Like a child with shoulders slumped low from a long day of school, poverty drags a backpack of negative connotations wherever it goes. Even those who dedicate their lives to caring for the poor do so understanding poverty to be the outworking of sorrow, corruption, and suffering. It is something to be avoided, changed, or fixed.
Despite this reality, Jesus embraces poverty as the foundation of his kingdom ethic. He begins his famed Sermon on the Mount with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” To be a follower of Jesus, one must embrace the poverty of the spirit.
To grasp the importance of these words, the reader must understand the flow of Jesus’s Sermon. The Beatitudes found in verses 3-10 describe the essence of Christian character. To quote the famous British Pastor John Stott,
The group exhibiting these marks is not an elite, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from ordinary Christians. On the contrary, the Beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be.
All Christians are to be poor in spirit, sorrowful, meek, hungry, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.
But to arrive at the later virtues, Christians must know the poverty of Jesus. Without it, no one can reach the kingdom of God. So what is it? What does Jesus call us to when he pronounces blessing upon the poor in spirit?
Poor or Poor in Spirit?
Theologians have hotly debated the meaning of Matthew 5:3. Some like St. Francis of Assisi and John Calvin have claimed that Jesus is addressing earthly poverty. While the “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58).” Those who beg for a living seem to have more in common with Christ than those who live in palaces. Moreover, in Luke 6:20, the parallel or sister passage to Matthew 5, Luke omits the phrase “in spirit” giving us the following rendering: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This quotation seems to support the notion that the kingdom of God is made up of the physical poor. The question then becomes which passage should interpret which?
I believe as did Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Stott that we should follow the Reformation maxim and allow the clearer text to interpret the vaguer phrase as all Scripture is inspired by God. The prepositional phrase “in spirit” should be viewed as a divine interpretive insight into our savior’s meaning. We should always reason from the more clear to the less clear. When we apply this principle to the “poor in spirit” debate, we cannot help but conclude that Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters and not of economics. A quick survey of Scripture confirms this interpretation. Though Jesus saves one thief on the cross, the other enters hell (Lk 23:43). Jesus heals 10 lepers and yet only one returns to worship the Son of God (Lk 17:11-19). Moreover, Jesus redeems men such as Matthew, Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus, who oppressed the poor prior to their conversions.
God cares for the poor. Those who walk the path of affliction with the well torn shoes of difficulty are often more disposed to the concept spiritual poverty than those managing hedge funds. But one’s lack of wealth does not turn the key to heaven. As the church father Chromatius noted,
The necessity of poverty does not produce blessedness in each of us, but a devout trust sustained through poverty does.
In other words, poverty of spirit can be found both in government housing and in fenced off communities. Earthly poverty does not always equal heavenly glory.
What is Poor In Spirit?
To be poor in spirit, one must recognize his or her ultimate worthlessness in comparison to the majesty of God. Lloyd-Jones helpfully defined poor in spirit as, “a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance.” In other words, The poor in spirit realize that they have nothing within themselves by which to commend themselves to God outside of the wages of sin and death. Instead of boasting in their church attendance, in the successes of their children, in their common sense, in their giving, in their service hours, or in their ability to be better than their neighbors, those who are poor in spirit have one prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner (Lk 16:13).” They understand that they come to God much like the mail-order bride with billions of dollars in credit-card debt comes to the Crown Prince of England. They have no hope outside of a ridiculous their appeal for mercy.
The great news of the gospel is that Jesus responds to this cry for help. Jesus dies and burst out of the tomb on Easter morning so that he might redeem sinners such as us. Second Corinthians 15:19-20 declares, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
To obtain the riches of the kingdom, we must first understand our poverty. As one early church sermon on Matthew noted, “The root of all evil is pride, and the root of all good is humility.” Once we understand we are nothing and give up all hope of saving ourselves, then and only then, do we begin to inherit everything. Only those who are poor in spirit can enter the kingdom of heaven.
To quote Jesus again, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.”