Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3)
Jesus blesses the poor in spirit first, but we have difficulty knowing who they are and whether we are among them. “Poor in spirit” is not a common phrase even in scripture. One could translate the Greek, “beggars in spirit,” and few of us aspire to be beggars.
But no one knows their utter need and puts their ego aside to express it like beggars. That’s what the poor in spirit do. They come before God fully aware of their utter need for God’s generosity for all good things, from the oxygen they breathe to the car they drive to the love of their beloved. Poverty of spirit begins with the recognition that one receives all things as gifts, and the poor in spirit live accordingly.
In other words, the poor in spirit are radically grateful.
But not all gratitude reflects poverty of spirit. For example, Jesus told a parable of a two men praying in the temple. The first, a Pharisee, offered this prayer of thanks: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11b-12). This man thanked God for the results but took a lot of credit for achieving them. He did not consider whether his presumed moral inferiors got dealt a decent hand.
This presents a thorny problem with gratitude. God does not distribute blessings equally, and as biblical writers often point out, God does not appear to distribute them according to merit. When I get a raise, a good report on my annual health check up, or even a kind word, I know that someone else no less deserving or even more so is going without. When others get cancer or lose their jobs while I go on with my life, I see no reason I am not among them.
So for most of my life, I lacked poverty of spirit because I thought it more noble to forego gratitude for things others lack. Then I became one of “those people.” When marital estrangement and employment threats happened simultaneously, when I found myself up to my chest in the quicksand of depression, healing began with the grateful acknowledgement of little things. The kind words of a grocery store checkout clerk. The taste of an apple. A place to stay.
And yes, some people were going without even those things. I don’t know why God allows that. But amid failure and loneliness, I started to understand why humble folks who have the least often seem most grateful. When one’s stuff is gone and one’s status forgotten, the choice remains to open the heart and receive what comes. God’s love shines through then more warmly and brightly than ever.
The poor in spirit are grateful, yes, but with humility, not pride. The tax collector whom the Pharisee disparaged prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13b). Whether he recognized that all he had came from God, he recognized that all that mattered came from God. He begged for it. Poor in spirit, he came to God as a humble beggar. And Jesus held him before us as a justified man (Luke 18:14), presumed to inherit the kingdom of heaven.