by David J. Hesselgrave
Currently, article after article and book after book refer to the poor? But seldom is the word poor carefully defined.
"Good news to the poor…”
“Our mission to the poor…”
“Working with the poor…”
“Jesus’ concern for the poor…”
Have you noticed that currently, article after article and book after book refer to the poor? But seldom is the word poor carefully defined. Seldom are the poor described except in very general terms. The assumption seems to be that the poor are generally known, easily identified and readily recognized. But that assumption may not be true if we are thinking in biblical terms. In fact, it could be that, in our failure to stop and think more seriously about this one small and seemingly innocent English word, we are opening the door to a missions revolution that is only partially warranted.
Popular Missions Thinking Concerning the Poor
Since the 1970s a great deal of evangelical missions thinking about the poor has tended to follow a pattern established earlier by more ecumenical theologians and missiologists. Though not always articulated in the same way, of course, that pattern often goes like this:
1. In that he was sent by God the Father into this world in order to identify with human beings and minister to them, Jesus is the model missionary.
2. Jesus’ understanding of his mission was made clear in the Nazareth synagogue when he opened the Isaiah scroll and read the following words,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
3. Since Jesus is our model and since his mission was to proclaim good news to the poor and minister to the needs of prisoners, blind and oppressed peoples everywhere, our mission today is to be understood in the same or similar terms.
Now this particular mission paradigm is questionable at several points, but none is more problematic than the assumption that “poor” refers primarily to the poverty-stricken, disenfranchised, suffering and helpless people who constitute the underclass of society. If that assumption is granted, on one hand, it does seem to follow that the poor are those to whom the Christian mission must first of all be directed; that the poor are the ones who must be able to recognize the Christian message as good news; and that the poor are those whose condition must be ameliorated if mission ministries are to be valid and credible. If, on the other hand, this assumption is not true, these conclusions may not be true either.
How then, can we test the validity of the assumption? There is but one way. We must examine (or re-examine) relevant biblical texts. Now, to do that runs counter to a long-standing inclination on the part of the evangelical missions community to favor practical concerns and avoid theological discussions. Hopefully, however, it will be immediately apparent that a theological and exegetical inquiry at this point is both absolutely essential and eminently practical.
The Poor in the Old Testament—With Special Reference to Isaiah 61:1. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Isa. 61:1a).
Most conservative evangelicals assume that Isaiah was referring to the Messiah and find reinforcement for their view in the fact that Jesus applied the passage to himself in Luke 4:17-19. That being the case, it is incumbent upon us to inquire into the identity of the poor referred to by Isaiah in this particular messianic pronouncement. In an attempt to identify the poor we will briefly examine three types of data: lexical, textual/contextual and scholarly opinion.
Lexical data: Meanings of the Hebrew word anawim. Of half a dozen or so Hebrew words that the Holy Spirit could have led the prophet Isaiah to use in Isaiah 61:1, he chose the word anawim. The word is correctly translated “poor” but is capable of being interpreted either literally or figuratively. In its more literal meaning it refers to people who are circumstantially poor and needy. In its figurative sense it refers to people whose state of mind and heart is that of humility, meekness and openness. The question is, which type of people is in view in this particular passage?
The NIV translators’ decision to translate anawim as “poor” and leave it at that does not really help us in this regard. Authorized Version translators opted for the figurative meaning and translated anawim as “meek,” while NASB translators chose the more ambiguous English word “afflicted” when translating the text itself, but added the word “humble” in the margin. It would seem that either meaning or both meanings are possible. Which is to be preferred?
Textual/contextual data: The meaning of anawim in Isaiah 61:1-2 as indicated by text and context. It seems quite clear that the language and ideas of the Isaiah 61 passage grow out of the old Jubilee Year as depicted in Leviticus 25. Certain requirements as to Israel’s treatment of the poor during the Jubilee Year were obviously designed to prevent permanent economic impoverishment and the creation of an underclass devoid of hope for their future in ancient Israel. That being the case, and perhaps because it was destined to denote the afflicted, humble and righteous poor in Israel, the word anawim was not used in Leviticus 25. The context, subject matter and language of the text clearly point to literal economic and circumstantial poverty.
By Isaiah’s time, however, the situation was radically different. The theocracy had long since been replaced by a monarchy; the Assyrians had decimated the northern tribes; and the Babylonians were Yahweh’s instrument of judgment in the south. The situation was such that there was little or no hope for improvement in the short term. Judgment entailed the loss of both land and freedom.
Isaiah’s message had to do with both types of impoverishment—
literal and figurative or spiritual. Without becoming embroiled in the debate over the unity of the book and taking the text of chapters forty to sixty-six as it stands, it is clear that, economically and circumstantially, the time of which Isaiah was writing must have been a sad hour for all of Yahweh’s chosen people. The deplorable situation in which the Israelites found themselves, however, did not mitigate the need for sincere obedience.
Let’s think about that for a moment. During the Exile the Israelites had come to place great emphasis on certain outward religious observances allowed by their captors: circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, fasting and perhaps others as well. Consequently the Israelites came to place a strong emphasis on these observances. However, circumcised or not, to keep the Sabbath while at the same time desecrating it and to celebrate fasts while at the same time neglecting justice and benevolence—such behavior could never satisfy Yahweh. What he desired was recognition of spiritual impoverishment and an expression of repentance, but he did not see either. That is what is in view in the chapters preceding Isaiah 60 and 61 (Isa. 41:17; 49:13; 51:21; 54:11; 58:1-8).
Now in chapters sixty and sixty-one Isaiah looks to the future. In these chapters the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom are in view. Messiah will be infinitely greater than any other emancipator in his person, providence and proclamations. As a matter of fact, when Messiah sets up his kingdom the status quo (of Isaiah’s time) will be turned on its head. Yahweh will fulfill his covenant promises to his people. Israel will not be abandoned to its enemies. Yahweh’s Anointed will come to their rescue and establish his righteous kingdom. Such is Isaiah’s message here—rebellious, unbelieving and impatient souls may not hear it as good news, but to anawim who, despite present trials and afflictions are open to Yahweh and his admonishments, it constitutes the very best news of all. In circumstances far from ideal, the anawim will be humble and meek enough to realize that their deepest need is ever and always for Yahweh himself. And they will humbly bank on his presence and promise.
Corroborative data: The conclusions of some recognized scholars. Does the foregoing make good exegetical sense? Before turning to the New Testament, let us look at the conclusions of some well-known scholars, one from the past and several of our contemporaries. At the very least their testimony should help us understand why, in either the text, the margin or both, most translators have been careful to point out that the poor referred to in Isaiah 61:1 are characterized by humility and meekness of mind and heart, not just or primarily financial impoverishment.
First we turn to the brilliant German Hebraist of the nineteenth century, Franz Delitzsch. He translates anawim in Isaiah 61:1 as “sufferers” (Delitzsch 1954, 424) and goes on to explain that the literal blessings of the Year of Jubilee become spiritual blessings in Isaiah 61. He says,
The vengeance applies to those who hold the people of God in fetters, and oppress them; the grace to those whom the infliction of punishment has inwardly humbled, though they have been strongly agitated by its long continuance (chapter 57:17). (Delitzsch 1954, 427)
Then, with respect to these humble “sufferers” and their promised blessings, he says,
The gifts of God, though represented in outward figures, are really spiritual, and take effect within, rejuvenating and sanctifying the inward man; they are the sap and strength, the marrow and impulse of a new life. (Delitzsch 1954,427)
Turning to a contemporary scholar, Darrell Bock first points out the importance of the Old Testament word anawim to our understanding of Luke 4:16-18 and then writes,
The Old Testament background refers to the anawim, the “pious poor,” the afflicted…. These are the humble that God will exalt (Luke 1:51-53) and who like the prophets suffer for being open to God (6:20-23)…. They are open to God and his way since they are frequently the first to recognize how much they need God. (Bock 1996, 136)
It is primarily this spiritual meaning that is bequeathed to the New Testament. In fact, as contributors to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary point out, long before New Testament times “poor” had almost become a technical term in the Old Testament. Their conclusion is that “‘The poor’ are the humble and the humble are the godly (Pss.10:17; 14:5-6; 37:11; Zeph. 3:12-13)” (Elwell and Comfort 2001, 1062).
The Poor in the New Testament with Special Reference to Luke 4:18a. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
The Jews of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth became incensed when their carpenter-neighbor Jesus applied Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself and his ministry. To be sure, at first they were amazed—perhaps even somewhat accepting. But they soon became furious and were ready to kill him.
What was going on? Well, the simple truth seems to be that Jesus had not performed in accordance with their expectations of the long-awaited Messiah. In fact, he actually made odious comparisons between his proud fellow-citizens on the one hand and the people of Capernaum, a Sidonian widow and a Syrian leper on the other! Now, there may have been some circumstantially poor people in the synagogue that day but it is evident there were few if any pious poor. And it was the pious poor whom Jesus sought and to whom his message and ministrations were directed.
Let’s explore that a bit more. First, Jesus said, “You will say, ‘Physician heal yourself!’ Do here in our hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum” (Luke 4:23). In other words, “If what you say is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, let’s see you do here and now what reporters say you did in Capernaum.” What was their problem? Skepticism. Cynicism. They were too proud to admit that he was more than Joseph’s son.
Second, Jesus spoke of Elijah and a poverty-stricken widow. Jesus knew that his neighbors were well aware of this story and that they revered Elijah. Why did Elijah pass by the multitude of widows in Israel and seek out an obscure widow in Zarephath of all places? Clearly because Yahweh was looking for something other than religious ancestry and physical need as an occasion to demonstrate his power and compassion. Namely, a humble recognition of the desperate need for Yahweh and his mercy. Yahweh found what he was looking for in a Sidonian widow.
Third, Jesus made reference to Elisha and Naaman the leper. Jesus knew that his neighbors were familiar with this story as well, and that they revered Elisha. But why was Elisha sent to a Syrian leper, especially to this one? Why not to one, two or, better yet, an entire colony of lepers of Israel? Why, indeed, but for the fact that this highly placed Syrian official became amenable to washing himself in the dirty waters of the Jordan just as the prophet directed him. Evidently Yahweh saw something in the heart of Naaman that he did not see in the hearts of the lepers in Israel and, seeing it, he did not allow either the Syrian’s status or citizenship to prevent his healing. Namely, in Naaman he saw a humble recognition of need for the merciful Yahweh of Israel.
So why was it that Jesus’ neighbors did not hear his message as the good news that it really was? Because they were not “poor in spirit,” and that’s the kind of poverty Jesus had been sent to cure once and for all.
For confirmation of this understanding we will once again briefly examine some lexical and textual/contextual data as well as review the conclusions of several respected scholars.
Lexical data: Meanings of ptochos, a Greek word for “poor.” There are various New Testament words that can be rendered “poor,” each with its own meaning and nuance (see Vine 1981; and Bauer and others 1979). The word used in Luke 4:18 is ptochos. In classical Greek from Homer on down it referred to the condition of being reduced to begging or asking alms. In the New Testament, however, the meaning broadened to refer to the lack of anything. Literally it meant to be poor and in need as opposed to being rich and wealthy. Figuratively it meant to be spiritually poor and destitute of Christian virtues and eternal riches.
The Greek words penichros and penes, on the other hand, were almost always restricted to literal, circumstantial poverty.
In the vast majority of cases where the word “poor” occurs in our English translations of the New Testament the Greek word ptochos (pl. ptochoi) is used. That being the case, the respective contexts in which it is used must be studied carefully in order to determine which meaning is in view, literal circumstantial poverty or the figurative spiritual kind. When we do so the meaning will usually be quite clear.
Several texts are illustrative and insightful in this regard.
1. At the outset of his ministry Jesus spoke of the basic character of his kingdom when he delivered what we have come to know as the Beatitudes. In the very first beatitude he pronounced a blessing on the ptochoi, but so that there be no misunderstanding, he referred to them as “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). In this way Matthew’s version of the beatitude is said to exhibit breadth while Luke’s version (Luke 6:20) exhibits depth (Elwell and Comfort 2001, 1062). However that might be, more than the circumstantial poverty that might be inferred from Luke’s abbreviated version is in view.
2. An intriguing passage that is especially relevant to this comparison of meanings has to do with the widow who put two small copper coins into the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-3). When Luke speaks of her as a “poor widow” in verse two he uses the word penichros, thereby calling attention to her poverty-stricken circumstances. But when Jesus commends her in verse three he does not use penichros. Rather, he uses the word ptochos and thereby seems to indicate that what was true of her economic condition was true of her mind and heart as well.
3. Shortly before his death Jesus was resting in the house of Simon the leper when a certain woman poured costly perfume over his head (Matt. 26:6-13). Some disciples complained that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor (ptochoi). Jesus, however, replied to the effect that the poor (ptochoi) will always be present. And, implying that his presence, death and burial constituted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he insisted that the woman had used the perfume in a more timely and important manner than to sell it and give the proceeds away irrespective of what his interrogators (or we!) might think about it. Obviously, “poor” in this instance refers to literal, circumstantial poverty.
4. Following his ascension, Christ instructed the apostle John to write to the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:17-19). His letter to the church in Laodicea is relevant to our discussion because he employs the word ptochos in describing the condition of that church. In a stinging rebuke he says that they think of themselves as rich and wealthy (we might say filthy rich) and in need of nothing. Spiritually myopic, they somehow don’t recognize the fact that they are actually “wretched, pitiful, poor [ptochos], blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). It is apparent here that, though their self-perception (better, self-deception) may well be as literal as it is erroneous, Christ’s perception is very different and pertains to their spiritual state. The meaning of ptochos is figurative and spiritual.
That brings us back to Luke 4:18. Who are the ptochoi in Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor? The word ptochos being used to refer to both literal poverty and a state of mind and heart in Luke’s Gospel and elsewhere in the Gospels, the lexical evidence alone is not conclusive. Robert Stein notes this when he writes, “In Luke the term ‘poor’ does refer to an economic condition but not merely to economic status, for the poor and humble hope in God” (Stein 1992, 156). So text and contexts must be combined with lexical data to inform our understanding of ptochoi in Luke 4:18.
Textual/contextual data: The meaning of ptochoi in Luke 4:18 as indicated by text and context.One would think that, if indeed the Isaiah text referred to by Jesus here employed the Hebrew word anawim to refer to the pious poor, the humble, meek and godly, Jesus probably used the Greek word ptochoi in much the same way. But will closer examination of the immediate context bear this out? Note the following.
1. Jesus broke off his reading of the Isaiah passage at a critical point. He read, “To declare the year of the Lord’s favor” but he closed the scroll without reading the rest of the sentence: “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Luke 4:19; Lev. 25:10; Isa. 61:2). An all-important aspect of Messiah’s complete mission is evidently not in view here—namely, divine judgment. Various explanations have been given for this omission. But it seems evident that social justice cannot be forthcoming without the right kind of judgment, and Jesus did not come to judge between a man and his neighbor (Luke 12:14).
2. When his audience asked for a display of the miraculous signs expected of the Messiah and already a part of his Capernaum ministry, Jesus answered to the effect that miracles were not proffered to everyone but to that lesser number who received his teaching (Luke 4:23-31). Given the relative locations and reputations of Capernaum and Nazareth, Nazareth must have been much worse off economically (as it certainly was socially) and therefore a better candidate for Jesus’ miracles. However, as we have noted above, that was not the case.
On the contrary, the text indicates that, far from being humble, devout people who recognized their dependence upon God, Nazareth-dwellers were proud and even haughty. That being so, it is no wonder that Jesus worked miracles in Capernaum and declined to do so in Nazareth. The very fact that his Nazareth friends actually demanded miracles constituted prima-facie evidence of something Jesus already knew—namely, that they were not of a mind to accept him or his message or his kingdom.
3. It does not appear to make exegetical sense to interpret ptochoi in Luke 4:18 literally, while at the same time interpreting “prisoners,” “blind” and “oppressed” figuratively. All should be in basic agreement. But, though “blind” can quite easily be literal or figurative, “prisoners” and “oppressed” must be primarily figurative in their meaning. To take those words literally would so severely limit the message and mission of Jesus as to make him out to be little more than a miracle-working revolutionary. Though zealots would have been delighted had he done so Jesus released not one political prisoner.
4. Finally, it should be noted that the text lends little support to the idea that the ptochoi constituted a distinct social class in any case. There is no definite article in the original text so it could be translated “…to preach good news to poor people.” Liberationists and holists often speak of the poor here as though an identifiable and recognizable social class were in view. That notion has little support in either the text or its context.
Corroborative data: The conclusions of some recognized Bible scholars. What are we to conclude from all of this with reference to the meaning of ptochoi in Luke 4:18? We will rest our case by drawing attention to the conclusions of several learned and trusted commentators.
Take another look at the quotation from Bock on page 156. He emphasizes the fact that poor in Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18 have the same or very similar meaning, i.e., what he terms “pious poor.” He then indicates that, characteristically, these people were humble sufferers, cognizant of their need for God, and open to his message and ministrations.
Howard Marshall basically agrees with Bock even though he is reluctant to employ Bock’s phrase “pious poor.” He fears that that particular phrase may connote people who take pious actions calculated to win God’s favor whereas he himself would emphasize humility and meekness.
At the same time Marshall takes more serious exception to the interpretation of Ronald Sider and others who say that, since the miracles in Luke 7:18-23 were physical (blind sighted, leprosy cured, deaf healed, dead raised), the same must be true of Luke 4:18-19 (Sider 1990, 45). Marshall thinks that line of reasoning to be misleading on two counts.
First, with respect to the physical miracles in Luke chapter seven, Marshall says that they were demonstrations of Christ’s messiahship, not simply the response of a compassionate Jesus to human need. Second, he notes that, along with the account of these miracles in Luke chapter seven, Luke adds that through them “good news is preached to the poor.” That phrase takes Marshall back to Luke 4:18 and his understanding that the good news mentioned there is the announcement of salvation to those who are “poor” in a spiritual sense (Marshall 1971, 121-123).
His conclusion is that the word ptochoi in Luke 4:18
…draws attention to the needy condition of the sufferer which God alone can cure. The poor are thus the needy and downtrodden whose wants are not supplied by earthly helpers. As Matthew makes clear, the meaning of the word is not restricted to literal poverty…. It was to such people [i.e., “spiritually impoverished,” ed.] that Jesus preached good news (euaggelizomai). (Marshall 1971, 123)
Turning once more to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, we read:
When he [Luke, ed.] says simply “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), he means those who in their need—in any kind of need—turn to the Lord. It was to bring the gospel to such people that Christ came into the world (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18). (Elwell and Comfort 2001, 1062)
Finally, we go back to the interpretation of an eminent eighteenth century Baptist theologian, John Gill. In a style reminiscent of New Testament Greek he wrote:
…in Isaiah it is, “to the meek”; which design the same persons, and mean such as are poor in spirit, and are sensible of their spiritual poverty; have low and humble thoughts of themselves, and of their own righteousness, and frankly acknowledge that all they have and are, is owing to the grace of God: and generally speaking, these are the poor of this world, and poor in their intellectuals (sic.), who have but a small degree of natural wisdom and knowledge; to these the Gospel, or glad tidings of the love, grace, and mercy of God in Christ, of peace, pardon, righteousness, life and salvation by Christ, were preached by him; and that in so clear a manner, and with such power and authority, as never was before, or since; and for this purpose was he anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows. (Gill 1999, 136)
Implications and Conclusion
We can quite confidently conclude that, in announcing good news to the poor, both Isaiah and Jesus referred primarily to people who recognize their impoverished spiritual state before a holy God and humbly reach out for his mercy and grace. If this be true, and the evidence goes considerably beyond the abbreviated summary evidence noted above, some very practical implications cry out for consideration.
First, it does not follow that missions are absolved of a responsibility to respond to physically needy, economically deprived and socially disadvantaged people. Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves; Paul’s injunction to “do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10); and many additional Old and New Testament texts such as Micah 6:6-8 and James 1:26-27, 2:14-17 argue just the opposite.
Furthermore, literal and spiritual poverty often go together as we have indicated. The circumstantially poor are often the first to recognize their spiritual poverty and reach out to the God of truth and grace. Though we cannot discuss either the precise forms of aid or the manner in which aid might be given, it is incontrovertible that the alleviation of temporal needs of all kinds is part of our obligation as Christians.
Second, it does follow, however, that the primary concern of our Lord and the heart of biblical mission have to do with spiritual need, not with physical, material or social needs. If the poor are first of all to be identified in terms of impoverishment of mind and spirit and a humble recognition of need for God and his grace, then it simply will not do to place the meeting of any other kinds of need on equal footing with this. No matter how worldlings and even certain fellow-believers may choose to describe or even denigrate missionary efforts whose primary objective is to convert people to Christ, instruct believers in the faith and establish responsible churches, that objective has been, is now and will be at the heart of New Testament mission until the return of our Sovereign and Commissioning Lord.
Third, it also follows that missionaries should do their best to seek out individuals and people groups who, by whatever means, have been providentially prepared to hear, understand and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mission historians are privy to scores of remarkable cases where God has been pleased to work so that certain peoples are ready and even waiting to hear and receive the gospel message. Church growth leaders of a previous generation often emphasized the significance of recognizing and reaching receptive people groups. Missionaries and mission supporters of this and every generation do well to pray, prepare, plan and proceed in ways that will maximize the possibility of finding people whose hearts and minds have been providentially prepared to receive the gospel gratefully and gladly.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker. 1979. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bock, Darrell L. 1996. “Luke.” In The NIV Application Commentary. Terry Muck, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Delitzsch, Franz. 1954. Biblical Commentary on the Prophesies of Isaiah, vol. II. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Elwell, Walter A., Philip W. Comfort, eds. 2001. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.
Gill, John. 1999. “Luke.” In Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Luke, version 1.0. The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc.
Marshall, I. Howard. 1971. Luke: Historian and Theologian. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Sider, Ronald. 1990. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Dallas, Tex.: Word.
Stein, Robert H. 1992. “Luke.” In New American Commentary, vol. 24.David Dockery, gen. ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Broad-man.
Vine, W. E. 1981. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, vol. 3. Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell.
David Hesselgrave is professor emeritus of missions, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and co-founder and first director of the Evangelical Missiological Society. He is also author, co-author or editor of twelve books on mission theory and practice.
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