In the first of these profound statements, Jesus comes out swinging — especially at those of us who believe there is a social or economic status that will bring happiness and security.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Poverty of the soul is a lost commodity in our culture. Our notion of what brings happiness is often the exact opposite of this idea. We are taught that the way to be happy is to be bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone around me and to crush the competition at every turn.
Standing at the top of the heap will prove your worth; and when you have worth, you will be happy. At least the back half of the last statement is true (“when you have worth, you will be happy”). But the source of true happiness can never be at the expense of others along the way. And in a worldview where everything depends on climbing to the top, every time I move forward, it happens at the expense of someone else. It has to. In order for me to move ahead I have to take the place of someone else.
That is the problem with the typical view of what real power is in this world. It treats the power continuum as if there is only so much power in the world to have, and in order for me to have any, I must take it from someone else’s share. It’s the exact opposite of how God asks us to engage the world.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? There are three words for poor in the Greek. This one in particular means someone who is completely unable to be anything other than dependent on the generosity and benevolence of someone greater than they are. Why in the world would you want to be that? And how could you even try?
Consider the reality of this decision. What would happen if we never try to leverage our possessions or position to gain status or significance over someone or something else? What if we gave our lives to making sure everyone around us has everything they need rather than trying to take things for ourselves? What if we gave ourselves to the cause of those who had no voice? What if we spent our lives trying to repair what is broken in this world? What then?
I think that would be a life worth living, full of meaning and transformation. That would be a life of real power. Consider Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
And once again, God is way ahead of the game. There is something to this selfless living that is so countercultural and yet so truly powerful. We feel it and we know it deep in our being. But it goes against everything this world teaches us to value.
How do we know that what the world says is true? Are we so sure that the world’s version of power is real? Ask someone who has achieved the top of the heap. See how they feel about it.
If we will be honest, it is simple math. A life of sacrifice in the investment of others is a life of real power, and this is at the heart of being poor in spirit — that we lay ourselves down again and again for the well-being of other people is one of the core realities that makes all of creation function properly.
And that is hard. And it takes a lot of sacrifice. And my bank account doesn’t look the same. And it doesn’t give me the best car and the biggest house.
And that is why I love the back half of this verse: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
In the Greek it reads: hoti auton (long “O”) eimi ho basiliea ho ouranos. Literally translated, it means “because of them, the Kingdom of heaven is.” Maybe what Jesus is saying isn’t so much about the reward of gaining the Kingdom of heaven for being poor in spirit. Maybe the idea here is that when we choose to be poor in spirit, it is hard and we get tired and used and pushed around sometimes. And the Kingdom of heaven, whatever that is, exists for people like that.
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is there for the express purpose of being an encouragement and an inspiration to those who are brave enough to let everything go and take hold of the powerful, transformational life of being poor in spirit. That is pretty cool.
So may you find life that is truly life. May you let it all go to find the power of real transformation. May you always be a source of strength for those brave souls who have charged the battlefield and swung their swords, regardless of the opposition. May you see the Kingdom of heaven come crashing into earth.