“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
(Matthew 5.3, compare Luke 6.20)
This is one of those verses we are so used to hearing that we automatically assume it makes sense! But wait a minute, what on earth is ‘poverty of spirit’, and why should it be blessed?
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that God would actually want to reward the rich in spirit: people who, whatever their circumstances, worship with fervour and pray with faith. Apparently not.
In that case, we figure, this verse must just be a nice way of talking about people who are modest. Spiritual giants, for sure, but not the types who consider themselves especially worthy, let alone superior.
Well, lack of boastful pride certainly has something to do with it. After all, in one of his famous stories, Jesus commended the honest spiritual deficiency of a despised tax collector over and against the presumptuous ‘prayerful correctness’ of a Pharisee.
But there is more to it even than this. In blessing ‘the poor in spirit’ Jesus is, as usual, going lower and wider than we would ever dare. He is saying that the feeble yearnings of the most crushed and inadequate persons are what God treasures most.
Like the widow’s mite, it is not about the value of the contribution but the sheer craziness of faith-against-all-odds that expresses God’s heart. And those are economic odds, let us note.
This ought to be a massive encouragement to those of us who feel inadequate in faith, barren in prayer, poor in worldly resources, devoid of the language of Zion, perhaps even empty to the core at times.
Our insufficiency is no barrier to God. Even — especially — the most spiritually tone deaf are welcome at the Lamb’s Feast of Life!
The fact is, God has no need of our wealth and no use for our pretence. Being God is enough. And being the God who loves beyond our ability even to imagine love is more than enough. If we can muster the tiniest grain of faith in God’s capacity to love, mountains will move, as Jesus also says.
But the difficulty is that we often do not want this minimal kind of faith. We secretly want a set of spiritual resources which will gain us admiration and win competitions. We want to be holier-than-thou (in a cool, hip kind of way, no doubt).
Even worse, we live in an age of power, achievement and self-actualisation. So we are hardly inclined to admire the spiritually destitute. We also have plenty of other things to trust in before the love of God, principally those material goods our hands have made or bought.
But God’s love is not a commodity. It is not for sale, not manipulable, not subject to competition, not for the highest bidder, and not restricted to our ‘in group’. This is why only God’s love will suffice. Ours is too fickle and factional.
That batters are pride. Why can’t we do it all ourselves? God knows that self-reliance is our biggest problem. That’s why, says Jesus, it is those who have no possibility of self-reliance who are the first inheritors of the kingdom — to show the rest of us what it’s all about, and to stop the proud grabbing all the attention.
For that reason, most of the poor in spirit turn out to be economically poor too (as Luke’s version of the same Beatitude promptly reminds us).
The point isn’t that God wishes people to be poor. If he did Jesus wouldn’t have told his rich followers to share their wealth with those in need. No, Jesus’ reasoning is that only by letting the ‘lowest of the low’ pass muster will we understand that no-one is below God’s dignity, and no degree of worldly influence can fool God.
Far from being ‘sensible’, Jesus’ logic (which, we believe, is God’s logic) is totally offensive to our received ideas about what and who counts. In which case we’d better start re-ordering our success-driven ideas, because what Jesus is promising us is that we will be spending eternity with the bankrupt and ‘undeserving’!
God of love
If we are proud, enable us to stoop low enough to find you.
If we are crushed, raise us up to share your glory.
Help us to see that dependence on you is not bondage but a path to true freedom.
And then enable us to live your love towards others.
Through Christ our Saviour. Amen.