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Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Published: March 10, 2017

This is the second column in a 10-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Repeatedly, we who consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, are called to examine our lives. What motivates us? What shapes our sense of right and wrong? How are we progressing on this path that we call faith? Where do we find our deepest joy? What causes us anxiety and how are we learning to trust more deeply? Are we committed to building the kingdom of God, or as Matthew calls it, the kingdom of heaven?

The words of Paul come to mind when I think of the radical nature of God’s kingdom. He reminds us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

The danger is falling into the trap of confusing our cultural values with the values of God’s kingdom.

The beatitudes are surely a touchstone for the kind of transformation and renewal that Paul encouraged. They help us to discern where we are in touch with God’s kingdom and where we may have lost touch. They challenge us to see and think and act as God does. They illustrate that for the follower of Christ, the cultural messages about the drive for success and power and vindication are in themselves meaningless. The kingdom of God turns on its head the values of other kingdoms.

The first of the Beatitudes is stated in Matthew 5:3 as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and in Luke 6:20 as “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” We might be tempted to draw a distinction between the poor and the poor in spirit, assuming that one refers to financial poverty and one to spiritual poverty. However, that just might be a false distinction.

In his ministry Jesus embodied the anointed one described in Isaiah 61, the one who brings good news to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted and liberty to captives. In reality, oppression and captivity and desolation are all forms of poverty, as is the inability to sustain one’s life. Why else would Jesus defend the widows and orphans as in Mark 12:38-40?

Material poverty is not praised or idealized in the Bible nor is it seen as a spiritual virtue. We would be misguided if that was our conclusion after reading and pondering the first beatitude. The poor are not “blessed” because they are poor. In fact, throughout both the Old and New Testament God’s people are charged to care for the poor, to help alleviate the kind of poverty that is crushing. 

The prophets of Israel chastised their leaders for neglecting and even abusing the poor, noting for example, that Israel’s elders and princes decorated their homes with “loot wrested from the poor” (Isaiah 3:14), and charging them with criminal acts when they enslaved the poor as payment for debts (Amos 2:6).

No, poverty in itself is not a virtue.

The virtue lies in one’s ability, whether rich or poor, to touch and understand the need for God’s overwhelming love and generosity. It’s about discovering within ourselves a poverty that allows us to receive what God offers so generously, described in this beatitude as “the kingdom of heaven.”

This receiving of God’s blessing is not just for our benefit but it equips us to do the work of the kingdom — to show compassion, to extend peace, to fight for justice and to proclaim that what God offers far outweighs anything we might earn by our own ability. In fact, the poverty of spirit that Jesus praises would acknowledge that even our abilities and accomplishments are gift rather than personal achievement.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Does that describe you? Does that describe your parish community? Are we engaged in doing God’s will even when it is difficult? Can we ask for the grace to detach from our possessions so that we may possess what God has in store for us? Are we open to continual conversion, a renewal of mind that will not allow us to be conformed to this age and its values?

The beatitudes are not easy to digest, but they will nourish us in ways we may not yet understand. They are riches for our poverty.

Study Questions

  • In your prayer, your conversations with God, do you find yourself acknowledging where your values are being challenged? What values in our culture today do you find most difficult to reconcile with the values of the Gospel?
  • What events in your life have helped you discover your own poverty of spirit, your own reliance on God’s generosity?
  • What experiences with physical poverty (your own or that of others) have helped to become more compassionate, and more likely to find ways to be a source of healing or justice?
  • How do you ensure that you remain open to more deeply embracing God’s values? What practices (e.g., Bible study, sharing faith with others, spiritual direction, spiritual reading, prayer, etc) do you find most valuable in this regard?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic March 11, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.