And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-3).
Jesus’ ministry had begun, and His renown had spread far and wide. Matthew had been speaking in generalities about Jesus’ preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and how He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23-24). Multitudes began to follow Him (Matthew 4:25), and Jesus felt it was time to systematically proclaim His message to them. He climbs up a mountain, most likely to provide for better acoustics, and begins teaching His disciples and the multitudes as well (Matthew 5:1-2). So begins what we popularly call the “Sermon on the Mount.”
The “Sermon on the Mount” begin with what are popularly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, since verses 3 through 11 begin with the Greek word makarios, meaning “blessed” or “happy.”
Yet this is not your average list of blessings. This is how Jesus begins this particular example of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that good news was quite different than anything the Jews had heard before.
The first group of people who are “blessed,” or happy or fortunate, are the “poor in spirit.” Jesus says that they are fortunate because the Kingdom of Heaven is “theirs” (Matthew 5:3).
There is some disagreement about Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 5:3, whether poor in spirit is a categorical way of speaking about the poor in general or whether the emphasis is on the poverty in spirit and not poverty in general.
If the emphasis is on the poor in spirit, Jesus is addressing the value of humility and the realization that, on their own, people do not have a lot of spiritual strength on which to draw. Jesus will frequently paint a dire picture of man’s natural condition: full of daily anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), without proper spiritual direction (Matthew 9:36), heavily burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and in great debt (Matthew 18:23-35). While that is distressing enough, the difficulties are compounded when people deceive themselves into thinking that despite such challenges they are really spiritually healthy and strong, like the Pharisees and other religious authorities (cf. Matthew 9:10-13). They will not be blessed, but those who understand their true sinful condition– that they are sick– are more likely to turn to the Physician and be made well (Matthew 9:10-13). Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who understand that they are poor in spirit and are in need of healing and strength from God in Christ, and until people come to that realization, there is not much that Jesus can do for them (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:15)!
While all of that is true, Jesus may use the phrase poor in spirit to refer to the “pious poor,” those who remain devoted to God despite not having many material blessings. In what is called the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49, a message very similar to the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus there says that “the poor” are blessed without adding “in spirit” (Luke 6:20). We can find many examples in both testaments of such people– the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and the Psalms are often written with the poor in mind (cf. Psalm 34:6, 40:17, 69:29).
In the first century, this would be a startling statement indeed! For generations, conventional wisdom associated blessedness with wealth and prosperity. This was a message reinforced in the Proverbs– wealth came to those who worked hard and lived righteously, while poverty was an indication of idleness or wickedness or both (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, 15). Granted, the author of Proverbs says that the rich should not despise the poor but should take care of them (e.g. Proverb 14:21, 31), but the prophets indicate that oppression of the poor was commonplace in Israel (Isaiah 3:14, 10:1-2, Jeremiah 2:34, Ezekiel 22:29, etc.).
Conventional wisdom reduced everything into a deceptively simple paradigm: if you were rich and prosperous, you were blessed, and since God is the Giver of all good things, you are blessed before God. If you are poor, you are clearly deficient in blessings, and since God is not providing those blessings to you, it must be on account of your sin. It might be that some people are poor by no fault of their own, but even then, they are to be objects of pity; no one would ever consider people in such a condition fortunate or blessed. Jesus turns this conventional wisdom upside down.
According to the Gospel of the Kingdom, the poor are the ones who are blessed, while the rich are the ones who ought to mourn (Luke 6:24, James 5:1-6). While this reversal seems bizarre to people in the world, now as then, it makes perfect sense in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom, where what is humble is exalted, and what has been exalted is humbled (cf. Matthew 23:12, etc.).
But how can poverty really be a fortunate state? Most of the time, those who are poor would desperately love to escape from poverty! What could be so romantic about poverty?
It is not as if Jesus is glorifying poverty in and of itself; after all, one can be poor, embittered against God and man, and be exceedingly sinful. The poor do not get an automatic pass into the resurrection of the just.
Yet poverty is a great teacher– it strips man of many of his delusions. When one is poor and dependent on the goodwill of others for continued existence, one cannot be deceived into thinking oneself truly independent, truly without any kind of accountability, or self-sufficient in any way. It is very hard to maintain pride in the face of poverty; it is a very humiliating experience to have to beg or to constantly be reminded of how one is deprived of the world’s goods (cf. James 1:9). Poverty easily strips man of his pretension and pride– and that is the first step toward realizing how one is really dependent on God His Creator and why he must serve Him!
Such is why Jesus can say that the poor in spirit are blessed, for the Kingdom belongs to them– they are of the right disposition to hear, accept, and obey the Gospel of the Kingdom. They will comprise the bulk of the first century church (cf. James 2:1-9)!
We do well to remember this lesson. Most of us enjoy relative prosperity. Many of us are not rich according to American standards, but according to the standard of the entire world, and especially according to the standard of the first century, we are all quite wealthy!
We must not allow our relative wealth, prosperity, and ease keep us from the Kingdom of God. We must not, as so many do, believe that we are fine and spiritually healthy because things are going well for us. We must understand that we are pathetically weak on our own and utterly dependent on the mercy of God not only for our survival but also for our prosperity. We must humble ourselves before God so that He will exalt us at the proper time, lest we exalt ourselves now and be humbled by Him (cf. 1 Peter 5:5-6)!
Fortunate are those who learn humility and who remain dependent on God. Let us pursue such blessedness and serve the Risen Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry