Sermon on the Mount: Poor in Spirit
What’s so special about the “poor in spirit”? Why does Jesus mention them first in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3), and why do they get the umbrella reward of “the Kingdom”?
The waters get muddied on the “poor in spirit” because Matthew usually annoys or embarrasses scholars on this one. It looks like Luke has the original, basic formulation–“blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20)–which Matthew takes and “spiritualizes.” But what does “spiritualizing” something even mean? Presumably, it means that Matthew took a concrete state (being poor) and, by adding “of spirit,” turned it into some kind of pious, other-worldly virtue. That may be what we mean by “spiritualizing” something, but it’s not how any New Testament author uses the word “spirit.”
Paul, for instance, usually uses “spirit” to talk about things that pertain to the Holy Spirit (as in gifts “of the spirit” [1 Cor. 12:1]). In this sense, Paul certainly doesn’t want us to be poor in the spirit. He wants us to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18)! A few times, Paul seems to use “spirit” to point to the spiritual realm in general (1 Cor. 15:46). But we saw in a previous article that when Matthew wants to talk about the spiritual realm, he talks about the things that are “of heaven.” In this very sermon (Mt. 6:20), Jesus is going to insist that we not be poor in the things of heaven!
Remember that Matthew is steeped in a Hebrew way of thinking. To understand his language, instead of looking forward to the later New Testament, we need to look backward to the language of the Old Testament. In the Psalms, particularly, a person’s “spirit” is a way of referring to their inner life in general. For instance, “I remembered you God, and I groaned, I meditated, and my spirit grew faint” (Ps. 77:3).
Now, the core meaning of “poor” is to lack resources. So a person who is “poor in spirit” would be someone who lacks the inner resources to cope with the circumstances they are facing.
The exact phrase “poor of spirit” is never used in the Psalms, but several authors sure fit the description. Their circumstances include facing people who explicitly mean them harm (Ps. 142, 143), dealing with physical illness (possibly Ps. 77:1-12, but definitely others like Ps. 6), or realizing the depth of the damage their sin has done between them and God (Ps. 51:7-17). All of these authors express trouble in their “spirit.” We see the common emotional core in Ps. 142:3, 6:
“When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way. . . Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.”
That word “desperate” seems to capture it well. Perhaps we could also add “overwhelmed” (the NASB translation for “grows faint”). This gives us a good working description: To be “poor in spirit” is to be overwhelmed and desperate. Of course, literal, physical poverty is one thing that could lead a person to be overwhelmed and desperate. This means that Matthew is not “spiritualizing” Luke. Rather, Luke’s “poor” are, in fact, a sub-category of Matthew’s “poor in spirit.” They are poor in spirit as a result of being straight-up poor.
Being “poor in spirit” is a rather visceral, emotional experience. Think of some time in your life when it was “just too much.” Whether it was your kids or your job or your health or your relationship or it was 2020 and everything was crashing down. That’s being poor in spirit. The poor in spirit are freaking out.
Understandably, people who are overwhelmed and desperate are not in a very analytical frame of mind. Looking at it from the outside, though, we can identify two essential components to being “poor in spirit.”
The first is an awareness that things are bad.
This is usually an immediate, “on the ground” awareness. But sometimes it comes from a more general grasp of the brokenness of the world. Non-Christian thinkers–philosophers, religious leaders, think-tank types–often have profound insights into what’s wrong with where we are. They know we can’t stay here. They know we need a better place. You can watch such folks reason themselves to the very doorstep of the Kingdom of God. But ideas can only get you to the doorstep. It takes power to get inside. Only Jesus has that power. He is the door (John 10:9; Matt. 11:27-28).
The problem is that such unbelievers lack the second element in being poor in spirit. Beyond seeing what’s wrong with where you are, you have to see your total inability to get where you need to be.
The poor in spirit are desperate because they know that they are powerless.
The tragedy is that I see many Christians who have access to that power, but have only a dim awareness of what’s wrong with where they are. Maybe that’s because, in this country, we have the bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pretty well taken care of. Living in relative safety with our physical needs met, the idea that we need to get out now seems a little nutty. Instead we can leisurely pursue the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, or maybe just chill where we are.
One author said it’s like we’re living in a cardboard box, not realizing that our cardboard box is in the middle of a cathedral. Instead of looking for a way to get out, we’re using a set of markers to scribble pictures on the inside of our box to make it look a little nicer.
I’m not saying anyone’s life is perfect. Of course things go wrong. But, in our mostly comfortable situation, any problem that comes up is not taken as a sign of fundamental brokenness. It’s just a sign that some particular government official hasn’t done their job very well. The solution isn’t radical. We just need to get someone else in there who can do things right. This world may be a fixer-upper; but, all the same, it’s home.
Ironically, believers who live this kind of life also find themselves on the doorstep of the Kingdom. Even though they have the power to get in, they have no sense of urgency, so they aren’t even trying. This is why, in Luke, Jesus adds, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24-25). The rich aren’t looking for a way out. They have this cardboard box fixed up pretty well, thank you. This makes their situation all the more dire. They’ve made their home on the Titanic. The ship is taking on water, but they’re fluffing the pillows and polishing the floor boards. They’re numb to the fact that they need to go!
In their desperation, the poor of spirit don’t have either of these problems.
They know that things are bad. This world has failed them. They look around and know that the ship is sinking. For heaven’s sake, they’re already waist-deep in water! And they know that they are powerless. The situation has brought them to the end of themselves, and panic is starting to set in. They know that, if help doesn’t come from the outside, that’s it. They’re done.
The poor in spirit are blessed because they have no illusions of finding what they need in this world. In other words, they are ready for the Kingdom. Their desperation has severed their tether to the things of this world, and Jesus is ready to catch them.
“The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:17-18).