We now begin our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s word, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
We have said before that the Beatitudes should not be read as moral maxims applicable to everyone, like a Christian version of advice such as “Honesty is the best policy” or “A stich in time saves nine”. Rather, the Beatitudes were words of encouragement to His disciples, and so they partook of the revolutionary nature of all our Lord’s teaching to His own. We see this particularly in the first Beatitude.
It is very easy to sanitize this first Beatitude, assimilating it into what we (falsely) think we know of Christian teaching, and to re-read it as saying merely, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall go to heaven when they die”. In this re-reading, the purpose of the first Beatitude was simply to console the poor for their poverty, saying in effect, “Don’t worry about being poor and unhappy now—you’ll be happy soon enough after you die and go to heaven”. In fact the Kingdom of Heaven (or “the Kingdom of God” in the other Synoptic Gospels) has little to do with the afterlife. Rather, it concerns what was going to happen here on earth.
The Jews were taught by their prophetic Scriptures that eventually God, having brought Israel out back exile in Babylon to the Promised Land, would soon act to restore His people to unimaginable glory in this age. The glory of God would return to their midst, they would dwell in prosperity and security, and all the nations would come to recognize their God as the one true God and would voluntarily come to worship Him. This outpouring of glory and restoration was what was meant by the term “the Kingdom of God” (or “the Kingdom of Heaven”, in the mouth of a pious Jew who used the word “heaven” as a circumlocution for the Name of God).
At this time the kingdom and power on earth belonged to the nations of the world who exercised their brutal might and crushed the helpless and the poor. But soon enough God would act to overturn their Gentile might, so that the kingdom and power belonged no longer to them but to God. Jewish opinions differed concerning exactly how this would all come about. But all agreed that it would eventually take place, and that was the predominant concern of Israel and the abiding obsession of every Jew—national restoration, not individual survival after death.
It was thought by most that this Kingdom would be experienced by every Jew simply because he was a Jew. Indeed, a popular saying asserted that “All Israel has a share in the world to come”. Admittedly most thought that terrible Jews like tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other notorious sinners might not survive the coming apocalyptic overturning of the world order and would not be around to inherit the Kingdom of God. But most Jews were included in this coming Kingdom solely on the basis of their racial pedigree.
John the Baptist, however, strenuously thought otherwise. When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism, jumping on the prophetic bandwagon as it were, he rounded on them for their suggestion that every Jew would be included in the Kingdom simply because of their Jewishness:
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!” To be included in the coming Kingdom, they would need more than pedigree; they would need to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:7-10).
The Lord Jesus taught the same. And this was the main thrust of the first Beatitude: not every Jew will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who were poor in spirit. This, of course, brings up the important question of what was meant by the phrase “the poor in spirit”.
The people referred to here in this first Beatitude were not simply those who were materially impoverished, which is why Christ described them here not simply as “poor”, but as “poor in spirit”. Mere material poverty was insufficient to qualify one for this blessing. Christ’s description of them as “the poor” referred to a certain class of people found in the Psalter, the anawim, the afflicted, the humble, those oppressed and helpless before the rich and powerful of the world who crushed them (see Psalm 9:18, 36:6, 72:2). These poor had no recourse to earthly help, so they placed all their hope upon God, looking to Him for rescue and vindication. It was these hopeless and helpless, these afflicted ones, these anawim, that God promised that He would one day vindicate.
And it was these who came flocking to Jesus—as weary and lost sheep that had no shepherd (Mark 6:34). They were tired and heavy-laden and in need of rest, and in Jesus they found the gentle good shepherd who was lowly in heart and who would give rest to their souls (Matthew 11:28-29). In this world, dominated by the rich who ruled with an iron hand for their own selfish gain, the poor of the land had no hope. But Jesus promised that He was bringing the Kingdom of God, and that in His Kingdom they would finally find rest and joy. If like them we entrust our soul’s happiness to God alone, we also will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Poverty of spirit means more than finding in God our hope of vindication. It also means that we despair of saving ourselves and in finding in ourselves the strength we need. We are all of us weak, but as St. Paul reminds us, if we give our weak selves to God, we can find in Him the strength we need (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). We are the poor in spirit when we realize that without Christ, we can do nothing.
We note too that this Kingdom of God was not a future reality only. Through Christ’s ministry, it was even at that time breaking into the world and was in their midst (Luke 17:20-21). If the poor followers of Jesus would but trust Him and continue as His disciples, they could experience and own the Kingdom even now. That is why Christ did not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs will be the Kingdom of Heaven”, but “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. Through faith in Christ, the promise and possession of the coming Kingdom are sure even in this age.
Next: Blessed are those who mourn.