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Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. What Does this Mean?

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With this verse we begin a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. We will be looking at each of the Beatitudes individually over the next nine days, and praying over this incredible spiritual journey that Jesus has laid out for us. This is, in essence, a short catechism on the elemental teachings of the Christian life, but for all of its brevity, it reveals the great challenges before us as Christian believers.

Who are the poor in spirit that Jesus is speaking about here? Is it just those who are poor in material possessions that will gain the Kingdom of Heaven? The Hebrew word anawim means those who are poor in the sense that they are without material possessions, but whose poverty has not diminished, or damaged their confidence in God’s generosity of mercy and love. Though they are poor, they continue to put all of their hopes in God and choose, even in their poverty, to live in accord with God’s will.

Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount is different than Luke’s. Matthew adds the words “in spirit” to the word “poor” and, in doing so, he broadens the meaning of poverty for us. As Christians, we are all called to endeavor to be poor in spirit, no matter our social rank, by putting the totality of our faith in God, not in our worldly possessions. If we do this, we lose all of the anxieties that come with the inordinate desires for the things of the world, like wealth. The poor in spirit are those who have let go of the world, who have put their deepest hopes in the Lord alone. They have been freed from the slavery of greed in all of its forms. They are no longer controlled by the grasping desires of the world, but are moved more and more by the spiritual desire to serve the Lord in all that they do. Those who are poor in spirit are free to serve the needs of others with loving kindness and generosity, with genuine hospitality and compassion. The world no longer controls them. They see the world for what it is in relation to God and live accordingly. It is for these who have become “poor in spirit,” that the Kingdom of Heaven is made.

This idea leads off the Beatitudes, for it begins with the necessary detachment that the Christian life requires of us. While we are “in” the world, we are no longer to be people “of” the world. Jesus tells us, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:16) In other words, as Christians, our vocation is to imitate Jesus. Again, Jesus tells us, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19) This is our calling then, to let go of the things of the world and to grasp on to the things of God with all of our spiritual might. The world’s temporal and momentary promises are fleeting and unfulfilling in the end. To adopt a poverty of spirit is to enter into the life of Jesus in its fullest sense. The great irony is that is doing this we become rich in spirit, forever. God is Good!

You, Lord, are our deepest desire. Help us to let go of all false and destructive desires for the finite things of this world. Fill our hearts with the wealth of your love, for you, for our neighbors and ourselves. By your grace, replace our stingy hearts with hearts overflowing with loving generosity, especially for those who are poor, weak, and forgotten. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.