Jesus Did Not Say That We Must Be Instrospective



Oh, how we love to do post mortems on ourselves, endlessly examining our actions and motives in case we have offended God! Well, some of us do. I suppose it’s part of our natural inclination to put ourselves down – instigated by the deceiver, of course. If there are two people he loves to dishonour, it is God and us.

But didn’t Jesus say that the poor in spirit are blessed? Yes, He did, but He did not mean what we think He meant. As western philosophically-minded Greek-orientated thinkers, that’s how we (and the thousands of theologians who have written, taught or preached about the “Beatitudes” froma western abstract perspective) interpret the first beatitude.

Before we can say categorically, “This is what it means,” we must look at the Hebrew construction in which the Beatitudes occur. Jesus used a common Hebrew construction called a “chiasm” or “reverse concentric symmetry”. Don’t be put off by the fancy-sounding title. Let me explain.

A chiasm uses a unique pattern of repetition to clarify or emphasise a point. Instead of making a series of statements which go from point A to B to C, and end at point C, the teacher makes a preliminary statement which moves towards the central point of his teaching and then backs out, statement by statement to end where he began. Look at the following example and match the statements:

‘No one can serve two masters.
Either he will hate the one and
love the other, or
he will be devoted to the one and
despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and Money.
(Matt. 6:  24)

Chiasms are usually arranged in the same top-to-bottom form as they appear in the text:

A No one can serve two masters.
B Either he will hate the one and
C love the other, or
C′ he will be devoted to the one and
B′ despise the other.
A′ You cannot serve both God and Money.
(Matt. 6: 24)

If we do not recognise the chiastic structure, we will miss the point of the repetition. The thought is not that no one can serve two masters, God or money. We must look at the central point to get the thrust of Jesus’s teaching.

A and A’, B and B’ and C and C’ have similar themes, serving two masters, God or money, hating the one and loving the other. C and C’ are the centre point – the most important statement. This is not about a choice to serve God or money. This is about the devotion we give to the one we have chosen to serve.

The right thing to do is to serve God rather than money but the driving force of our service to Him is to be our devotion rather than our duty. When we serve God out of devotion to Him, nothing is too much to do or to give to Him. Our service is the outflow of our love, which is the most important thing. This takes us back to the greatest commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Thomas B Clarke, retrieved March, 2015).

Although difficult to recognise, the so-called “Beatitudes” are an example of this rabbinic teaching method.

Matt. 5: 3-12 can be subdivided into three chiasms, verses 3 to 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 12.

  1. Blessed are those who mourn . . .

The first chiasm, verses 3 to 5, can be represented this way:

A – Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

B – Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted

A’ – Blessed are the meek for they will in inherit the earth.

The central idea in this chiasm is B – Blessed are those who mourn.

Jesus was quoting here from Isaiah 66:

This is the one I esteem: the one who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isa. 66: 2b),

and from Psa. 37:

The meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. (Psa. 37: 11).

The Hebrew word for “poor” is aniy; and the word for “meek” is anav (remembering that Jesus would have spoken Hebrew, not Greek)The words “poor” and “meek” come from the same Hebrew root, an. “Poor in spirit” can mean “poor in breath” or “poor in wind” here when ruach refers to a human being, from the Hebrew word ruach meaning “breath”, “wind” or “spirit”. One who is “poor in wind” is a person who is not puffed up or full of “hot air”, someone who is not full of his own importance.

The meek are the anavim, a word which is usually translated as the “lowly ones”.

“This word does not suggest weakness, but rather the recognition of one’s proper place in the universe before God. It is no self-effacing but reality-focused. The meek inherit the earth because they are grounded in the truth of reality.” (from the article, “The Beatitudes of Jesus in Hebrew”, author unknown, retrieved March, 2015).

A paraphrase of these two thoughts would read something like this:

O how blessed and fortunate are those who are not full of their own importance and who can take their rightful place before God in submission to Him. These are the ones who have a place in God’s kingdom and who will receive their inheritance as His people.

Now let’s look at the central thought of this chiasm.

What have poverty of spirit and meekness to do with mourning? There are two possible ideas in this text.

One commentator suggests that this is the “godly sorrow” that leads us to repentance. In other words, when we recognise that we have left God’s way and become lost in the desert, we need to shuv – “return” – to the way of Yahweh so that we keep going in the right direction in order to reach Mount Zion where He has placed His name. When we have the humility to admit that we are wrong and return to the way, we shall experience the true happiness of following God’s path again.

Another way of looking at this passage is to recognise that there are others around us who have needs. We are called to forget ourselves and identify with those who are experiencing the grief and pain of loss. It takes humility and inner strength to come alongside those who are in deep emotional pain and to mourn with them.

Perhaps Jesus was teaching His disciples that there is true blessing and happiness when we are willing to give ourselves away to others. In this way we invite God’s comfort on our own lives because He always gives back what we give away.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we have received from God. (2 Cor. 1: 3-4)

Part of the Jewish mourning process was to “sit shiva” for seven days, supporting the mourner with one’s presence without saying anything. Another form of support was to wear sackcloth, a rough type of fabric, to throw ashes on one’s head, and to tear one’s robe as a sign of identity with the mourner.

The ancient rabbis viewed the heavy curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place as God’s “robe” which hid Him from view. When Jesus died, God tore His “robe” as a sign of His grief. Now that the Father has suffered grief, He is able to comfort us as we extend comfort to others in their sorrow and loss.

There is something cyclical about the way God treats us. As we share with others in their grief, laying aside self-importance and self-interest, God will comfort us as we have comforted others. This is part of the essence of the way God’s kingdom works.

O the blessedness of those who are self-forgetful, setting themselves and their needs aside to identify with those who are suffering through loss and hardship. God will comfort them in their own loss just as they have identified with and comforted those who have suffered loss.

(Quotation take from “Learning to be a Disciple” © Luella Campbell 2015, Partridge Publishing, pages 78-82)

This is the disposition of the disciple who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness”, seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness above self-interest, yearning to do the right thing in every situation. God’s promise is that he shall receive the same comfort from God as he has given to those who grieve.

Oh what a difference when we approach the Bible from a Hebrew perspective and read it the way it was meant to be understood and not from our own worldview!

Scripture taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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