Have you ever noticed on television documentaries about the past, the sighs of interest, even pleasure, that people express? It might be a program about a long-forgotten people or an ancient city. It might be the revelation of the value of a work of art or a letter found in the attic. Significant ruins and long-forgotten events of the past, family history and uncovered personal treasures, give people pleasure and joy. It gives them a sense of being caught up in the timeless, even the eternal. It gives them a sense of identity and satisfaction. Sometimes it is as though they have found life’s holy grail.

It is into our world with its moments of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency that Jesus speaks his first recorded words in Matthew’s Gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).

ECONOMIC OR HEART CONDITION

With his words the poor in spirit he is not referring simply to the financially or materially poor. His disciples weren’t destitute. While they weren’t necessarily millionaires, they certainly weren’t hard up. Peter and his brother conducted a fishing business, and Matthew (Levi) had sufficient funds to host a large dinner party (Luke 5:29).

The poor. In Old Testament times God’s people were often referred to as ‘the poor’, because they were economically distressed. Sometimes this was caused by oppression, as we see in Isaiah 3:15What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? declares the Lord God of hosts. At other times poor refers to the powerless in society, as we read in Job 20:19: For he has crushed and abandoned the poor; he has seized a house that he did not build. Furthermore, various Hebrew words for poor can mean ‘lowly’ or ‘humble’ as in Proverbs 16:19: It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.

POOR IN SPIRIT

Poor in spirit. However, two words in particular that we find in Isaiah anticipate Jesus’ reference to the poor in spirit. In Isaiah 66:2 we read: Thus says the Lord,… But this is the one to whom I will look: he or she who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

Putting these ideas together, Jesus’ words Blessed are the poor in spirit are a reference to a poverty of spirit that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. It is our honest recognition that we are unworthy of God; our acknowledgement that our world-view and life-style all too often reflect the converse of the first commandment that says, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. We have set up alternate gods of our own devices to worship: money, sex, power.

Poverty of spirit is the deepest form of repentance, exemplified by the guilty publican in the story Jesus told – the publican who prayed from the back of the Temple: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Poverty of spirit is being honest with God about ourselves. It is the admission of our impotence without him in our lives.

WHAT IS JESUS CALLING FOR?

What Jesus is calling for is a profound change in our relationship with him and in our lifestyle. But we will only want to do this if we believe that Jesus is the transcendent king.

Simon Peter, when he was confronted by Jesus’ power and purity, knew that a deep gulf existed between himself and Jesus: Depart from me, Lord, he said, for I am a sinful man (Luke 5:8). Matthew (Levi), for his part, knew there was more to life than money. Called to follow Jesus he handed over the tax office to others, and obeyed.

To anyone who sees how impoverished they are before the One who transcends all things, Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit…