Who Are the Poor in Spirit?
Why is Theirs the Kingdom of Heaven?
In Jesus’ first Beatitude (Matthew 5:3) that begins the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), those who are poor in spirit comprise individuals who are utterly devoid of material benefits and who know their compete dependence upon God for their daily bread and their spiritual needs. The Greek word ptōchos for "poor" refers to the destitute, the homeless. How true it is that more than anyone, the truly needy know their need for God more than those who have plenty. God warns his people in the Old Testament not to forget God in times of prosperity:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deuteronomy 8:10-14).
The phraseology of "poor in spirit" was used by certain Jewish communities to describe themselves. In the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls we read,
...[the] humble he [God] has not spurned, and he has not overlooked the needy in trouble, he has kept his eyes on the weak, and paid attention to the cry of the orphans for help. He has listened to their cry, and because of his abundant mercies, he has shown favor to the meek. He has opened their eyes to see his ways and their ears to hear. (see also Psalms of Solomon 10:6; 15:1).
Here we see two themes that Jesus touches upon in this first beatitude. The first is that the poor are utterly without their own resources; they are dependent fully upon God to provide for them. Secondly, it is because of that desperate dependence on God that they can see God's provision in the smallest ways through the generosity of others. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit because they have put their hope in God who will one day secure justice for them. Michael Wilkins states, "This attitude of humility in the harsh realities of life makes a person open to receive the blessings of the kingdom of heaven."
It cannot be forgotten, however, that the flip side of blessings-- of beatitudes-- are curses. If the poor in spirit are blessed and they will receive the kingdom of heaven, the curses then seem to be reserved for those who have more than they need. Later on in Matthew, Jesus will speak of the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (19:23-24).
Wealth brings with it the illusion of self-sufficiency. When individuals pray the words of the Lord's Prayer, "give us this day our daily bread" while knowing they have more than enough bread for the day and beyond, the words offered in prayer border on meaningless utterances. How seriously can we pray these words of the prayer our Lord taught us when we really do not have to depend on God for even small morsels of our daily nutrition?
Jesus' first beatitude counters the prosperity gospel that deceptively affirms that wealth and prosperity are signs of God's blessing and God's approval. The pop theology that obedience to God brings good things and good times is a trite and shallow theology that will not stand up to the scrutiny of Jesus' teaching. If the prosperity gospel is correct than Jesus should have said, "Cursed are the poor in spirit who will never receive the kingdom of heaven."
Instead Jesus offers to us in this first beatitude a revolutionary way of understanding our relationship to wealth because it matters in reference to our relationship to others; for our abundance cannot be separated from the want of so many. One day, God will set things right for the poor in spirit and the task of Jesus' kingdom people in the here and now is to reflect in our way of life and by our lifestyle that the kingdom of heaven, though not fully here, has nevertheless arrived, and the poor in spirit are beginning to get their due.
The poor in spirit know their need for God. In so doing, they turn to God, and God through his people show his favor to the poor in spirit.
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