“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus saw the crowds, went up the mountain and began to speak. He opens his mouth and the first words in his lengthy Sermon on the Mount begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What was that exactly? Blessed are the who? The poor? Is there a typo on your sermon notes, Jesus? In the very first line, Jesus proclaims the unexpected. He announces what seems absurd. He reverses the expectations of his listeners and the way people function in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed. Not cursed. Not out of luck. Not less fortunate. Blessed. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
After the initial shock subsides, we may try to grasp what it is that Jesus is talking about in the first blessing of the series of blessings, known as “the Beatitudes.” To whom or what is Jesus referring when he says, “the poor in spirit?” One way to interpret the “poor in spirit” is to say that Jesus is addressing all of our spirits, a kind of state of being in which we might find ourselves at different points throughout our lives. Jesus is talking to me on a bad day—that’s when I’m poor in spirit. When I’m humble, downtrodden, distraught, poor, or fainthearted, that is when my spirit is poor and without riches or comfort. This interpretation seems especially apt when considering what Luke says in his version of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” dropping the “in spirit” we read in Matthew. Luke, then, is referring to those who may be materially poor, while Matthew emphasizes our spiritual state.
There’s another way that we could interpret this line, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew, far from removing the concrete nature of the blessing goes one step further that Luke. Matthew’s version of the line addresses both the material and spiritual dimensions of the powers work in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are both economically poor spiritually poor. Charles Campbell puts it like this: “The deepest and most debilitating form of poverty occurs when the material, institutional oppression of people becomes internalized in their spirit. The powers must be addressed at this spiritual dimension.”1 When people who are poor are crushed, stripped of their dignity in their spirits, believing instead that the essence of their worth is summarized in the names others have called them: unemployed, welfare mother, homeless, abused, lazy, felon, pan-handler, addict, diseased. Who was it that was following Jesus around right before he climbed the mountain to begin this sermon?
Matthew 4:23-25 (CEB) provides some context:
“Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”
I’m convinced that if the beatitudes are a kind of mission statement for the ministry of Jesus, then when Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, he means so much more than me on a bad day. Jesus refers to those who are barely making it, materially and spiritually, those who are crushed by injustice.
How can this be right? It doesn’t make sense. Blessed are the rich, those who don’t have to worry about money, with a three car garage, life insurance, a 401k and savings for their kid’s college. Blessed are those with job security. Blessed are those who never have to worry where their next meal is coming from.
And yet, this is not what Jesus says. It’s the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven. If this is who Jesus says is blessed and who receives the kingdom of heaven, I want to be a part of that!
Jesus, in this blessing and in each beatitude, exposes the power at work in the world and envisions an alternative.2 For example, in Caesar’s empire, blessed are the rich, the Romans, those who have servants, and positions of power. In the American empire, blessed are those with college degrees, a mortgage, well-behaved children, and an iphone in their pocket. In God’s empire, blessed are the poor in spirit, those exploited by injustice, those suffering from economic hardship, people who believe their worth is summed up in the names others call them. Jesus exposes the power, that it’s not the rich and privileged who are blessed, but the poor! Then, he envisions and alternative, for it is the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven.
As a faith community that primarily does not identify with being economically poor, what is Jesus inviting us into if we believe this absurd, upside-down blessing is true, if we believe that this is God’s reality and how the world works in God’s empire?
Jesus is inviting us to resist the powers of the empire, to participate in exposing the powers and joining the alternative reality that Christ has already set into motion. Jesus invites us to resist.
One act of resistance to the powers that we already participate in as a faith community is profoundly shocking in our culture. In our society, money is power, it is the key to happiness, it is everything! And yet, we give money away to the church! What a profound act of resistance! It’s shocking and destabilizing. In giving money away, we resist the lie that money is everything, the sum of our work and worth.
We participate in some acts of resistance in the way our church functions. We resist the need to purchase or rent a space for church, choosing instead to open our homes to friends and strangers alike, sharing our resources, and risking that the carpet will get stained and the valuables broken or stolen.
What are other acts of resistance we might engage or practice? Where else is Jesus inviting us to resist the world’s empire, and in doing so, proclaim the reality of God’s empire in our midst?
1. Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002., 17.
2. Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers, 96.