“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)
This is Jesus’ first teaching lesson to his disciples. Jesus frames his entire life and work by blessing the poor in spirit. My guess is that you’ve heard this phrase before. It is part of a string of “blessings” – what we now call the beatitudes. And like a lot of what Jesus says, we’ve cut the claws off the beatitudes. We read them. We listen to them. We put them in frames. We display them on our walls. But we no longer feel the revolution.
But not so for Jesus’ first mountain climbers. The beatitudes turned their world upside down. First, the word we’ve translated “blessed” (makarios) refers to the highest form of well-being. It’s a word of extravagance and abundance. And Jesus’ first audience, devout Jews that they were, all knew that the highest form of well-being was reserved for only a few. The wisdom tradition of Jesus’ day was clear - “blessed is the rich person” (Sir 31:8, apocrypha). And “the man who fears the Lord shall be blessed” (Ps 128:4). And of course, everyone was just “certain” that God cursed certain people – the lepers, the unclean, the pagans, the prostitutes, the sinful, the sick, the sorcerers, etc. But “blessedness” was reserved for Godly men with material abundance (the sure sign of divine favor). But no one even imagined the “poor in spirit” were blessed. After all, why would they?
We need to recover the full weight of the phrase “poor in spirit” to understand Jesus’ scandalous blessing. Because being “poor in spirit” is not inherently good. And like the first four beatitudes, poverty of spirit is not something we should strive for. To be “poor in spirit” is to be spiritually bankrupt – i.e., overwhelmed by a sense of our own spiritual destitution. The poor in spirit are deprived and deficient spiritual nobodies – spiritual beggars without a wisp of religion. They won’t fit in at a bible study or a prayer meeting. And yet Jesus pronounces the highest form of well-being onto them. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God, is now open to them too. The new Moses has invited them to climb God’s mountain. Plain and simple – that’s why the poor in spirit are blessed.
But Jesus’ blessing is too hard for us to handle. And so we water the beatitude down and we cut off its claws. We speak of being poor in spirit as a virtue to be desired. But when we do this, we miss the entire point of the beatitudes. Jesus does not bless the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit. He doesn’t bless those who mourn because they cry (Matt 5:4). Jesus is not pointing out virtues that make people worthy of his kingdom. In other words, the poor in spirit aren’t blessed because of some meritorious condition. No, they’re blessed in spite of, and in the midst of, their deplorable condition because the kingdom of heaven has been opened to them too.
FOR TODAY: Make your own modern list of beatitudes. And live your life today as if you really believed them. Perhaps if we persist in this practice, we’ll start to feel the revolution.
“Blessed are people with body odor. Blessed are the obese. Blessed are the complainers. Blessed are the old. Blessed are those who make minimum wage. Blessed are the bald. Blessed are the liberals. Blessed are the conservatives. Blessed are the Republicans. Blessed are the Democrats. Blessed, blessed, blessed … for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”