Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the first of the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3). In a sense it is the basis of all the beatitudes, for all those that follow give us some concrete applications of poverty of spirit. But there is a little more that can be said about this first blessing of Jesus.

It is not quite the same as the first beatitude in St Luke’s account, the unqualified “Blessed are you poor” (6:20). His second one is also unqualified: “Blessed are you who hunger” (compare St Matthew’s “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Luke’s account focuses on blessings for the materially poor and hungry, for his Gospel highlights the Lord’s preference for the poor and downtrodden (see the conclusion of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish”; 16:25). But in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, the “poor” and “hungry” are spoken of in more spiritual terms.

One can be poor in spirit without being materially destitute, yet a rich man who is unconcerned with the needs of others could never be considered poor in spirit. We can see what it means to be poor in spirit not only by looking at the other beatitudes (e.g. the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers), but also by reading the rest of the Sermon (chapters 5-7). The poor in spirit are poor in self-protecting justifications and psychological/emotional/social defenses (they “turn the other cheek”). They are poor in anger and retaliation (“reconcile with your brother before you offer your gift”; “love your enemies”). They are poor in vice (see Jesus’ teaching on adultery, divorce, false oaths). The poor in spirit are also poor in hypocrisy (see Jesus’ teaching on ostentatious prayer, fasting, and almsgiving), but they are rich in trust, for they serve but one Master and are not anxious about material goods—they seek first the Kingdom of God and expect whatever they need from his hand. They are rich in wisdom, for they choose the narrow gate and know how to recognize false prophets, but they are poor in condemning or judging others, for they leave all judgment of persons to God.

It’s a true program of life, this poverty of spirit, this Sermon on the Mount. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and hence it is that which is distinctively Christian. All religions in one way or another will teach one to avoid evil and do good. But Christ’s words touch the nerve of fallen man, call him to change at precisely the point at which his ego is enmeshed in selfish and uncharitable behavior and pursuits. He turns upside down the “wisdom of the world,” calls “blessed” what the world deems cursed, and preaches instead what St Paul calls “the word of the Cross.” The word of the Cross is the Gospel of the poor in spirit. The Sermon on the Mount ought to be the litmus test of Christians. Jesus does not preach the perfunctory performance of a few religious obligations that subsequently exert no influence on one’s practical life. No, Jesus presents the unvarnished demands of the Gospel—which apply inescapably to all areas of our lives—and then He requires us to choose. Will we build the house of our life on sand or on rock? Our salvation depends upon it.

Meditate on his Sermon and discover (or discover anew) what it means to be poor in spirit, that is, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Blessed are you if you choose the “narrow gate” that leads to eternal life.