Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3, ESV
This is part 2 of a 10 part series on the Beatitudes. For the first post in the series, click here. For a list of the series posts, click the Beatitudes category tag in the post information.
Last post I talked about what it meant to be “blessed” in the terms that Matthew is recounting from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As a quick review, to be “blessed” in contemporary usage is to have divine favor, while the Greek word makarios (which is translated as “blessed are…” in the Gospels) can also be rendered as “happy are…” or “envied are…” For the last option, I suggested that you could re-render that as “you should yearn or desire to be like” if using the word “envy” sounds like permission to commit the sin of Envy.
This post will focus on the first statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is one of six permanent or eternal qualities that Kingdom citizens are to desire, yearn for, or seek to possess, and are blessed when they realize that desire, yearning, and seeking. A Kingdom citizen is to never stop seeking after this state, and once they possess it, they are never to give it up. We will look more into the permanence aspect further in the post.
I asked what it means to be “blessed” last time; now I ask: what does it mean to be “poor”? Jesus says later in Matthew that “you always have the poor with you.” (Mt. 26:11 ESV) In the Mosaic Law, God tells Israel not to show partiality on account of someone’s wealth (or lack thereof): “…You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great…” (Lev. 19:15 ESV) So from the Word of God in two witnesses (the Word made flesh and the word given as Law), we know that there will always be poor people and that we are to treat them with the same personal dignity as someone who is wealthy. Jesus’ statements are clearly about the indigent or monetarily poor, from the context of Matthew 26:11, and it is probably safe to say that the Law is primarily referring to the monetarily poor as well. But is that what Jesus means in Matthew 5:3?
Do the monetarily poor possess the Kingdom of God because they are without wealth? Are they in a state of being “blessed” in this way? If you’ve ever encountered impoverished people who talk about money making schemes or who have placed playing the lottery in such esteem that buying a ticket becomes a near discipline for their life, then it would be hard to think this way. The indigent poor are deserving of our care, help, and respect because they are fellow Image bearers, not to mention the specific commands throughout Scripture to render these things. They are not, however, in possession of the Kingdom of God solely based on their lack of wealth.
When Jesus says, “blessed are the poor” he goes on to add “in spirit,” making this statement clearly not about monetary wealth. It is definitely possible for a monetarily poor person to also fit this bill, and I might say that it is more likely that such an individual is more likely to be “blessed” rather than to be “seeking to be like” or “desiring to be” or “envying after” the poor in spirit; but if so it is not because of their lack of goods – otherwise, the Gospel would have had a single command, sell everything and beg on the street!
To understand what it means to be “poor” in the context of this Beatitude, we have to understand that “in spirit” piece. The Kingdom isn’t a race to the bottom, where the most destitute or the pinnacle of indigence is assured a seat at Jesus’ right hand. Rather, it is the most complete and utter monarchy, where the citizens are fully aware and openly accepting that they are absolutely dependent on their Ruler for life, for success, for health, for deliverance from harm and evil. Jesus gives another analogy later in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in other discourses: that of children looking to their fathers – or, more properly, their Father in Heaven. We have all been children and remember times where we were unable to complete tasks, or when we were unsuccessful at something, or when we were sick, and we had to rely on our earthly parents for succor, shelter, and encouragement. This is the type of spiritual dependency that Jesus is extolling and pronouncing as Blessed.
Neither is the Kingdom nor the King harsh in this picture of spiritual destitution – our God does not require us to be broken so that he may throw us a crust in patronizing magnanimity. He requires us to be broken precisely so that He may lift us up. In this way, we are to emulate the vast majority of the indigent poor, who look for assistance from more wealthy and advantaged persons to provide for them in their weakness. They approach others humbly and ask for what can be spared, most times expecting nothing more than pocket change if anything at all. Just as the beggar on the street knows intimately that they do not deserve even pocket change by their own merit, we know that we do not deserve God’s mercy, but we trust in His promises to deliver us from sin and suffering.
So, to be spiritually poor is to be utterly dependent on God: for our life and as we approach death; for our health and through the trials of illness; for our well-being and in the midst of suffering; for our successes and in the midst of our failures; to provide us peace and to see us through storms. Because the fact of the matter is that we are this dependent – yet most of humanity regards all of these things as being totally in our control. Most of the ills, blasphemies, heresies, schisms, and just plain brokenness that has harried the human race throughout history is due to the deception that we are the captains of our own ship. Even being able to confess this is not the full antidote – I am intellectually aware of the reality, and yet when I pray for help it is most often as if I am asking for assistance to something I could do on my own but would be easier if God helped me, not begging for direction and intervention with something that is monumentally too big for me.
Why is it that I say that this is a permanent, or eternal quality of citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven?
For me, the largest clue for why this is true is the closing of the statement: “…for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Not “…theirs will be the Kingdom of Heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit, utterly dependent on the reign of the triune God, possess the Kingdom in real time. They do not await their citizenship – it is already granted to them. In their possession of the Kingdom, they do not lose their quality of being poor in spirit.
I want to quickly divert here and say that if you are a baptized Christian and struggle with pride of life – as I and many others do – then I am not saying that you are not a citizen yet. St. Paul makes quite clear that Christians are at different maturity levels in different areas. He also makes quite clear that those who confess the Name and Lordship of Jesus are counted among these Blessed because no one can make that confession except by the Holy Spirit, and none have the Holy Spirit without membership in the Body of Christ. Indeed, by earnest confession and prayer we make strides to put pride in ourselves to death and replace it with dependence on God in Christ.
I believe that what in this life – working in this fallen created realm – is a spiritual humility akin to monetary destitution and indigence will be transformed into a different kind of humility before God. In writing this post, I cannot think of what exactly that transformation might look like, or even if there are earthly examples that we might use to gain an understanding in this life. What I can think of that might approach this are the best examples of relationships between mature children and their earthly parents; or between loyal subjects and just rulers.
What I do know is that eternity in the Kingdom won’t be one endless realization that “I’m not worthy!” Citizenship is predicated on the acceptance that I’m not God, and that I was created for His purposes not mine, which is its own kind of honor – the Creator of the cosmos chose of His infinite will and power to create me in His Image to accomplish His purposes, and desires that I will come into a relationship with Him. But at the end of it all, being poor in spirit is utter realization that I am not God, and that, whatever I may think in this life, I am subject to His will for my life. How this is accomplished is through confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and seeking to live a life governed by his teachings – in essence, to be a disciple of Christ.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ Our Lord.