the first of the “blessed”: the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:1-3

To be “poor in spirit” doesn’t seem a good place to be. Wouldn’t one want just the exact opposite? Jesus starts out his great Sermon on the Mount with the notice that such people are blessed.

I can well imagine the consternation, or at least wonder when some people read this. I do think most could easily reconcile themselves to the thought that this is a good place to start. But Jesus didn’t exactly say that. He simply said that such are blessed.

Going down the list of what is called the Beatitudes, those who are blessed seems to indicate that this is a present condition Jesus was referring to, even an ever present condition.

I can easily compare myself to the someones who seem brimming over with life, full of joy, always with a ready smile, and praise to God on their tongues. To compare myself with others is the first fallacy. To judge them would be another error.

No. I simply need to accept the obvious reality about myself: I am indeed poor in spirit, poor spiritually in and of myself. And to accept Jesus’s words about that condition, that then I am blessed, because the kingdom of heaven meets me there.

who is blessed according to Jesus?

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus’s idea of the blessed life is surely not the norm. We think of certain ideals more in terms of material success, so that at least we are well taken care of, with hopefully the thought of helping others. That’s fine, as long as we don’t make that our main drive in life. After all, we are to provide for our own, and help others.

But Jesus’s words on who is blessed, or truly happy don’t touch that. It’s not at all about finding the good life as most people think of that. Instead it’s about supreme or perfect blessedness or happiness in terms of something much more. But it involves living in a world in which death awaits us sooner or later, and many troubles before that. And this is all magnified and especially pointed for those who follow Christ.

And so to be blessed according to Jesus is paradoxical. It won’t make sense to the world, and only makes sense to us as we seek to follow Jesus. But make no mistake, it won’t be easy, unless I’m missing something.

It is of a different realm and kingdom present in this world, a world which at its heart is not aligned with God’s will, and is suffering the consequent curse of that. And yet a world in which the blessed are present to help everyone enter into the same blessed realm with them. In and through Jesus.

the true blessedness

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:2b-12

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount explaining to his disciples and the crowd who really is blessed which was in marked contrast to the ideals held among the Jews and Gentiles(/Romans) at that time. Jesus begins to reveal both the counter-cultural aspect of God’s kingdom come in him, how it would run against the grain of the world, a hint to where he was going, what we might call the cross culture, which at that time was not only avoided, but even despised. Only the lowest of the low were nailed to crosses.

Of course, what we call the Beatitudes gets specific enough and is interesting.  According to the Collins Dictionary, beatitude means “perfect blessedness or happiness.” There has been debate on precisely how to translate the Koine Greek word transliterated makarios. What is meant is more than just happiness, but that is certainly a part of it. It would go much deeper though, than what the world often seems to mean by the word, happiness, which is often superficial at best, and deceptive at worst. It is definitely a blessing and resultant happiness that is again, in contrast to what the world holds dear. And yet often admired by the world, with the attempt to emulate such, which apart from Jesus cannot fulfill what Jesus is getting at, and cannot be Christian.

We do well to remain in them for a time, so that they can get into our mind, our heart, and out into our bones in how we live. It is definitely part of the lifelong ongoing process to which we’re called in this life, a kind of goal. But more apt, this is really a description of Jesus’s followers, those who are part of God’s kingdom come under the Savior and Lord, King Jesus.

This helps us to see what the Spirit is working in us, and what we’re to work out of that as believers and followers of Jesus. In and through him.

In Luke there is a parallel “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17-49), good to read along with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

blessed are the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

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.