‘Poor’ in this Beatitude is an alternate form of poverty. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ’s blessing names the economic poor. In Matthew, Christ’s blessing is extended to the ‘poor in spirit’ and has a spiritual, faith-based element to it.
Let us be clear, this Beatitude shouldn’t be used to romanticize or valorize poverty. Or to justify the conditions that bring about poverty and disenfranchisement.
We should also acknowledge that the Beatitude does not mean that people who live in material poverty do not need or want resources. Nor does it mean people are happy, due to their economic poverty, or because life is simpler for them. That, too, is a fallacy.
This spiritual way of being ‘poor’ recognizes that many people live in conditions and systems beyond their choice or control. Throughout scripture, God claims such dispossessed people as God’s own.
The scholar William Barclay traces the evolution of what poverty means in Hebrew scriptures and then in the Gospels. “These words in Hebrew underwent a four-stage development of meaning (i) They began by meaning poor (ii) They went on to mean, because poor, therefore having no influence, or power, or help, or prestige (iii) they went on to mean, because having no influence, therefore down-trodden and oppressed by men (iv) Finally, they came to describe the man who, because he has no earthly resources whatever, puts his whole trust in God.”
This spiritual form of poverty can be an inward loss with emotional, psychological, and spiritual implications.
The original Greek used by Matthew does not select the word penes, which refers to poor people who Barclay says “have to work for a living, people serving their own needs with their own hands”. Instead, the author of Matthew used ptochos, which Barclay describes as “those who live in absolute and abject poverty: poverty which is beaten to its knees.”
Now imagine the spiritual equivalent of such poverty. What would bring you to your knees?
In addition to having no earthly resources, ‘poor in spirit’ can also mean lacking internal resources: an inward loss with emotional, psychological, and spiritual implications. When we become desperate, reach some breaking point, or acknowledge our personal imperfections, especially, our inherent human messy-ness, then we also have the chance to relinquish our illusions of control and place ourselves into God’s keeping.
Placing ourselves into God’s care — God’s hands — doesn’t absolve people of acting ethically or being partners in our own destinies. Empowerment and personal agency aren’t extinguished when we turn our lives over to God. Yet this Beatitude presumes we have experience major limitations of one sort of another. Free will, nevertheless, remains ours.
As Martha Stortz writes, “It is a blessing, not upon the man who has been distinguished for this virtue or remarkable for that excellence, but upon him whose chief characteristic is that he confesses his own sad deficiencies. … grace is indeed casting its eye first, not upon purity, but upon poverty; not upon those who show mercy, but upon those who need mercy; not upon those who are called the children of God, but upon those who cry, “We are not worthy to be called your children.””
Theologian Father Jacques Philippe adds, “Poverty means first of all being truthful toward God: realizing our radical limitations as creatures, our total dependence on his love … who … badly need his mercy and pardon so much.” The blessing is given to us anyway, because God’s measure of our worth, our value, is different than the world’s metrics.
Thus this first Beatitude isn’t intended to shame us. In fact, it lifts shame from us. Maxie Dunnan and Kimberly Dunnan Reisman tell us “…the poor in spirit do not confuse humility with low self-esteem or self-pity. They know they are loved, accepted, and forgiven.” Perhaps we don’t deserve — or cannot earn — the grace that is offered: the blessing that we belong to God’s kingdom.
Yet the blessing has already been bestowed. The offer has already been made. — Rev Gail
The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. — St. Mother Teresa
Poverty is the worst form of violence. — Mahatma Gandhi
Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit. — Eli Khamarov
Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. — Aristotle
An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics. — Plutarch
Challenge or Question: What controls, calls, or tempts you? What becomes an idol in your life, in ways that disrupt your healthiest and holiest relationship to yourself, God and other people? Look, for instance, at how you spend your money and/or time. Often you’ll notice your passions — both healthy and out-of-balance — within the budget of your finances and your daily schedule. Can you redirect your time, attention, and/or resources away from one aspect of your life that may not be healthy, toward something more sustainable?