What Does Ptochos Mean?
The Words We’ve Fudged: Poor
In this article, we look at the Greek word ptochos and explore how we’ve overly spiritualised it, fudging the social implications of the Gospel.
Clarifying the Objective
Some words get lost in translation as the translation process is challenging and complex. Other words get twisted by religious tradition or ideology. The Greek word for “poor” (ptochos) is one such word. As the “get saved, go to heaven” message began to obscure Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom message, words like “poor” became overly spiritualised, reducing Jesus’ all-of-life message to one focused solely on the “spiritually poor”.
Our objective is to discern in what way the original meaning of the word was lost and to then rediscover the term as it was intended.
The Meaning of Ptochos
The word “poor” (ptochos) is a key theme in Jesus’ teachings. He used it in His first Beatitude when envisaging a new kind of faith (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20): “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”. And He included it in launching His ministry in His hometown synagogue by reading from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18, 19).
When asked to read from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus read from the first verse and a half:
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”
(Isaiah 61:1, 2, italics added)
After reading the passage, Jesus began His comments by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Jesus was emphatic. He was the fulfilment of prophecy. He was the promised Messiah. He had come to proclaim the Gospel. And the main beneficiaries were the poor.
So, who are the poor?
As a young believer, I was taught that Jesus came to proclaim the Gospel to the spiritually poor, the spiritually blind, the spiritually captive and the spiritually oppressed. While the Gospel certainly accomplishes these miraculous outcomes, the ideology of the evangelical tradition in which I came to faith marginalised at best (denied at worst) the social aspects of Jesus’ message. Our mandate was solely about “getting saved” and “going to heaven”; we truncated the Gospel of the Kingdom into the false finish line of the ‘gospel of salvation’.
An honest reading of the Gospels, however, led me to see this was a both/and, not an either/or, matter. That is, Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel to those in both spiritual and social poverty.
Okay, who exactly were the poor?
The Hebrew word for poor (anavim) in Isaiah 61:1 means, “poor, needy, afflicted” and stems from the Hebrew word ana which means, “to be afflicted”—those afflicted in life, generally speaking, and those afflicted by oppression and injustice.
The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) used the Greek word ptochos to translate this Hebrew word and it was, as mentioned, the word Luke used in his Gospel account. The word means, “reduced to beggary, destitute of status, lacking in anything”.
Thus Biblically, the word included…
- people with limited financial resources,
- people of low social status—the marginalised of society, including women and children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the like,
- people who are social outsiders—those of other ethnic groups,
- and people whose poor life choices placed them outside of society’s acceptable religious and cultural circles.
In other words, it’s a broad, rich word that shows the scope and reach of Jesus’ Gospel. He came to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel to the spiritual and social poor.
And it also shows the reach and the scope of our responsibility as followers of Jesus entrusted with the Gospel of the Kingdom.
If we neglect the social implications of the Gospel, we reduce Jesus’ Gospel to something less than He intended.
Also, take note of these four lines in Isaiah 61:1…
To preach good tidings to the poor
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound
As is common in Hebrew poetry, the first line is followed up a qualifying second line in each couplet. In this case, the proclamation is backed up by a demonstration.
Proclaim → Demonstrate
good news to the poor → heal the brokenhearted
liberty to the captives → release the bound
In other words, there’s a strong emphasis on demonstrating the message, not just proclaiming the message. To the Hebrew mind, social action always verified spiritual intent. Too often in Christendom, we’re all word, little action. Quick to proclaim the message, not so quick to demonstrate the message in good deeds. When all is said and done, there’s usually a lot said … and little done.
Let’s follow the point Luke sought to make in his account of Jesus’ message in the synagogue and the events that followed.
Firstly, Luke explains how Jesus exposed the prejudice of His Jewish audience by reminding them of God’s heart for all people. How did He do this?
When Jesus picked two examples of the “poor” from the Old Testament—those who were beneficiaries of God’s generosity—He deliberately chose two Gentiles: Zarephath the widow of Sidon and Naaman the leper of Syria (Luke 4:23-27)!
His audience was incensed. It was one thing for Jesus to advocate for the poor in their midst, but to advocate for the pagan poor was too much for this pious but prejudiced group. Their knee-jerk reaction? Kill Jesus for His heretical claims (Luke 4:28-30).
A good question to ask is, who does Zarephath and Naaman represent to you?
People of a certain religion? Those of a certain ethnicity? Those of a certain political persuasion? Those of a certain ideology? Those of a certain sexual orientation?
Secondly, after Jesus escaped the mob’s murderous intent, Luke follows up this incident with a rich and diverse range of examples from Jesus’ ministry to illustrate how He proclaimed and demonstrated the Gospel to the poor.
As I list them now, think about Luke’s intent to show how the Gospel touches and transforms all of humanity, in both our social and spiritual poverty.
- A demoniac is delivered (Luke 4:31-37)
- Simon’s mother-in-law is healed (Luke 4:38-39)
- Many “poor” are delivered and healed (Luke 4:40-41)
- Simple fishermen are called as Jesus’ first students (Luke 5:1-11)
- An “unclean” leper is humanised—Jesus touched the man before healing him (Luke 5:12-16)
- A paralysed man is forgiven and healed (Luke 5:17-26)
- A traitorous tax collector is included among Jesus’ students (Luke 5:27-28)
- Scandalously, tax collectors and sinners are befriended (Luke 5:29-32)
- A pagan centurion’s slave is healed (Luke 7:1-11)
- A widow’s son is restored to life (Luke 7:12-17)—after Luke records that Jesus “felt compassion for her” as a grieving mother and a vulnerable member of society (v. 13)
- A prostitute is defended, honoured and forgiven (Luke 7:36-50)
- Women, marginalised in society, are honoured and ascribed dignity (Luke 8:1-3)
- A pagan demoniac is delivered (Luke 8:26-39)—for whom Jesus went out of His way, and across a stormy sea
- An “unclean” woman with a chronic flow of blood is healed (Luke 8:43-48) seemingly interrupting the healing of a synagogue official’s daughter (Luke 8:40-56)
In summary, those of low social status are welcomed, women are dignified, the simple are called, social outsiders are befriended, those whose poor life choices have alienated them are restored, those unwell in body and mind are healed and delivered … and all are welcomed into the Father’s loving, redeeming embrace.
Clearly, the Gospel addresses both humanity’s social and spiritual poverty. This is not an either/or but both/and matter.
However, this has ramifications for how we proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel, especially since our current default tends to major on the spiritual implications, neglecting (or marginalising) the social implications of the Gospel. Doing so, reduces Jesus’ Gospel to something less than He intended. For without good deeds, the Gospel appears barren.
We discuss the urgent need for a new default in the article, Good Deeds.
The Poor With You Always
“But didn’t Jesus say we’ll always have the poor with us?”
Yes, but Jesus was actually quoting Moses, and He certainly wasn’t offering an excuse for apathy or giving into despair: the poor is a deep, black hole with no bottom—so what’s the point?
When the disciples expressed their shock that Mary anointed Him with “costly oil,” rather than selling it and giving the proceeds to the poor (John 12:1-8 c. Matthew 26:6-13), Jesus said, “for the poor (ptochos) you have with you always, but Me you do not have always” (John 12:8).
Jesus cited a critical passage in the Mosaic Law dealing with the poor. In it, God revealed the principle of debt relief and generosity that would drastically limit the number of poor in the geopolitical nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 15:1-8). It was a strategy that, along with other instructions such as the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17), built into the fabric of society a core value and practical tactic to ensure justice for the underprivileged and opportunities for all; and what’s more, making certain that the disenfranchised were treated with dignity and respect rather than being patronised and dehumanised.
And for those still marginalised in geopolitical Israel, God said:
For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy in your land’.”
(Deuteronomy 15:11, italics added)
Knowing well the human condition and its dysfunctions, God commanded His people to go beyond the framework of a brilliant God-initiated “welfare system” to ensure that those who “fell through the cracks” fell into the safe place of society’s overwhelming generosity. There is no doubt that God was, is and will always be desperately concerned about the poor and places the responsibility of the poor on us, His people.
Thus, in the episode in Bethany, Jesus did two things; first, He challenged the disciples’ claim and sentiments. John made it clear that it was Judas who got the insinuation going around, and then made this remark: “not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it” (John 12:6). Jesus saw through his shallow pretence and challenged his spurious intentions.
The second thing Jesus did was chide Judas for his criticism of Mary’s worship. However, His rebuke of Judas’ complete lack of devotion and inadequate grasp of true worship in no way at all belittles the poor, nor should it be used as an excuse for inaction and apathy. Jesus delights in extravagant worship yet also requires that we remain outrageously open-hearted and always open-handed towards the poor.
The disciples evidently learned the lesson.
When Paul met with the other apostles in Jerusalem to compare notes, these Kingdom-advancing men made a point to “remember the poor (ptochos)” (Galatians 2:10). Paul himself stressed that this was something he “was eager to do”—and he backed up his intent with action: when the disciples raised financial aid in response to the prophetic warning that a severe famine would inflict those living in Judea, Paul was at the centre of the relief efforts (Acts 11:28-30).
The Transforming Gospel
The Gospel of the Kingdom transforms human lives and human society. Jesus’ all-of-life Gospel transforms the present—and that’s the immediate focus of Jesus’ message and ministry as told in the Scriptures. (That it also has glorious repercussions beyond death is a wonderful additional blessing.)
The Gospel certainly delivers us from our spiritual poverty, and yes, this requires us to acknowledge that we’re spiritually poor. “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, Proverbs 3:34).
However, the reason Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom is “good tidings” to the social poor is because it also confronts the oppression and injustice in human society, delivering us from social poverty.
Jesus’ all-of-life message is good news to all, especially…
- People with limited financial resources because the Gospel confronts the causes of social poverty and lack through a redeemed community who care for the poor with compassion and generosity.
- People of low social status because the Gospel confronts society’s injustices through a redeemed community who advocate for all those marginalised by society.
- People who are social outsiders because the Gospel welcomes the stranger and the foreigner through a redeemed community who practise lavish hospitality and demonstrate self-giving love even to those who position themselves as enemies.
- People whose poor life choices place them outside of society’s acceptable religious and cultural circles because the Gospel smashes all man-made boundaries through a redeemed community who practise unconditional acceptance and earn the right through extra-mile love to speak truth to the wayward.
The Gospel of the Kingdom is good news to all people—the spiritual poor and the social poor. However, the responsibility Jesus entrusts to us, His redeemed community, could not be clearer.
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood, restoring our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
Restoring humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.
Restored to the Father as His children, the Message of Jesus restores humanity’s destiny as custodians of creation. We’re commissioned to partner with Jesus in His restoration plan for the earth.