New Life in Christ: The Beatitudes for Today 2 -“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Matt. 5:3)
In Luke’s account of the Beatitudes Jesus is recorded as having said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). Matthew’s account (5:3) makes Jesus’ meaning clear. The poor in view are those whose poverty of spirit demonstrates their blessed status. The blessed are the poor in spirit. But what does it mean to be poor in spirit? It may be easier to say what it doesn’t mean first.
It doesn’t mean that asceticism is blessed. In the history of the church there have been those who have made use of Jesus’ words here and in Luke 6 to justify various forms of self deprivation in the name of spirituality. From vows of poverty to acts of penance, church history is littered with an approach to the first beatitude that externalizes its message. But Jesus doesn’t have in mind some merely outward activity.
It doesn’t mean that depressive personalities and introverts are blessed. I came across the story recently of a man, Alistair McGregor, an expatriate Scot living in the United States. He was diagnosed with depression, given various medications, sent to therapists and doctors - all of which, he insisted, were pointless. “It is this sort of attitude that has gotten you into this situation in the first place,” he was told. At last, despairing of finding effective treatment, McGregor was scheduled for controversial shock therapy. He was prepped for the procedure when, at the last minute, the nurse noticed his accent and realized they were about to make a terrible mistake. “This man is not depressed, he’s just Scottish!” she realized. Identifying Mr. McGregor as Scottish changed his diagnosis from 'clinical depression' to 'rather quaint and charming' and he was immediately discharged from hospital, with a selection of brightly colored leaflets and an "I love New York" T-shirt. The point is that some of us are prone to maudlin introspection and negativity. It’s part of my national temperament! Wallowing in self pity, however, is not at all what Jesus meant by poverty of spirit.
It doesn’t mean that false humility is blessed. Jesus is not calling us to adopt a phony meekness that only masks but does not replace our pride. He is not calling us to be sycophantic, neither is he telling us never to take a compliment.
So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to know and feel the depths of our own inner bankruptcy before God. It means to know that we are without hope, save in God’s sovereign mercy. It means to know, with the Apostle Paul, that “in me, that is, in my flesh dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18). Jesus’ call to poverty of spirit isn’t a call to embrace his spin on the same set of facts about ourselves. No, it’s a call to stop believing our own hype. It’s a call to see ourselves as we really are apart from his grace: barren, empty, broken. By nature, we are utterly impoverished, but to know our own spiritual poverty is the first step in gaining true spiritual riches. If we think we have the resources, we will not rest on Jesus Christ and his resources instead, and so we will deceive ourselves. And the delusion of sin is strong: we cling to our filthy rags, believing them to be the imperial finery that adorns the monarchy of our personal kingdoms. But the poor in spirit are those who, by God’s grace, have had the scales fall from their eyes. They see the soiled and tattered cloths with which we cover our sin-sick souls as they really are, and they despair of anything we might make for ourselves that will truly cover our shame. It is this attitude, Jesus says, that is blessed. It is this attitude to which belongs the kingdom of heaven. Only as we despair of self, and rest on Christ, are our rags replaced with truly royal garments; garments not our own but Christ’s. We have no righteousness that will satisfy God’s justice. But Christ’s righteousness covers us perfectly. The kingdom is ours in Jesus. In ourselves, we are bankrupt. In him, we possess the kingdom.
It is fascinating to note that the first and last beatitudes are in the present tense. To both the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), and the persecuted (5:10), belongs the kingdom of heaven. It is theirs, Jesus says, now, already, here. The life of the Kingdom, over which Jesus rules, the life of the age to come, belongs to those who rest, not on themselves but on Christ. Here and now, and day by day, those who know and live in poverty of spirit, eschewing self reliance but clinging to Christ, possess the kingdom.
This was the sore lesson the Lord taught Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7ff. “[A] thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” By his hard trials the Lord taught Paul to boast in his weaknesses knowing that when he was weak, then, resting on Christ, only then, was he strong. May the Lord teach us all by his word and Spirit, and by his fatherly discipline, true poverty of spirit, that we may possess the kingdom, and that in each of our lives Christ may have all the praise!