Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. How blessed, how fortunate, how happy are those who are poor in spirit! Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them! The kingdoms of this world with all their material wealth and pomp and military might are all equally destined to pass away, regardless of how exalted or how long lasting their golden age may have been. No human kingdom can withstand the corrosive power of human sin. Whatever good system we are capable of building we are also more than capable of destroying. But God’s rule on earth, with its true wealth and security – its righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit – shall never pass away but only ever increase in strength and glory. This glorious kingdom does not belong to the kinds of people who conquer and possess the kingdoms of this world: the ambitious, the wealthy, the unscrupulous, the aggressive, the violent. Rather, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the least likely of all conquerors: the poor in spirit.
Who are the Poor in Spirit?
Who exactly are the poor in spirit? What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? We all know what “poor” means, right? It means to possess little in the way of material resources. We might think first of all in terms of money, but lack of money produces all sorts of other side effects. When you have little money, everything about your life is less luxurious. You drive a no frills car or an older car that could use some repairs that you can’t afford. You live in a smaller house or apartment. You wear less expensive clothes. You eat less expensive food. You can’t buy your children the toys that they really want, or you can’t give your wife the nice things and pampering you know she really deserves.
Perhaps most pervasively and frustratingly, when you don’t have money you find that you don’t have the power to change any of this. You find yourself virtually enslaved to an economic system that you didn’t choose and that certainly doesn’t seem to be designed with your best interests in mind. The natural path for economic freedom is the small business, putting out your sign and offering your skills for hire. But for the poor, even opening one’s own small business can be cost prohibitive, in no small part because of a tax code and government regulations that favor large businesses. We’ve all heard the saying, “It takes money to make money.” Without capital, it is extremely difficult to build a basic small business that has a hope of making a profit, and even if it is eventually profitable, it probably won’t be for a couple of years.
Politically, as well, the poor are powerless because of their poverty. A single poor person has very little influence on the way the world works. Politicians listen to people who have money. Even in large groups, poor people often find themselves working hard to match the influence a few wealthy insiders have in the halls of power without even seeming to try.
So poverty is devastating, because it is self-perpetuating. The Bible observes this in Proverbs 10:15, which says, “The riches of the wealthy man are his strong city; the ruin of the poor is his poverty.” This proverb neither endorses nor condemns the wealthy man or the poor man. It just makes an observation that anyone who has lived in the world with his or her eyes open has seen. All of this informs us that, contrary to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:3, the poor are the last people you would expect to possess any kingdom. Any worldly kingdom, at least.
More Than Physical Poverty
Now, while I think physical poverty is a part of what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:3, he apparently isn’t talking just about physical poverty, because he inserts those two sneaky little words, “in spirit”. A parallel passage in Luke 6 tells us for certain that the early Church definitely understood physical poverty to be at least part of what Jesus meant. In Luke 6:20, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Aside from a couple of cosmetic differences (“yours” instead of “theirs”; “kingdom of God” instead of “kingdom of heaven”), the most glaring difference between Luke’s version and Matthew’s version is the absence of the words “in spirit.” Another difference is that, unlike Matthew, Luke follows up a few verses down with a list of “woes” that contrast directly with his beatitudes. In 6:24, he says, “However, woe to you who are wealthy, for you have received your comfort.” This leaves no question as to Luke’s understanding of the first Beatitude, and if you read Luke closely you will see that what we today sometimes call social justice is a recurring theme for him. So because of this, we know that physical poverty is certainly one way of understanding the first Beatitude.
Matthew, however, does not include the contrasting woe against the wealthy, and, again, he speaks not simply of the poor, but of the poor in spirit. This idea that we find in Matthew rather than Luke of being poor in spirit is, in my opinion, a more nuanced idea than mere poverty, and maybe a little more difficult to understand. Fortunately, this is not a concept that is unique to Jesus or to Matthew’s Gospel. Several places in the Old Testament have very similar expressions. Psalm 34:18, for example, says, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and he saves the crushed in spirit.” The KJV translates the last idea, “such as be of a contrite spirit.” Contrition is penitence, feeling sorry and apologetic for having done wrong. But this translation dulls the power of the Hebrew term, which is literally, “crushed of spirit”, and its meaning is parallel to the word “brokenhearted” or, literally in Hebrew, “the shattered of heart.” In other words, both these terms have to do with those who have been on the receiving end of life’s uppercut. God is near to those who are totally broken by life. This can mean the poor, but it also includes those who are shattered by losing a loved one, by a relationship that has fallen apart, by watching something you’ve spent your life building completely demolished. If that’s you, there’s good news: God is near to you in your sorrow. Isaiah 57:15 says precisely this in a little more detail:
For thus says the one who is exalted and lifted up,
The one who lives forever, and holy is his name:
I dwell in an exalted and holy place,
And with the crushed and humble of spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the crushed.
Isaiah says that God, who dwells in an exalted and holy place, also dwells with the crushed and humble of spirit – or perhaps better, the humiliated of spirit. Those who have been humiliated by life, God is there to revive your spirit. Those who have been crushed by tragedy, God is there to revive your heart.
Reading a little closer, we can see that this verse from Isaiah may actually be saying something else, too – something astounding. These may not be two different places that God dwells, the exalted and holy place on the one hand and with the crushed and humiliated of spirit on the other. Rather, perhaps we are to understand that God’s exalted and holy dwelling place is precisely his dwelling place with those whose spirit has been crushed and brought low. In other words, God’s glory and holiness are most clearly on display when he raises up and revives those whom life has crushed in their spirit, those whose spirits have been humbled and impoverished. Returning to Matthew 5:3, this is why Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed. God is near to the poor in spirit, and where God is, there is the kingdom of heaven.
The Attitude of Spiritual Poverty
Now, while being poor in material wealth is related to being poor in spirit, they are not the same thing. In fact, it is possible to be materially poor and not poor in spirit. Similarly, it is possible to be materially wealthy while also being poor in spirit. Why is this? It is because being poor in spirit is really more of an attitude than a station in life. The reason there is often a coincidence of material poverty and spiritual poverty is that spiritual poverty is an attitude that we tend to find easier to adopt when we have suffered loss. So when we are humiliated by life, we often find it easier to be humble. When we are broken by life, we often find it easier to be contrite or broken before God.
The attitude of being poor in spirit is the opposite of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and self-righteousness. The person who is poor in spirit is aware that he or she has nothing to boast in, no virtue or power or wealth that has not been given to them from above. On the other hand, the one who is not poor in spirit will brag about how much better he or she is than other people. They will look down on others whom they think have less ability or have not worked as hard as they have. They will feel that the world or God owes them something. Their sense of self-worth is in their abilities and in the proof of their abilities, their wealth or social status. Therefore, they will feel threatened when someone questions their abilities.
Those who are poor in spirit have come to the realization that they are ultimately powerless to make life be “fair” and that they are dependent on God to provide for their needs. As a result, they are at peace, enjoying the wealth of the kingdom of God which cannot be earned, only received as a gift. On the other hand, those who are not poor in spirit will live under the impression that they have the power to force life to work for them or the right to demand that life be “fair” to them. So long as they live in denial of their powerlessness, they will live in fear and anger.
Those who are poor in spirit have seen that what makes life truly valuable and meaningful isn’t what the world can offer them – wealth, indulgence, and power – but rather it is what the kingdom of heaven promises – justice, peace, joy, and love. On the other hand, those who are not poor in spirit have yet to realize that material wealth is ultimately an illusion and not really what their hearts truly desire. So they spend all their emotional and physical energy in pursuit of material wealth, only to find that it never really satisfies them, and so they never come to possess the kingdom of heaven.
In short, being poor in spirit is about realizing our true poverty and powerlessness in life and before God. Therefore, while being materially poor can be advantageous to us in bringing us face-to-face with our brokenness, we still have to choose consciously to cultivate and maintain an attitude of spiritual poverty and brokenness. In Matthew 5:3, Jesus is inviting us to adopt this attitude by the power of the Holy Spirit, and this invitation is open to all of us, rich or poor. Because really whether we are rich or poor, ultimately it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for any of us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Each of us must deny the illusion that we are the masters of our own fates, and we must continually embrace and confess our brokenness before God. That is a hard thing to do, but all things are possible with God.
The Promise of Spiritual Poverty
Inasmuch as we are poor in spirit, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven will be ours. What is this kingdom of heaven? Is Jesus saying that the poor in spirit will go to heaven when they die? Well, I think that is certainly included in what Jesus means in Matthew 5:3, but the kingdom of heaven is not simply a future destination. It is a present reality with an eternal future, and I think Matthew 5:3 is better understood as a promise for our present lives with future implications. The kingdom of heaven is another way of talking about God’s righteous rule of the world through Jesus our Lord, a rule that is active right now. The kingdom of heaven is like an alternative reality that we are invited to live in when we confess and truly believe that Jesus is Lord. This reality is one where the true wealth is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The wealth of the kingdom of heaven can be ours, but we don’t acquire it by taking it forcefully. Instead, we receive it as a gift when we come to God broken and poor in spirit.
Do you want to possess the kingdom of heaven? Do you feel that righteousness, peace, or joy is lacking in your life? Or have you been desperately trying to keep the pieces of your life together, to maintain a front of strength before other people, or even before God? God doesn’t need your strength. He wants your brokenness. If you are broken in your spirit, if life has shattered you, if you are tired of trying to maintain a facade of strength and trying to force life to treat your fairly, there’s good news for you today. God is near to the brokenhearted. He will save those whose spirits are crushed and poor. Bring your brokenness to Jesus. Let him bind up your wounds, lift you to your feet, and clothe you in glory and praise. Let him give you the kingdom of heaven.