Jesus uses a number of terms for his people who participate his kingdom: “Little ones” (Luke 17:2), “little flock” (Luke 12:32), “my brothers” (Matthew 28:10) and more. Most of the titles he gives are diminutives, indicating the humble state of those who follow him. Some of the most curious titles he gives for his people, however, are those found in the Beatitudes—“The poor”, “The poor in spirit”, “the meek”. Again, these indicate the humility of those who follow Jesus, but they seem more extreme than those found in other places.
There is a single Hebrew source for these three titles (“poor”, “poor in spirit”, “meek”): the word anawim. It is used extensively in the Hebrew Scriptures, all of which the word would usually be translated “the poor”. In all of the contexts that the word is found, though, the poor that are indicated are the oppressed poor who cry out to Yahweh for deliverance out of their situation.
An excellent example of this is the passage Jesus quotes in the Beatitudes, and that might be the source of the theological concept of the Beatitudes—Psalm 37. Jesus quotes verse 11, “the anawim shall inherit the earth.” In this Psalm, it is described that though the righteous suffer and are oppressed under the hands of the wicked, yet the anawim should not take vengeance against the wicked, or do evil in any way to get themselves out of the situation. Rather, they are to trust in God, and God will arrange reality around the justice of their situation. The wicked will perish at God’s hand and the anawim will be raised up—granted land, provision and leadership.
This theological context goes hand-in-hand with the background behind the Beatitudes. Jesus is describing a people who are oppressed and suffer under hardship and persecution due to obeying the message he is teaching. Because of these circumstances, his people are poor, mourning and desiring justice. But they remain righteous in these circumstances, being merciful, completely devoted to God and creating peace in the situation. Because of this, God rewards these “poor” and exalts them, granting them all they need and even the rule of the world.
This “story” constitutes the foundation of Jesus’ answer to one of the great debates in the first century Jewish world. As many scholars have recently proclaimed, there was not one monolithic “Judaism” of the first century, but in fact many constructs on how to follow Moses’ approach to God. The differences between the various groups rest basically on one question: “What kind of people does God accept?” All the various debates about forgiveness, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, separated or integrated communities and other arguments all rest on this one question.
Jesus’ answer to this question, as found in the Beatitudes and other gospel teachings, is summarized thus: The people of God is the anawim. They are the people so devoted to Him and so merciful to others that they are persecuted for it. God will see their suffering and cause them to be delivered from it.
More specifically, the community of Jesus is described as follows:
Pure in Heart: The Anawim is a devoted community
The basis of the community of God is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your mind, with all of your heart and with all of your soul.” (Mark 12) This is a complete devotion, the opposite of which is idolatry. But idolatry is not just concerned with traditional images of worship, but also untraditional ones, such as money, one’s family and possessions (Luke 12, 14, 16). Jesus warns that none of these things should stand before one’s devotion to God, if one wishes to be of the people of God. Also one’s obedience should be to God first, above the traditions of humans. (Mark 7). And traditional acts of devotion to God should be done for the purpose of devotion, not for one’s personal gain on earth (Matthew 6:1-)
Merciful: The Anawim is an ethical community
The community of God not only is devoted to God but is devoted to doing the actions of God. The primary action of God is mercy, or love. In other words, the Anawim are deeply involved in doing acts that benefit others. The benevolent acts of the Anawim are not exclusive, either, picking and choosing carefully those who deserve care or not. Rather, the Anawim do good to even those who do evil to them—no one is excluded. They give to the needy, they tell the truth to those who are ignorant, they heal the sick, they release the oppressed—all without charge or necessarily gaining anything back.
Kingdom of God: The Anawim is a political community
The community of God is the nation of God. This nation is a political entity, under authority and using authority. They have a king, the Messiah, the human representative of God on earth, who is appointed to sit at the right hand of the Father, ruling the heavens and earth (Matthew 28:18). The community of God acts like a political entity, a group with authority. They command powers on earth (Matthew 10:8); they pronounce whether one is acceptable or unacceptable before God (John 20:23); they make judgements as a court and punish those who refuse to repent (Matthew 18:15-17); they offer welfare to the needy (Luke 12:33; Acts 4:32-35); they have their own official messengers, delivering pronouncements from their king (Luke 9:1-2; Matthew 28:19-20); they have a police that provides security, if needed (Matthew 26:53; Acts 12:1-12).
The Earth: The Anawim is an ambitious community
Suprisingly enough, the Anawim has ambitions. They are in competition with the other nations of the world, vying for power. The ambition of the people of God is to rule the earth, under his Messiah, Jesus. Nevertheless, they are an alternative community, not having come unto their own yet. But soon, they are confident, the king will recognize them and raise them to the political authority they desire. But they know that the only way to obtain their rightful position, they must remain lowly and await their king’s justice. (Mark 10:42-45; Luke 18:7-8)
Hunger for Justice shall be satisfied: The Anawim is a dependant community
The Anawim recognizes that they will not gain justice in the world on their own. They desire to see wrongs righted and justice rule. But the justice they seek will not be gained by them manipulating positions and obtaining more and more power. The power they need is already available—it rests in God alone (Luke 18:7). The power of God is the “secret weapon” of the Anawim. Although they are outcast, although they are needy, although it looks like they have nothing to help them politically, in fact, they have the greatest political tool—the promise of the king of the universe that he will establish them to rule, if only they will be humble and cry to him. Thus, the Anawim continues to cry out to God, relying on him alone, and waiting for him to create justice.
Persecuted: The Anawim is a suffering community
The community of God is not like the communities around them. Others find them to be “judgmental” because they hold to a strict standard. But they can judge no person, they only do what they must to obtain God’s kingdom. Nevertheless, they are hated and rejected. Sometimes they are arrested and put on trial. And sometimes they are beaten and killed for their difference. But all of this is a part of God’s plan, and they trust in Him to gain greatness on the other side of the persecution.
The Poor: The Anawim is a community made up of the poor and outcast
The community of God is not made up of the great and powerful. Those have made their choices to obtain power by their own effort and the powers of this age and world. They do so for their own glory or their own ideals to be realized in this age. The Anawim are those who have given up the path of the world to take on the way of the cross. The way of the cross does not seek greatness straightforwardly, but via the way of humility, of downward mobility, of dishonor before honor. The way of the cross does not focus on one’s own effort or money or popularity, but depends on the power of God. The way of the cross does not uphold one’s own ideals, but the will of God.
Thus, all who follow the way of the cross, are the Anawim—the poor, those rejected by the powerful of the world. They are the ones who obtain blessings of God and the powerful take advantage of them to obtain such blessings. The anawim shrug their shoulders and say, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then they await God’s justice. The anawim give to those in greater need than they and depend on God to provide them with greater blessings than they can give away. The anawim are rejected and hated for all the wrong reasons, even the reasons that are technically correct. The anawim are idiots for taking the long route, for not getting what they can now, while they can. Certainly, this is how it looks to those without faith—but to the anawim, suffering and rejection is all part of the plan to obtain joy unceasing.