I'D HIT A SNAG in Sunday School class: the Beatitudes. As Jesus' introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, these statements have been handed down for two thousand years as descriptions of what leads to supreme happiness. As I recall, though, I was not a supremely happy student when my class studied the Beatitudes. The problem was, I didn't understand them. The Ten Commandments—now there is clear moral direction that I could understand. Don't murder. Don't covet. And no stealing or lying. My class participation soared when we studied the Commandments. It nosedived during lessons on the Beatitudes. I couldn't get past the first one: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matt. 5:3. I wondered, who are the "poor in spirit?" Poor things: I felt sorry for them, whoever they were. But do those in the kingdom of heaven need my pity? Shouldn't I pity those who are not "poor in spirit"?
As an adult, I have continued to study Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and have now read it in many translations. Interestingly, several translations of the Bible, including the Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore's, all agree almost word for word with the King James Version on the rendering of the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." J.B. Phillips's translation describes the "poor in spirit" as "those who know their need for God." And William Barclay describes them as "those who realize the destitution of their own lives."
Eventually, I looked up the ancient Greek used in the earliest New Testament manuscripts. The words translated "poor in spirit" are ptochos pneuma. Ptochos means, not merely one who is poor and has little, but a beggar who is destitute and has nothing. See R. C. Trench, Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1989), p. 142 . Pneuma literally means a strong wind and figuratively means breath, the spirit, heart, or mind—a class of things which are invisible, but which we nonetheless perceive clearly. The word is also used for ghosts, evil spirits, and God, divine Spirit. See Edward W. Goodrick, John R. Kohlenberger III, and James A. Swanson, Greek to English Dictionary and Index to the NIV New Testament from Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance, electronic version 1.0 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999).