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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.—Matthew 5:3–4
The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become—the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. …
I had lived for a few days at the city garbage dump in Juarez, Mexico, where little children and old men and women literally scavenged food from a mound of refuse more than thirty feet high. Several children died each week because of malnutrition and polluted water. I sent [a] six-thousand-dollar check to a man with ten children, three of whom had already died from the grinding poverty and wretched living conditions.
Do you know what the man who received the check did? He wrote me nine letters in two days—letters overflowing with gratitude and describing in detail how he was using the money to help his own family and other neighbors at the dump.
That gave me a beautiful insight into what a poor man is like. When he receives a gift he first experiences, then expresses, genuine gratitude. Having nothing, he appreciates the slightest gift. I have been given the utterly undeserved gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Through no merit of mine, I have been given a bona fide invitation to drink new wine forever at the wedding feast in the kingdom of God. (Incidentally, for a recovering alcoholic, that’s heaven!)
But sometimes I get so involved with myself that I start making demands for things I think I deserve, or I take for granted every gift that comes my way. …
In conversation, the disciple who is truly poor in spirit always leaves the other person feeling, “My life has been enriched by talking with you.” This is neither false modesty nor phony humility. His or her life has been enriched and graced. He is not all exhaust and no intake. She does not impose herself on others. He listens well because he knows he has so much to learn from others. Her spiritual poverty enables her to enter the world of the other, even when she cannot identify with that world. ... The poor in spirit are the most nonjudgmental of peoples; they get along well with sinners.
The poor man and woman of the gospel have made peace with their flawed existence. They are aware of their lack of wholeness, their brokenness, the simple fact that they don’t have it all together. While they do not excuse their sin, they are humbly aware that sin is precisely what has caused them to throw themselves at the mercy of the Father. They do not pretend to be anything but what they are: sinners saved by grace.—Brennan Manning1
Being poor in spirit
[I]n Scripture, including in the Old Testament, poor does not necessarily mean physical poverty. It is often a technical term for those who realize that, at bottom, they need God for everything physical and spiritual. This is what Isaiah meant when he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”2
This background makes clear that it is the Messiah who will supply the needs of the “poor.” Simeon said of Jesus Christ in Luke 2:34, “This child is set for the fall and rising again of many.” What comes before rising again? A fall—death. What did Jesus say? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”3 Because of our natural spiritual poverty, there must be a death of self if we are ever going to be filled with Christ.
Being poor in spirit is about God giving us a proper attitude toward ourselves and toward Him. We need to see ourselves as carrying a debt of sin and, consequently, as bankrupt before God. Knowing this about ourselves, we cry for mercy to the only One who can wipe out our debt and be our supply in our bankruptcy—we cry out to God.
This stands in contrast to so much of what we see. The spirit of our age tells us to “express” ourselves and “believe” in ourselves. We are about self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-confidence, and so on. The countercultural truths of the Beatitudes say, “Empty self so that God can come in.” When we are full of self, we miss the blessing of God’s presence. …
We never outgrow this first beatitude. It is the basis upon which we ascend to the others. If we outgrow it, we outgrow our Christianity. Jesus told the people of the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17–18 that they say they are rich, have prospered, and need nothing. He tells them they are “poor” and, therefore, they should buy from Him gold refined by fire so that they might be rich; that is, rich in Him.
The fundamental posture of this beatitude is found in the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14. The Pharisee in this parable trusted in himself and his works before God. In contrast, the tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The promise follows: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” If we are going to enter the kingdom of heaven and be satisfied there in Christ, we must first be “poor in spirit.”—D. Blair Smith4
What does it mean?
The beatitudes—the blessings that really proclaim the way of Jesus… What is the foundation for all of them and for the whole value system of Jesus? I think it’s found in the very first one. As Matthew puts it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. The reign of God is theirs.”
In Luke’s Gospel, it just says, “Blessed are the poor,” and sometimes people think, “Well, Matthew modified that. Poor in spirit—that takes a little bit of the edge off of it.” But it really doesn’t. It simply helps us to realize that when Jesus is talking about “Blessed are the poor,” he’s talking more about an attitude, a way of knowing one’s need for God, which is a disposition of the heart and not simply economic deprivation.
Poor in spirit means that we understand a profound truth about ourselves—the truth that none of us is responsible for our own existence and our own continuance of existence. Poor in spirit means we understand our need for God and who God is and who we are. Poor in spirit means we understand that without God and God’s gift to us of existence, of life, we would not be. God has loved us into being. God has loved all of creation into being, and it’s only God’s love that sustains all of creation as it continues to evolve and develop in each one of us God’s continuing love.—Thomas Gumbleton5
The least of these
Jesus’ earthly life in many ways was one of lowliness and service. His ministry focused on the poor, needy, and outcasts—the least of these. In the Gospels, we find examples of those He ministered to.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”6
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”7
Jesus also pointed out some of the things that those who “are blessed of my Father” do in their lives—they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison.8 Such acts of kindness mirror the Lord’s love and care.
Jesus’ example of humility is something we are encouraged to emulate. When referring to Christ’s humility, Paul wrote that Christians are to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”9 We’re told that “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”10
If we want to cultivate humility in our lives, the starting place is a focus on God. As we grow closer to Him, spending more time concentrating on Him, learning about Him, talking with Him, and making room for Him in our lives, He grows in importance to us and begins to take up more of our “field of vision,” so to speak. When He does, we are reminded of His perfection and our lack of it. When we are in right relationship with Him, we will be humbled by the fact that He loves and values us, as imperfect as we are. This right relationship leads us to a godly balance of healthy self-esteem with genuine humility.—Peter Amsterdam
Published on Anchor June 2022. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
Music by John Listen.
1 Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out (Multnomah, 2005).
2 Isaiah 61:1.
3 John 12:24.
6 Matthew 11:4–5.
7 Luke 4:18–19.
8 Matthew 25:34–46.
9 Philippians 2:5.
10 Matthew 23:12.