Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
I memorized the Beatitudes as teenager.
These are wonderful words and they are recious to every Christian.
These words seem to promise so much and to expect too little.
They are so easily said.
It seems an unusual way to begin talking about happiness by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
There are two ways in which we can come at the meaning of this word, "poor."
In our Bibles the beatitudes are in Greek.
The word that is used for poor is the word, "ptochos."
In the Greek there are two words for poor.
There is the word, "penes.
Penes describes a man who has to work for his living.
It is defined by the Greeks as describing the man who is "autodiakonos," that is, the man who serves his own needs
with his own hands.
Penes describes the working man, the man who has nothing superfluous, the man who is not rich,
but who is not destitute either.
But, as we have seen, it is not "penes" that is used in this beatitude, it is "ptochos",
which describes absolute and abject poverty.
It is connected with the root, "ptossein", which means to crouch or to cower; and it describes the poverty
which is beaten to its knees.
As we have said, "penes", describes the man who has nothing superfluous.
Ptochos describes the man who has nothing at all.
So this beatitude becomes even more surprising.
Blessed is the man who is abjectly and completely poverty-stricken.
Blessed is the man who is absolutely destitute.
As we have said the beatitudes were not originally spoken in Greek, but in Aramaic.
Now the Jews had a special way of using the word, "Poor".
In Hebrew the word is "aniy" or "ebyown".
These words in Hebrew underwent a four-stage development of meaning.
First, they began by meaning simply poor.
Second, they went on to mean, because poor, therefore having no influence or power, or help, or prestige.
Third, they went on to mean, because having no influence, therefore down-trodden and oppressed by men.
Finally, they came to describe the man who, because he has no earthly resources whatever,
puts his whole trust in God.
So in Hebrew the word poor was used to describe the humble and the helpless man who put his whole trust in God.
It is how the Psalmist uses the word, when he writes,
"This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles." (Psalm 34:6).
It is in fact true that in the Psalms the poor man, in this sense of the term, is the good man who is dear to God.
"The hope of the poor shall not perish forever." (Psalm 9:18)
"God delivers the poor." (Psalm.35:10)
"In thy goodness, O God, thou didst provide for the needy." (Psalm 68:10)
"He shall defend the cause of the poor of the people." (Psalm 72:4)
"He raises up the needy out of affliction, and makes their families like flocks." (Psalm 107:41)
"I will satisfy her poor with bread." (Psalm 132:15)
In all these cases the poor man is the humble, helpless man who has put his trust in God.
Now let us take the two sides, the Greek and the Aramaic, and put them together.
Ptochos describes the man who is absolutely destitute, the man who has nothing at all;
and "aniy" and "ebyown" describe the poor, and humble, and helpless man who has put his whole trust in God.
Therefore, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" means:
"Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness,
and who has put his whole trust in God."
If a man has realized his own utter helplessness, and has put his whole trust in God, there will come into his life
two things which are opposite sides of the same thing.
He will become completely detached from things, for he will know that things have not got it in them
to bring happiness or security; and he will become completely attached to God,
for he will know that God alone can bring him help, and hope, and strength.
The man who is poor in spirit is the man who has realized that things mean nothing,
and that God means everything.
We must be careful not to think that this beatitude calls actual material poverty a good thing.
Poverty is not a good thing.
Jesus would never have called blessed a state where people live in slums and have not enough to eat,
and where health rots because conditions are all against it.
It must be the purpose of the Christian gospel to remove that kind of poverty.
The poverty which is blessed is the poverty of spirit, when a man realizes his own utter lack of resources
to meet life, and finds his help and strength in God.
Jesus says that to such a poverty belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why should that be so?
If we take the two petitions of the Lord's Prayer and set them together:
“Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” we get the definition: the Kingdom of God is a society
where God’s will is as perfectly done in earth as it is in heaven.
That means that only he who does God's will is a citizen of the Kingdom; and we can only do God's will
when we realize our own utter helplessness, our own utter ignorance, our own utter inability to cope with life,
and when we put our whole trust in God.
Obedience is always founded on trust.
The Kingdom of God is the possession of the poor in spirit, because the poor in spirit have realized
their own utter helplessness without God, and have learned to trust and obey.
There is a sense in which we can find the whole Bible a commentary on this Beatitude.
From peak to peak, from Mount Moriah where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac,to Mount Calvary
where Jesus of Nazareth endured the humiliation of a Roman gallows, the cry is echoed:
"The poor in spirit shall enter the kingdom!"
Abraham went to God with absolutely nothing; he walked out of his Father's house "not knowing whither,"
not even knowing who had called him.
Because of this he was fit for the Lord's summons.
Moses was probably the lest promising prospect for leadership that a people ever had,
yet he goes down in history as one of the greatest.
He had an Egyptian name, a speech impediment, a weak set of knees, an ugly disposition, a criminal record,
and a price on his head.
He was despised by Hebrews and Egyptians.
His life was bankrupt, and because of that, God could use him.
The story of David in the cave of Adullam is a perfect illustration of what Jesus was talking about.
David was being hunted down like an animal by the king's army.
He was hiding in a hole in a primitive and poverty-stricken land.
"Everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented,
gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them." (1 Samuel 22:2)
They had nothing to lose, and were ready for anything — even for God.
That meant God could do something with them, and He did.
He met David with blessing upon blessing, even to the royal scepter.
The dispirited became the vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
There are other fascinating illustrations of the Beatitude in Scripture.
The widow of Zarephath welcomed Elijah into her home when she and her son was on the verge of starvation.
"I have not a cake," she said, "but a handful of meal in a barrel, and little oil in a cruse:
and . . . I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son,
that we may eat it, and die" (1 Kings 17:12).
The prophet Elijah might have been discouraged hearing this, since the Lord had told him that the widow
would "sustain" him.
Instead, Elijah found that it was the lack that set up conditions so that God could act.
He told her to prepare what she had, and the Lord would take care of the rest — which He did.
The cruse of oil became a cup running over, a symbol of divine blessing.
Centuries later Jesus Christ added a footnote to this story.
He pointed out that the woman of Zarephath was not even one of "God's people,"
as the Israelites called themselves.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a Galilean peasant girl about whom very little is known.
If she had noble character and distinguished ancestry, she did not boast of it.
She speaks of herself as the "handmaiden of the Lord" of "low degree" and "low estate."
Luther suggests that if God had wanted human nobility and honor for His Son,
He could have chosen Caiaphas' daughter to bear Him.
Instead, God found that Mary's qualities — or lack of qualities — were eminently usable.
Experts may differ on how Mary might have scored in a modern intelligence or personality test,
but this is sure: in the test of spirit for the Lord seeks out the low score, and Mary qualified.
Jesus in effect illustrates the Beatitude in parable after parable: the beggars are called in and banqueted
after the guests fail to make their appearance; the young prodigal sinks to the status of the swineherd
and even of the swine.
When he has nothing, he remembers his father's house.
The story of the rich young ruler makes us see that it is not enough even to know the commandments
and the catechism.
The young man turns away from Jesus sorrowfully, for without a broken spirit he cannot follow.
The most remarkable thing about Pentecost was not that the early apostles were all "of one accord"
or that they spoke in many languages.
The most remarkable thing was their poverty of spirit — they were empty, so they could be filled.
The Apostle Paul drives home the point in a hundred ways.
He tells how the Saviour of men "made himself of no reputation" for our sakes.
Those words just cut across our pride!
Think of the infinite pains we take to boast of our own reputations.
Our character is our masterpiece, representing a lifetime effort to lay claim to honor among men.
Yet Jesus (as Paul says) took the form of a slave, and humbled Himself,
and became obedient unto death (Philippians 2:7-8).
As for Paul, there are many who consider him the second greatest man who ever lived.
Certainly he traveled to spiritual high places that leaves the rest of us earthbound.
Yet near the close of his life he wrote a very simple epitaph for himself. It was: "The Chief of Sinners."
Goodspeed translates this Beatitude, "Blessed are they who feel their spiritual need."
There is not one of us who will not face at some time the gap between what he is and what he ought to be
as a Christian.
It is good to learn at the beginning that we are to accept ourselves not as we ought to be, but as we really are,
because at the Cross we find God accepting us in our misery and poverty.
We are prepared for the "exchanged life" that Hudson Taylor speaks of, as God takes away even our rags
that He might clothe us in the glorious raiment of His righteousness.
In answer to our prayer the message of this Beatitude comes as a gift of hope.
Our heavenly Father takes us as we are, with all of our lack and shortcomings.
The only requirement He makes is that we come as an empty vessel.
And here is the promise: that men's extremity is God's opportunity, and that our place of despair
shall become the scene of Christ's atoning victory.
So then, the first beatitude means:
"O the bliss of the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God,
for thus alone he can render to God that perfect obedience which will make him a citizen
of the kingdom of heaven!"
This concludes the first beatitude.