Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The adjective πτωχος (ptochos) means crouching, cowering or shrinking away and derives from the unused verb πτωσσω (ptosso), which describes the behavior of birds and other small and frightened creatures who commonly try to hide away. In the Greek classics this verb was occasionally applied to people shirking or cringing away from other people, but the adjective specifically attached itself to the proverbial "poor", although that translation misses the point. Instead, it describes the destitute: our English word "destitute" comes from the Latin elements "de-" and "status", and means disenfranchised or forsaken. When Jesus said: "eli, eli, lama sabachthani" or "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me" he wasn't asking God for information but his audience to contemplate his condition.
The πτωχοι (ptochoi) are society's creepy crawlers and scattering cockroaches, the vermin, the rats, the weasels, the chickens, the yellow-bellied canaries, the pussies. Our word does not describe someone who is merely impecunious — that would be covered by πενιχρος (penichros) — but someone who cowers away, either from fear, timidity, disease or shame. The crucial difference with merely impecunious people is that the latter could always find a bit of land to work on, or even scrounge about other people's lands for leftovers (Leviticus 19:9-10, Ruth 2:3). These πτωχος (ptochos) were, for whatever reason, unable to do even that, and were not able to partake even in the least demanding stratus of normal human economy, or even to function as slaves. Nobody would buy them. These were people who had no family, no friends, no skills or suffered some debilitating disease, and were reduced to begging for food from strangers. These were literally the worthless people, and that's probably how they felt and certainly how they were regarded.
In the Hebrew world, all maladies basically fell into either of two main proverbial categories, namely the lame and the blind (עור ופסח, 'iwwer wa piseah). Blindness, and all variation thereof, was caused by too much of a good thing (the word for blind comes from the word for skin), whereas lameness, and all variations thereof, was caused by a lack of a good thing, namely inner strength. Our adjective πτωχος (ptochos) obviously describes a condition of the lame category, and could be cured by providing inner strength.
Contrary to popular myth, poverty is not cured by dispensing money, but support, and particularly support from a broad network of human contacts. When Jesus blessed the πτωχος (ptochos), he did so because they were receiving the gospel (Matthew 5:3, 11:5), which does not mean that they got preached at, but rather that they were exposed to and absorbed by a network much stronger and vibrant than any regular human network (Matthew 19:21). Note that the Hebrew word for being destitute and disenfranchised, namely רוש (rush), closely relates to ראש (rosh), primality, from which comes the term בראשית (bresheet), in the beginning, which is where everything else starts (Genesis 1:1, Matthew 6:33, James 2:5).
Our adjective πτωχος (ptochos) means destitute and when used substantially it describes a beggar; someone outside the human economic continuum. It occurs 34 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- The noun πτωχεια (ptocheia), meaning destitution, the condition of being unable to work or be useful and having to beg to be allowed to live (2 Corinthians 8:2, 8:9 and Revelation 2:9 only).
- The verb πτωχευω (ptocheuo), meaning to beg or be destitute. This verb is used in 2 Corinthians 8:9 only, where Paul explains that Christ did not simply become impecunious and had to slave for a living, but rather embraced utter economic uselessness to the point where he had to beg to live. Contrary to the conclusions of some enthusiasts, this does not promote that particular lifestyle, but rather tries to motivate people to find use for anything that comes their way, and amend their own views and categories of the world to the point where all human beings have a purpose. In nature no animal is useless, and uselessness and unemployment are human failures that must be overcome. Likewise, debilitating diseases and even death are not righteous and must ultimately be overcome (John 14:12).