Blessed are the poor in what now?

poor box

Photo credit: Steve Willey

In an attempt to steer myself away from being so freakin’ confrontational all the time, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the Sermon on the Mount. It’s my favorite part of the Bible and it’s ultimately what keeps me chillin’ with the Mennonite crowd.

Oh, I know what would be a good idea,” I thought, “I’ll write about the Beatitudes. One post per Beatitude. That’ll be soooo easy.

Then, I opened my Bible, re-read the Beatitudes and went, “Well, crap.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:3

Of course, the first Beatitude is the one I never understood. So, I’ve spent the past three days trying to figure out what “poor in spirit” is all about. I’ve waded through commentaries, books, articles, and random blog posts. This is what I’ve come up with.

The poor in spirit understand their need for God.

These aren’t self-satisfied, self-righteous people. These people understand grace. They aren’t smug and don’t go around boasting about how spiritual they are.

To be poor in spirit is to recognize clearly that one has nothing which he has not received from God, that one is nothing except by the grace of God. – Orthodox Church in America, The Beatitudes 

They have endured spiritual poverty. That is a painful condition. It’s nice to feel sure of yourself. It’s comforting to know that you have everything all figured out. But, admitting that you don’t and that you can’t earn your way to God is difficult and disconcerting.

Jesus starts his sermon by mentioning these people who know they need more than they already have. These people who recognize their emptiness.

People who are “poor in spirit” are those who are humble before God. They realize that they have nothing in this life that they can contribute to receiving the kingdom of heaven…There is no arrogance in them, no self-righteousness, no self-sufficiency. They are free from their own pretensions, and therefore they are free for God. Everyone who wishes to enter the kingdom must be “spiritually poor,” for salvation is a gift from God. –

I want to point out that being “poor in spirit” isn’t about telling yourself you’re worthless. It’s about not being your own idol.

The poor in spirit are in solidarity with the poor.

This is about empathy. It isn’t enough to throw money and resources at others. It isn’t enough to “do good”. We need to meet people where they are and on their terms, not ours.

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person. – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

If I drop off some cans at the food pantry, does that help me understand what it’s like struggle to feed your children?

If I donate money to a homeless shelter, send a school kit to a child in another state, plug my credit card number into an online form… does any of that help me understand the people I’m trying to help?

I know people who are living comfortable lives, but are poor in spirit. They identify with people who are poor. They don’t even see them as “the poor” but as “people”. They don’t pass judgment on people just because they’re struggling financially. They realize the causes of poverty are complicated. They realize that they could easily have been “the poor” if life had worked out a little differently for them.

The Gospel calls us to a paradox in its teaching on poverty. First, it bids us recognize in the face of the poor the face of Christ. Our culture is resistant to this idea and likes to hurriedly put emphasis on the words “in spirit” in order to distance ourselves from looking into the faces of the hobos, winos, toothless geezers, street kids with fleas, addicts, schizophrenics, brawling illiterates and smelly people who are, after all, what the word “poor” often refers to. – Mark Shea, Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

The poor in spirit understand that they aren’t entitled to what they have. The poor in spirit understand that we are only temporary stewards of God’s property.

“…if I let the Spirit infuse me with holy poverty, I become generous, for what once appeared to be mine isn’t mine at all.” –  James C. Howell, The Beatitudes for Today

Am I poor in spirit?

This is the question I didn’t want to ask. Maybe this is why I was always happy to skip over the first Beatitude in the past.

So, am I “poor in spirit”? I wasn’t. I know that much. I was arrogant and self-righteous. I was convinced that willing myself to believe the correct things, to perform the correct actions, to avoid the incorrect actions would earn myself God.

Getting rid of all that was incredibly painful. (There’s no pain quite like soul pain.) It was humbling to realize I could do everything right and still completely miss the point.

So, where do I stand now? I’m spiritually exhausted.

I have a complicated relationship with Christianity. I don’t actually want to be a Christian or associate myself with the religion. I’m not the kind of person who has a lot of faith.  (I’m probably running a faith deficit here.)

The crazy thing is that once I admitted I didn’t believe, that’s when Jesus swooped in all, “Yo, look at me!” I had to get rid of my own spiritual garbage before I could see him.

So, yes. I would say there’s some spiritual poverty up in here. (But, that sounds kind of self-righteous, so I take it back.)

As for being in solidarity with the poor… not as much as I should be. I’ve always been more worried about keeping myself from being poor. I’m nominally generous (a few dollars here and there), but I don’t do anything that has any real impact. I have too big of a “this is mine, I worked hard for it and I deserve it” attitude. Every once in a while I remember that I’m not actually entitled to anything, but then I tell myself to shut up.

Mostly, it’s just really hard to get involved with people who are suffering. It hurts to see people hurt. I need to get over that.

What do you think? Is there anything else to being “poor in spirit”?

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