“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Have you ever felt envious of the homeless?
I have. Sometimes I still feel that way. It seems silly, doesn’t it? It almost seems selfish. At times I think to myself “If I wasn’t in debt and I wasn’t married, I would love to do that.” It seems pretty dumb; I wouldn’t know where my next meal was coming from, my hygiene would suffer, I would totally be out of luck if I got sick or broke a bone. Who would WANT to live that way? So what is Jesus telling us here?
Let’s take a quick look at Luke 6:20 where we find another version of this passage. In this account however, Jesus simply says “Blessed are the poor…” That’s confusing, so which one is it? It’s theorized that Mathew could’ve been writing to a wealthier audience, so he might have specified in order to avoid concern. We can’t be sure if that explanation is true, but what we really need to know is what it means to be poor “in spirit”. Before I go there, I want to take a look at a passage from Isaiah (66:1),
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
The poor, brokenhearted, captives that Isaiah is referring to are the Israelites who were exiled and oppressed by Babylon. Jesus proclaims this same message to the poor and oppressed today. One thing I would like to point out is that this freedom and liberty does not always manifest physically. Our freedom is spiritual because we can experience salvation and everlasting life even if we are on death row or are exiled in a foreign land. That kind of freedom is not physical, but it is real. So, when we capture the spirit of something, we may not physically experience it, but the experience is real nonetheless.
My ESV notes call this “spiritual bankruptcy.” I like that because some of us in America can relate to bankruptcy, or at least a fear of it. When we go bankrupt, we a forced to throw ourselves to the mercy of our legal system. In the same way, to go spiritually bankrupt is to throw ourselves to the mercy of God. This happens when we realized that there is nothing more we can do to overcome the sin in our world—whether we truly are drowning in debt or perhaps we’re burdened by addiction or pain.
I think this is the ultimate humility, to embrace poverty. I know it sounds crazy, but Jesus usually meant this literally. When he sent the disciples out, he commanded them to only take the clothes on their backs with them so they would rely on the hospitality of others to get by (Luke 9); God must like vagabonds. We also recall the story of the rich man who approached Jesus and learned he must sell all of his belongings to enter into eternal life. Through this Jesus expressed that only through much difficulty can a rich man enter the Kingdom of God. (Matt 19) Looking at our passage in Matthew 5, this can only be logical. Even in spirit, how can a young rich man understand poverty? (A topic to be explored in the future) I believe God loves when we know how to depend on Him and on each other.
So to be poor in spirit is to understand poverty. Some of us know what it means to have no power of our own and managed to crawl out of a seemingly escapable pit, some may still be experiencing that. But to those who can not relate to poverty in any way; well this is a challenge then, isn’t it? (I’m getting flashbacks from The Dark Night Rises) The point is: Embrace poverty, embrace the kingdom.
I don’t have an answer for those who feel left out, that includes myself at times. I do have some encouraging news for you if you are in that boat, though: If you don’t think it’s doable, you’re on the right track—That may be exactly what you need to do (or at least something like it). Don’t lose faith in what God can teach you, even if the process is exceedingly unpleasant—that’s what your brothers and sisters are there for.