The longer I strive for the things of this world, the more I’m convinced of a fundamental principle that rules in the Kingdom of God: Less is more, more or less. When it comes to the things the world cares about, there is actually an advantage to find ourselves lacking in the Kingdom of God. Having less is somehow qualitatively better than having more. To those of us who have lived most of our lives in prosperity, this is very strange math indeed. In the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, we are richer when we are poorer.
This truth is consistently found throughout Jesus’ teachings. You can read through the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew HERE– it’s an underlying theme (also check out the parable of the rich man in Luke 12). The Sermon on the Mount begins with a beautiful and mysterious preamble called the Beatitudes; eight specific blessings that don’t apply to how things are on earth, but rather how things are in the Kingdom of God.
The very first beatitude is this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean? A blessing, broadly understood, is God’s favor. Could Jesus really mean that God’s favor is somehow inherent in poverty? That doesn’t seem right. Try to hear these words the way Jesus' original audience would have heard them. How would it have sounded to someone whose only possessions were the clothes on his back? What would it have meant to the mother who didn't know where her child's next meal was coming from? How would these words fall upon the ears of the beggar who was dependent on the handouts from some stranger for survival? Blessed are poor? Really? And how about the refugees, for they had them then too, strangers in a strange land, forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs. They didn’t feel blessed. It probably didn’t make much sense to them, either.
If we were to write a list of beatitudes for who we think are blessed in our society today it might go something like this:
- Blessed are the rich and famous because they get into the most exclusive clubs.
- Blessed are they with lots of money, for they get the best toys.
- Blessed are the powerful, for they rule the day.
- Blessed are the good-looking, for they shall be on the cover of People magazine.
- Blessed are the movers and shakers, for they shall make a name for themselves.
- Blessed are the healthy and fit because they don't mind being seen in a bathing suit.
- Blessed are those who make it to the top because they get to look down on everyone else.
We don’t really believe the poor are blessed. We believe the poor are cursed - wretched in every way. It’s shameful to be poor in America. The poor are to be pitied and then admonished for not living up to the American Dream.
To really understand this blessing, we have to first understand what the Bible has to say about the poor in general. (We’ll get to the “…in spirit” part in a minute.) It has a LOT to say about the poor. It’s one of the great recurring themes of the Bible. You can’t help but come to the conclusion that God’s heart is with the poor. The word “poor” appears 204 times and it's always with a sense of compassion. God cares deeply for the poor. In the Old Testament, serving the poor was a point of law. (Deuteronomy 15:7) In fact, God's concern is so great that ignoring the plight of the poor was grounds for divine judgment (Psalm 10:2). And concern for the poor is also echoed throughout the pages of New Testament as well.
But the first beatitude is a different animal. Here, Jesus seems to be saying that there is an advantage in not having something. He links two seemingly incompatible things: poverty and blessing. If you take a closer look at the Greek word that is translated here as "poor," the root of the word means 'to cower and cringe like a beggar.' The word denotes a poverty so deep that a person can only survive by begging. He is fully dependent on what others give him…he cannot make it on his own.
It’s here that I begin to understand Jesus’ blessing. The benefit of poverty is not in the not having. The blessing of poverty is in the awareness of need. When you’re poor, you know it. You have to rely on others for everything. The pre-requisite for this blessing is awareness of need.
So what about the poor “in spirit” part? In Luke’s Gospel, the blessing is about poverty in general: “Blessed are the poor.” But in Matthew’s Gospel, the blessing is associated with a particular kind of poverty; specifically a spiritual poverty. Without this clarifying phrase, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," we might actually miss that this beatitude is intended for us, living in prosperity as we do. How about this: “Blessed are the down and out, who know it, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus didn't pronounce this blessing just to make the poor feel better about being poor, or to make those of us who have some resources feel better about the poor. The blessing is for those who know they’re dependent on God for everything. For those who's spirit acknowledges they can't make it on their own. The kingdom of God belongs to those who know they are lacking; physically, spiritually, financially -- we’re all dependent on God’s grace.