sacrifice, saying, “Nevertheless, in a contrite soul, and in a spirit of lowliness, may we be accepted.” This Christ also now blesses.”
The blogger went on to assert that the parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel supports his view. It supports it more, because that passage lacks the “blessed are the merciful, etc.” verses, but it in no way demands his interpretation. I decided to check Blessed Theophylact and discovered that his interpretation of the parallel passage is in agreement (as I expected it would) with St. John’s interpretation of Matthew:
“These words of the Lord are directed to the disciples. After ordaining them, the Lord uses these beatitudes and teachings to guide them into a more spiritual life. He first blesses the poor, whom you may understand to mean either those who are humble or those who live without greed for money. Simply put, all the beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach. And accordingly woe awaits those who are rich and propserous now, in this life, those who the Lord says have received their consolation, meaning that in this life they have enjoyed revelry, laughter, feasting, and the praise of men. Let us tremble, brothers, to hear that Woe! awaits those who are praised by men. First we ought to live such a life that will draw down upon us the praise of God, and then others will indeed speak well of us.”
This view of the Beatitudes finds support throughout Scripture, but there are a couple of places that merit pointing out. The first is the 50th psalm (51st in Western numbering), where we learn that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” In the 108th Psalm (109 in the Western numbering), we see King David, ruler of Judea refer to himself being “poor and needy,” and that he is weak from fasting. Clearly King David was not really poor, but rather this reflected a state of mind and spirit he had acquired. That his action was involved is clear from the fact that fasting is involved in all of this (among other things).
So, the Orthodox understanding is clearly that we must humble ourselves – make ourselves lowly, in order to be blessed by God. This interpretation agrees with all of Scripture. I fear that the blogger in question is guilty of looking for an interpretation that fit his preconceived theology, then forced it into the text.