‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’Matthew 5:3
Perhaps no beatitude is more confused in its modern interpretation than the first, where Jesus declares that the poor are blessed. Immediately, perhaps, we hear echoes of what is commonly called the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ God has a special place in His heart for poor people. It would appear, on the surface, that to be poor—or, even better, to be voluntarily poor—is a worthwhile state that has power to win His affection.
If, as I believe, the beatitudes are essentially commands for every believer, what does ‘blessed are the poor’ mean that we’re supposed to do? Are we to sell all our possessions? To give everything away? To go and live on the street? Is poverty, as poverty, a blessed state in Jesus’s thinking?
The attentive reader will note some of sleight of hand in the previous paragraphs. When speaking about the beatitude, I omitted some critical words—‘in spirit.’ Jesus does not bless a state of poverty carte blanche—he qualifies the blessing. That qualification tells us something important. The words ‘in spirit’ clarify that it is not poverty in itself that is the first step in winning a heavenly inheritance, but a certain attitude which poverty illuminates.
Let’s explore this further by means of a simple question: what is it like to be poor? What does it mean if you don’t have enough food? What happens when you can’t pay your rent? What happens to people who cannot afford a car? In all these ways, poor people have to ask for help.
By contrast, what is it like to be rich? It means having everything you need. It means self-sufficiency. It means never having to rely on others.
There’s more, of course. In their poverty, the poor are driven into communities—they live many to a home, in apartment blocks, and travel on public transport. The rich live alone, in mansions, and drive private cars. The poor are driven to community, the rich—trusting in their wealth—come to believe that they are self-sufficient.
What, then, is the key difference between the rich and the poor? In essence, poor people need help and know it. By contrast, we can remember what it is that Jesus says about the rich in Matthew 19:24, ‘Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ This may not be so much a curse on the wealthy as a statement of inevitable fact—the rich cannot possibly inherit God’s kingdom because their hands are already full. There’s no room in their hearts for God; they are too preoccupied with earthly matters.
We must not read this, however, as a categorical condemnation of wealth. Jesus no more implies that all wealth is wicked than he condemns the wealthy women who support him and his disciples in ministry (cf. Luke 8:1-3). But wealth is a place of trust, a place in which much of the world places all of its trust. As such, wealth has unique potential to become an idol. In the Scriptures, this idol is sometimes referred to as mammon (See, for example, Matthew 6:24 in the KJV).
I believe this is why Jesus qualifies his first beatitude with the words ‘in spirit.’ It is not poverty or wealth in itself that is blessed or cursed, but an attitude of trust—a disposition of need—that is required in the heart of any who would seek to inherit God’s Kingdom. The greatest danger to that disposition of fundamental need is that we will trust in our possessions. The more our hands are full, the less God can put into them.
By contrast, when we empty our hands—when we surrender our sense of power, our trust in wealth, when we give up on the earthly game of getting ahead—then that is the first step into inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom, of course, is God’s reign—it is His life, His justice, His power, and His salvation. The more we are sold-out for the world’s idea of life, of justice, of power, and of salvation, the less we will have to do with God’s Kingdom. Only in the surrender of those expectations can we begin to follow Christ along the Way—a way that begins where you are, inevitably involves a personal cross, but culminates in life everlasting.
I have said that for each beatitude there is an attitude, a promise, and an invasion. The attitude of the first beatitude is to be poor in spirit—to be needy for God above all things, to empty your hands, surrender your entitlements, and lay down your personal bargaining chips with the Almighty. It is to leave our isolation and to enter the community of need, to be joined to one another on the very basis of our common need.
The promise of the beatitude is that when we approach God in this way, open-handed, refusing to trust in our wealth, we are blessed—on the right track—to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. And that means to be a participant in all that God has to offer, to receive Christ’s salvation, Christ’s power, and Christ’s fellowship for eternity. There are few announcements of good news better than that!
Lastly, the invasion of the beatitude is that when you choose to become poor in spirit, your life becomes a thin space through which the Kingdom can begin to shine. When you divest yourself of that invasive and pervasive trust in wealth, it is then that God comes alongside us to strengthen us in all things. Poverty of spirit demands trust in God’s power, and trust in God’s power opens the door for God to work. Those who become poor in spirit prepare their hearts to see and hear God move in mighty ways.
Fasting is the great spiritual practice for generating a sense of need—to choose, amidst an abundance of food, to abstain. That abstinence from food serves as a powerful reminder of our deep human need for God. I recommend choosing a day (or set of days) to skip one or more meals. Utilize the time you would have spent eating to pray. In the process, allow pangs of hunger to remind you to pray, and to remind you that although you have wealth, your real trust is in God.