The Beatitudes, part 2: Poor in Spirit

Read Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon Me, for the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” (Isaiah 61:1 NLT)

wealth-gapIn the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus, with his disciples gathered around him, stood up before a crowd of people and began to teach them. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” he began, projecting his voice for the multitude to hear, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The crowd was in shock as Jesus uttered these words and, no doubt, the sounds of gasps and whispers could be heard moving from mouths to ears throughout the crowd.

It’s not that the crowd was unaware that God takes the side of the poor. Surely, there is Scripture throughout the Old Testament that shows God favoring the poor. In Isaiah 61:1, the prophet writes that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in order that he might bring the good news of God’s favor to the poor. Also, the wise, sagely, author of Proverbs wrote that God’s justice will fall swift and hard on anyone who tries to take advantage of the poor, for God is their defender (Proverbs 22:22-23).

What was most shocking to the crowd was that Jesus proclaimed, with authority, that God was not merely the defender of the poor, which ultimately defends the status quo; rather, God is their liberator. It’s one thing for God to “defend the poor” against people who try to “take advantage” of them, but it is something entirely different for them to be the heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven, as this suggests that God rejects the place the poor have been put in, despite the fact that the world wishes to keep them in that place. This puts the world at odds with God.

Some have mistakenly taken Matthew’s use of the phrase “poor in spirit” to be a “spiritualization” of Jesus’ proclamation of blessing upon the literal poor found in Luke. However, phrase “poor in spirit” does not exclude literal poverty from the equation; rather, it shifts the emphasis to what it means to be the people of God. What Jesus is doing is pointing to a quality within the poor that sets them a part from the rich and, in Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase similarly to how it was used in the War Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll, written about 80 or so years prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, utilizes the phrase “poor in spirit” (1 QM 14:7) to denote God’s true people in contrast to the rich and powerful heirarchy of Jerusalem.

The poor, therefore, are people who are not in a position to be proud and independent. By virtue of their poverty, they are humble and their spirit has been crushed. They have to daily rely on their faith and hope in God’s promise to bring them justice and liberation from their plight. It is such people who, in their humility, recognize their need for God, while the rich and proud look to their own power, status and capabilities to attain what they believe they need. Jesus’ use of the phrase “the poor in spirit” both points us to God’s solidarity with the impoverished and to the kind of spirit they possess as a result of their poverty.

If we wish to inherit God’s Kingdom, we need to stand in solidarity with our Lord, who stands in solidarity with the poor. The only way to do so is to let go of our pride, to stop seeing ourselves as being “independent” and above those who are not, and begin to embody a spirit of humility. It is in such humility that we will recognize our need for God, and it is in such humility that we will trust our Lord enough to follow him. While the world scoffs and criticizes the poor, while the world mocks their need for help and assistance, the challenge for us is to embrace the poor, as well as their humble spirit. In doing so we will certainly be embracing our lowly Lord himself.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. “ – Nelson Mandela
PRAYER
Lord, empty me of my pride and fill me with humility so that I may be counted among the poor in spirit. Amen.

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