Do I Want to Be Poor in Spirit?

canstockphoto25496952Why in the world would anyone recommend that we should seek to be spiritually poor? I’m intrigued by the many interpretations of Jesus’ first Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 5:3) that present spiritual poverty as necessary to salvation.

This line of interpretation presents “poor in spirit” as a deep sense of humility or even spiritual despair that leads a person to give up any attempt at earning their salvation or not recognizing their need for a savior. The opposite—wealthy in spirit?—would be spriitual pride, arrogance, or even ignorance at the futility of self-justification.

While I don’t disagree that spiritual humility is necessary for spriitual growth while pride, arrogance, and ignorance are obstacles, I can’t quite buy that this is what “poor in spirit” means. There is a perfectly good Greek word for humble/humility, and Matthew knew how to use it (cf. 11:29, 18:4, 21:5 abd 23:12). Yet he doesn’t, instead using a phrase that never appears anywhere else in the Bible.

It’s telling that Luke’s version omits “in spirit”: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God?(Luke 6:20)?

Does Luke drop “in spirit” or does Matthew add it?

Some suggest that Matthew adds it to take the focus off of money as a determining factor of being blessed and possessing the kingdom of God (heaven). In the United States we particularly like Matthew’s version for this very reason. It allows many to bad-mouth the poor while admiring and aspiring to be among the wealthy. If the phrase has nothing to do with money even the fabulously rich can claim to be poor in spirit, as long as they are humble at heart.

Is that what’s happening, that Matthew is softening or even contradicting the directness of Luke’s assertion that it’s a blessing to be poor? “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” After all, he does seem to spiritualize Luke’s very earthy “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21) to “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).

So is Matthew clarifying Luke, stating that a person’s spiritual state has nothing to do with wealth or poverty? Is it just about what’s going on inside a person that matters?

But why assume that Matthew is changing or clarifying Luke? Maybe Luke is clarifying Matthew. Or maybe neither are clarifying the other but making a connection between being spiritually poor and materially poor.

That was the conventional wisdom of the day. If you were wealthy it was because God had blessed you, and if you were poor it was because you had done something (or not done something) that caused God to withhold his blessing from you. Or even to punish you.

Conventional wisdom held–and still does–that the wealthy were wealthy because they worked harder and smarter than everybody else; they earned it and God blessed them. Likewise the poor were poor because they were lazy or stupid or sinful and therefore earned their poverty.

Matthew and Luke agree that there’s a connection, but disagree as to the effects. Luke says that those who are poor are blessed and those who are rich and full are woeful. They are the ones, Luke says, who are spiritually poor.

Matthew is using irony and even sarcasm, essentially stating, “The ‘spiritually poor’ are actually spiritually rich, for they possess the kingdom of heaven.”

And perhaps implying, “And you who are ‘rich in spirit’—all you possess is some money.”

Both Matthew and Luke agree that that’s what Jesus was saying.

Do we believe him?

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / erllre74

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