The NET Bible‘s note on Matthew 5:3 reflects something I believe of a scholarly consensus on this passage, seeing it as Matthew’s version of Luke’s words about the poor being happy, or blessed:
The poor in spirit is a reference to the “pious poor” for whom God especially cares. See Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29.
That could well be. But I think that Matthew applies this, and in so doing reflects the Lord’s application or meaning here, in referring to those who know their need of God (see the NLT translation in the Matthew 5 link above). Or more accurately, simply those who are poor in spirit, the spiritually poor. In the Hebrew mindset which is reflected in Jesus’s disciples’ thinking, to be poor materially was not far removed in their eyes as failing to be under God’s blessing, indeed perhaps under God’s curse. We can see some good reason for that application with reference to Israel as a nation (the blessings and the cursings named in the Pentateuch). But God’s care for the poor, who in many cases were at least open to God in contrast to the rich, who in not a few cases victimized the poor and came under God’s judgment, is a theme in the Old/First Testament, carried over into the gospel accounts (Matthew through John) and especially a prominent theme in the book of James.
So to be poor materially would lend itself to one better understanding their need for God, which in fact is another theme of scripture, with the contrast that the wealthy oftentimes rely on their wealth, in fact make it their god, and imagine themselves to be in no need of God. For one to be poor materially, and realize that, could help one to realize their inner poverty as well, since they are not benefiting from some other source apart from God. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that receiving help from other sources, such as the government is intrinsically bad, because that indeed can be the secondary source from the true source, God.
But now to cut to the chase, or more precisely, make the point I wanted to make in this post all along. I so readily identify with the idea of being “poor in spirit.” Oftentimes in my lifetime, inwardly I have been anything but rich. I see other Christians around me who seems joyful, or profess some kind of inner peace or spiritual bearing which I completely lack. Not that I’m saying my experience is good, because in and of itself, it’s not. Such experience could amount to any number of things in the present day assessment. One might be clinically depressed, or something physical affecting the emotional and psychological might be going on, which needs to be addressed. At any rate, I’ve felt not only an inner emptiness, but a desolation that can seem heavy and nearly suffocating at times.
And so I’m more than happy to hear our Lord’s words, that the poor in spirit are blessed, the very first “beatitude” of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. That helps me be able to relax in my abject inward poverty, and by faith not let it move me from seeking to fulfill God’s will in Jesus as for example, in loving others. When one doesn’t feel well physically, it’s hard to hang in there, even sometimes impossible to carry on the normal responsibilities of life. And the same holds true spiritually as well. We can’t give out what we don’t have within, and we can spew out what is not good within, no doubt.
And so our Lord’s words here are quite encouraging and even uplifting to me in calling the likes of me along with others who are poor in spirit, blessed. In that word, in my weakness, I can find God’s strength. And in my spiritual destitution, I have no where else to turn to but God. Aside from some of the other help I might receive, which could be a part of the help I would receive from God.
And so I’m not concerned about being a spiritual pauper, because I know to whom to turn for the true riches which for us in Jesus are spiritual, rather than material. The true and eternal life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.