Have you experienced abject poverty? Perhaps if you have not experienced it personally you have witnessed people living with nothing or very little. I’ve seen people in Cairo living among the garbage. I’ve also known people here in the West Midlands who have got themselves into such a mess that they are left homeless, on the streets or in a room in a hostel. I have friends who have had to live in one room with their children as they waited for a Home Office decision.
When we come into contact with people who are in poverty, some of the thoughts and emotions that go through our heads can include
- I feel guilty, how can I live with so much when they have so little?
- I am angry at a society where this is allowed to happen
- I want to help but feel helpless
- It must be their fault – what do you do to end up like this.
The idea that poverty is connected to moral failure runs through history too and that would have been true in Jesus’ time. The wisdom literature declared that fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom, therefore if a wise life led to happiness and contentment, sure those who had nothing must have acted foolishly – and as we know, the fool says in their heart that there is no God. Furthermore, for the Jews, being part of God’s people was wrapped up in possession of his land so that there was a clear Old Testament causal link between material well-being and spiritual well-being.
Jesus turns those assumptions on their head when he announced “blessed are the poor.” Luke leaves the quote there whilst Matthew gives the full saying as “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It is helpful to start with Luke’s saying. If the assumption was that the poor had nothing to offer, well what a shock to hear that they are actually the heirs of God’s kingdom. They may have little to enjoy in this life, but they may look forward to the resurrection day with hope. Whilst we may not have the same binary understanding of spiritual happiness and its links to material wellbeing, we can too easily have a prejudice to those who are reasonably well off, educated and successful. We look to such people as potential leaders in our churches whilst those who turn up with nothing are either treated as charity cases, dependent on us for handouts or treated with suspicion as probably only here to see what they can get.
However, whilst it is right to be aware of material poverty as we look at the Beatitudes, Matthew pushes us to look deeper. It is not merely the poor whom we are asked to consider but specifically the poor in Spirit. This could encompass those who are low in spirit. Again, just as with material poverty, so with emotional health, those who struggle with anxiety and depression are often considered as second class. Again, there has for a long time been a stigma associated with mental health. Yet Jesus says that such people are blessed or happy.
Finally, “poor in spirit” may be rendered “spiritually poor”. In other words, these are those who are alert to their lack. Indeed, the more we know Christ, the more we recognise our spiritual poverty. We are guilty sinners with nothing to offer, we are truly dependent on Christ’s forgiveness
- How are your attitudes to those who are materially poor shaped by this passage?
- What attitude should we have towards those who are struggling financially?
- Would you say that you are poor in Spirit? What is the evidence.