Poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Possibly Jesus is describing people who lack spiritual qualities, saying that even they can be blessed by God, in spite of their spiritual poverty. That possibility is unlikely, though; on another occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… but woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:20, 24). As uncomfortable as this truth might be for us, Jesus is talking about wealth as the world means wealth, and Jesus then says it is better to be poor than to be rich. He also said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).

Is there no hope for the salvation of the wealthy, as wealth is measured by the world? What about Abraham and Solomon, who were both very wealthy? There is hope, because Abraham and Solomon were not owned by their possessions. It is not how many possessions you own that determine whether you are poor in spirit; the question rather is how much do your possessions own you? What Abraham and Solomon possessed did not matter much to them, because their eyes were on a better world. Though they were wealthy, they were poor in spirit, not being owned by their possessions.

A pauper with nothing in this world might still fail to be poor in spirit, if that pauper envies other people and dreams of what he or she would do with a million dollars. “Poor in spirit” describes a person’s attitude towards wealth and possessions, whether that person has wealth and possessions or only wishes for wealth and possessions. Lack of interest in worldly wealth is a virtue to Jesus; it is also a virtue in other religions. Stoics and Buddhists teach their students to be disinterested in this world, not to care about riches or about poverty. Disinterest in worldly wealth is a common theme among the religions of the world.

How does one acquire this splendid ability to be disinterested in the world and to be more interested in higher truths? Stoics and Buddhists teach that a person must work at developing such an attitude. Jesus offers an easier way. He says that the virtue of disinterest in wealth is the result of a gift, a blessing from God. The name of that blessing is the kingdom of heaven.

No one can earn a place in the kingdom of heaven. We do not earn a place in God’s kingdom by forcing ourselves to be poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is God’s gift to us because he loves us. Through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are rescued from all our failings, including any sinful interest in worldly wealth. God claims us as his children and makes us citizens of his kingdom. We are promised eternal life with Jesus in a new creation. Even today we are already citizens of that new creation. Our membership in the Church that trusts Jesus, our invitation to speak within God in prayer at any time, our confidence that God is taking care of us today and meeting all our needs: all these good things are privileges of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.

Because we have these privileges, we can be poor in spirit. We can stop being concerned with the wealth and pleasures that the world offers, as our attention is diverted to the other kingdom where we are citizens. Those who are blessed with the gift of the kingdom of heaven will, by nature, become poor in spirit. This, according to Jesus, is one way we might recognize the people who have received his gift of the kingdom of heaven. J.

Beatitudes

The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5, have been called the Beatitudes. Tom Sawyer tried to memorize them for his Sunday School class because they are short verses, but he found them confusing. In fact, many people have been confused by these lovely and simple verses.

Jesus describes the people he likes to bless. He calls them poor in spirit—which has nothing to do with how much money and property they own. “Poor in spirit” means that your money and property does not own you. He calls them those who mourn. He calls them meek. He says that they hunger and thirst for righteousness. He calls them merciful. He calls them pure in heart and peacemakers. He also warns that they will be persecuted, reviled, and the targets of vicious lies, all because of their relationship with Jesus.

Some Christians take these Beatitudes to be commandments from Jesus, additions to the famous Ten Commandments given through Moses. Others treat them as suggestions about how to live, or rules to be followed only by a few special people in the Church. This misunderstanding is caused by the mistake of overlooking the word “blessed.” This word adjusts the meaning of everything else Jesus says in these verses.

The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel, “makarios,” is used elsewhere to describe a royal grant. A blessing is given, never earned. It indicates the goodness of the giver, not the goodness of the receiver. Far from being a list of commandments, the Beatitudes are a list of promises, indicating that Jesus wants to bestow gifts on all people, and those who follow him will receive those blessings.

What are the blessings? They are seven, an indication of completeness when found in the Bible. The blessings are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being satisfied, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. (Why sons and not children? Because God looks at Christians through the work of his Son. He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Of each Christian, God the Father says what he said about Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”)

The kingdom of heaven, the mercy of God, being called sons of God: all of these are gifts from God to his people. His people do not earn these gifts; Jesus earned these gifts with his righteousness and shares them because of his goodness. Think of it: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The mercy of God was already there for you long before your first opportunity to show mercy to others. The mercy you show to others is a result of God’s mercy, not a cause of his mercy.

That is the way all the Beatitudes work. The gift is named second, and the result of the gift is mentioned first. Because we have the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, we can be poor in spirit, not owned by the material treasures of this world. Because we are already being comforted, we can mourn over our sins and over the evil in this world. Because we will inherit the earth, we can afford to be meek today. Because we will be satisfied, we can hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we will see God, we can be pure in heart today. Because we are already called sons of God, we can work for peace today.

The world will reject us. The world will treat us the way it treated Jesus. Yet because the kingdom of heaven is ours, we can accept the rejection of the world. After all, we remind the world of Jesus by resembling him and by imitating him.

The Beatitudes describe Jesus. He is perfectly poor in spirit, pure in heart, and all the rest. The Beatitudes help us to imitate Jesus by describing him to us. Our power to imitate Jesus comes, not from our efforts, but from his blessings. Because the kingdom of heaven is ours and we will inherit the earth, we can today act as if we belong in God’s kingdom. For Jesus has done the work necessary to make that kingdom our home. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are satisfied, for the righteousness of Jesus has been given to us. To Christ be the glory! J.