A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part VI: “Lukan usage of ptōchos from the ‘Q Source’ (6:20)”

Posted: March 9, 2014 in General

Teach-Girls-End-World-PovertyScholarly studies suggest that the very earliest NT traditions which are reflected in the ‘Q Source’ (i.e., non-Markan material common to Luke and Matthew) provide us with the most radical presentation of the NT teaching on the poor and poverty. In ‘Q’ the priority attention is given to the poor and good news to the poor. This is evident from the first beatitude in Luke 6:20 (= Matthew 5:3) and then from Luke 7:22 (= Matthew 11:55; cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 704-705; Schnackenburg, Matthew, 2002: 47). A sociolinguistic reading of these two passages provides us with insights concerning the Lukan redactional intentions and community applications.

People in different sociological environments operate with different linguistic forms. The interaction between their sociolinguistic perspective and the language of a text results in a unique understanding about the power and meaning of the text. One therefore should not expect that person in one sociolinguistic framework would interpret a text in the same way as people living in a different one [1]. We can see the process already at work in the NT. In Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, while Luke 6:20b, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 704-705; Schnackenburg, Matthew, 2002: 47) [2]. According to Brian K. Blount, “while Matthew moralizes the ‘poor’, Luke, ever cognizant of the socioeconomic dichotomy between the rich and the poor, identifies a social rather than a moral reality” [3]. This is a tangible means through which we can identify the way different evangelists used texts according to their socio-cultural contexts.

It is a matter of debate about who changed the original ‘Q’ form of the beatitudes [4]. Luke’s Greek has the same first three words as Matthew 5:3, makarioi hoi ptōchoi, but the Matthean form continues, “in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. By adding “in Spirit”, Matthew has adapted to the beatitudes anawim among the early Jewish Christians [5]. It is more probable to think that Matthew added “in Spirit” to his text rather than to think that Luke omitted the expression. According to Matthew’s version, Jesus’ blessings might be taken to apply to those who were actually rich in possessions as long as they were poor “in Spirit” (cf. Craddock, 1990: 89; Schnackenburg, Matthew, 2002: 47). This is not the case with Luke. For not only does Luke’s version name the poor and the hungry without any qualifications, Luke also includes a series of “woes” addressed to the rich and the comfortable that contrast with the preceding blessings of the poor and the hungry (cf. Green, 1997: 267; cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 704-705). The overall effects is that those who are actually poor and actually hungry are the ones to whom the blessings are addressed [6]. In that sense, one needs to understand that Lukan attempt is to bring a contrast between the rich and the poor of his society. That further means that the author’s attempt is to introduce a social critique in rhetoric format.

In the text, Lukan rhetorical intentions are obvious. In 6:20 the blessings of the ‘poor’ are followed by a blessing on ‘those who hunger now’. In the following woes the poor and the hungry are contrasted with those who are rich and well fed in this world [7]. According to H. Kvalbein, “the text no doubt refers to socio-economic poverty and physical hunger; those who now are poor, hungry, weeping and persecuted will be raised to glory and enjoy the abundance of the Kingdom of God” [8]. The first three makarisms [9] deal with ‘the general human conditions of poverty and suffering’ and the fourth makarism is oriented towards the specific situation of persecution of Christian community [10]. The four makarisms describe someone who has lost both material wealth (poor, hungry), as well as social standing (loss of kin, ostracism). This ostracism entails total loss of all economic support from the family (food, clothing, shelter), as well as total loss of honor and status in the eyes of the village (a good name, marriage prospects and the like). Such persons would be ‘shameful’ in the eyes of the family and village, but Jesus proclaims them ‘honorable’ (makarioi; cf. Craddock, 1990: 89) [11]. As a rhetorical masterpiece the text introduces a transfer of order in a society characterized by ‘honor and shame’.

The evangelist encourages the reader to take side with the poor and the marginalized and to stand in opposition to the oppressive social structures. His beatitudes are statements consoling and supporting the socially disadvantaged groups. The social ostracism in v. 22 is always the fate of the poor in agrarian societies. Luke suggests that social ostracism may become the fate of the rich who join Jesus’ groups that include the poor [12]. The Sermon on the Plain in Luke is, directed towards the ‘poor’, the hungry, and the mourning (cf. Green, 1997: 267). The laments about the rich are parenthetically calling out to an absent group of people. Not just the rich, but also all members of the congregation are supported to lend to the fellow humans without hope of return (cf. Craddock, 1990: 89). For this reason John the Baptist, Paul, and also Jesus are central figures in Luke-Acts acting as promoters of horizontal compensations of possessions. At the same time, the rich are particularly being asked to perform this duty of sharing goods [13]. According to Philip F. Esler, “. . . social and political factors have been highly significant in motivating Lukan theology; in other words, that Luke has shaped the gospel traditions at this disposal in response to social and political pressures experienced by his community” [14]. A total reversal of social status is envisioned, a point made even more vivid by the contrasting woes upon the rich in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Craddock, 1990: 89). These words are addressed to the hungry, powerless, and socially dispossessed people around Jesus [15]. Thus, the beatitudes promise satisfaction and laughter to the poor, which is exactly what the rich now have (cf. Luke 6:25; 16:19; see Green, 1997: 267). Lukan pragmatic theology is vivid at this point as elsewhere in the gospel.

In Luke 6:20ff, hoi ptōchoi includes the following groups of people: hoi peinōntes (those who hunger), hoi klaiontes (those who weep), misēsosin (hated), aphorisōsin (excluded), oneidisōsin (reviled), and ekbalōsin (thrown out). Green (1997: 267) states that, “‘Poor’ and ‘rich’ . . . are socially defined constructs—and Jesus is overturning the way these terms have been constructed in ordinary discourse . . . . By asserting that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, then, Jesus is redefining the working assumptions, the values that determine daily life”. Thus hoi ptōchoi is expressed here as a general term to address the above mentioned specific groups of people. Among the hoi ptōchoi living on the poverty line the am haaretz (i.e., ‘the people of the land’) are to be reckoned significantly. The hoi ptōchoi (and am haaretz) were overburdened with taxes, tithes, and rent and so often fell hopelessly into debt. Even worse of was those who lived either partially or fully on relief (cf. P. H. Davids, DJG, 1992: 704-705) [16]. Luke’s beatitudes address such a group of people. In recapitulation, the Lukan beatitudes, especially the one in 6:20, are carved out of his social realities.

End Notes:

[1] Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 4.

[2] Abraham J. Malherbe sees a connection between the social patterns of the Palestinian context and their reflections in the literary works of the authors. Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 17ff.

[3] Blount, Cultural Interpretation, 4.

[4] The beatitudes (6:20b-23) and the woes (6:24-26) form the exordium of the Lukan sermon; they are like two strophes of a poem and correspond to Matthew 5:3, 4, 6, 11-12. See Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX, 631f.

[5] Cf. Ibid., 632.

[6] Richard J. Cassidy, Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1978), 23.

[7] H. Kvalbein, “Poor/Poverty”, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Leicester/Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 689f.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Some of the beatitudes and other sayings of Jesus that are preserved in this sermon have their counterparts in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. In form, the beatitudes are related to makarisms found in Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Old Testament literature.

[10] John S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 173.

[11] Jerome H. Neyrey, “Loss of Wealth, Loss of Family and Loss of Honor: The Cultural Context of the Original Makarisms in ‘Q’”, Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the NT in Its Context, Ed. Philip F. Esler (London/New York: Routledge, 1995), 145.

[12] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 285.

[13] Gerd Theissen, Gospel Writing and Church Politics: A Socio-Rhetorical Approach, Chuen King Lecture Series 3 (Hong Kong: Theology Division, Chung Chi College, Cuhk, 2001), 113.

[14] Philip Francis Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lukan Theology (Cambridge: University Press, 1987), 2.

[15] Walter E. Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), 58.

[16] Ibid., 43ff.

Upcoming post:A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part VII: ‘Lukan usage of ptōchos from the Q Source (7:22)’”

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

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