Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
I had the privilege of going on a mission trip to Zimbabwe and we stayed at Africa University and worked on some projects for the school. We also visited a couple of orphanages and played with the kids. Each night, we would meet as a mission team and do a devotional. I had prepared some devotionals on the Beatitudes, so that we could study one each day. We would talk about how we saw the beatitudes lived out around us.
What was interesting was that when we studied these beatitudes we noticed that while the people we worked with were often very poor, they were also very content. One of the members of our group noticed that the Africans we were working with embodied that it means to be “poor in spirit” and at the same time, “be blessed.”
The first beatitude from Matthew is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”[i] In Luke’s gospel, the beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor.”[ii] There has been some interesting reasons given for why Matthew adds “in spirit” to the “poor.” It has been suggested that Matthew was not targeting the poor as much as Luke did, so Matthew called it “poor in spirit.” John Calvin believed Matthew was closer to what Jesus actually had in mind.[iii]
The Poor in Spirit
The Greek word translated as “poor” is ptochos and is an adjective used to describe someone who crouches or begs. The poor are described as crouching and begging this way because they have to depend on other people for the necessities of life. As a noun the Greek root of ptochos means “the poor or the pitiful.”
If we look back at the Old Testament, the poor were actually seen as being the people who God defended. For example, the Psalmist writes, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”
I think there is a good reason why the Biblical writers placed value on the poor. The society in which Jesus lived was an honor shame society so that the people who were seen as poor had no influence, power, or prestige.
William Barclay points out that the Hebrew word for poor. In which we find in the Old Testament, went through a four stage development. It began by meaning simple “poor,” like you and I would use the word today. Then the word went on to mean “because a person in poor, they have no influence, power, prestige. The third stage went on to say because they have no influence, power, or prestige, they were down-trodden and oppressed. Finally, the word came to be known as the person who has no earthy resources at all and therefore puts his whole trust in God.[iv]
When Matthew uses the term “poor in spirit” I do not believe Matthew is simply attempting to spiritualize the poor. I think he is helping his readers understand what Jesus meant by the term “poor”. Instead of concentrating on the physical need of material possessions, he is focusing on the emotional need for material possessions. By implying the poor as being someone who places all their trust in God, he is saying this person has no resources, has no influence, power, or prestige, and is oppressed. He wants us to feel what it is like to be poor or be of the mindset of someone who is poor. When we are in this mindset, we have to place our trust in God. Erik Kolbell, in his little book entitled What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and the Meaning of Life writes,
Poverty in the spirit, as Jesus learned, as the psalmist wrote, and as the rabbis taught, is not a rejection of things per se but a repudiation of the power they have to control out lives, to dictate who we are. By this I mean if I am poor of spirit I turn my back on all culturally bound measures of my wealth and worth and pay no more mind to human standards of success or failures.[v]
I can remember several times in my own life when I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I remember when I first moved to seminary I realized for the first time what it felt like to not have the necessities of life. I was driving back to Wilmore from a visit in Chattanooga when I had to stop for gas. I tried to use my check card and it would not work. I did not have any cash on me and the gas station would not take checks. Here I was, sitting in the middle of Kentucky at a gas station with no money and no gas. I felt helpless and embarrassed. There had been plenty of times in my life where I had not been able to afford things I wanted, but this was the first time I had not been able to afford something that I needed.
I learned a great deal that day. I learned to deposit my paycheck into the bank before leaving on a trip. I also learned a small taste of what it felt like to be poor. It is difficult for us to come to a place in our lives when we admit that we need help. Having to depend on someone else is one of the worst feelings we can have. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to be able to pave our own roads. Remember though, that Jesus has a way of taking things the world values and replacing it with the opposite. When it comes to our relationship with God, Jesus says we have to become God-dependant. If we could live a life totally pleasing to God, independent of God’s grace, then we would have no reason for needed God’s grace. We have to come to the realization in our own lives that we cannot do it on our own. Instead of being independent, we have to be dependent of God.
The Kingdom of Heaven
It is no wonder then that Jesus says that the criterion for being in the Kingdom of Heaven is being “poor in spirit.” Not only do people lack resources for life, but they also lack resources to live for God. It is only when we recognize our need, both physically and spiritually, can we be utterly dependant on God. This dependence on God is what seems to be necessary to be apart of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned a lot in the book of Matthew. John the Baptist said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus then comes “preaching the good news of the Kingdom.” He tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like throughout the gospel by telling parables. The phrases “Kingdom of God and “Kingdom of Heaven” are really expressing the same idea. It is to separate the things of God from the things of the world.
In proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, the Bible teaches us that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that is present, but not yet fully realized. When we say ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs will be the kingdom of Heaven”, we are saying that they are living the way someone who lives in the Kingdom of Heaven will live. They will be the ones who help others recognize the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s reign.
Filing Bankruptcy with God
I think The Message says it best by saying, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”[vi]
On November 20, 1988, the Las Angeles Times reported a story that a woman had become trapped in her car that was dangling from a freeway transition road in East Los Angeles. Apparently, she had fallen asleep behind the wheel at about 12:15am. The car had gone though the guard rail and was left hanging over the intersection by the rear wheel. The article said that some motorist had stopped, grabbed some rope and tied the rope to the back of the woman’s car and held onto the car until the rescue team could arrive. In all, it took two and a half hours to rescue the car and free the woman. As interesting as the story is, the most fascinating piece came when one of the rescue team recalled that while they were trying to pull the car to safety, the woman kept saying to them, “I’ll do it myself.”
I do realize that most of the time, independence is a sign of strength and it is desired in order to be successful. Having to depend on someone else is one of the worst feelings we can have. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to be able to pave our own roads. The sermon title this morning is “Filing Spiritual Bankruptcy” because I think we often approach God as if we have it all together spiritually. God wants people in the Kingdom of Heaven that are willing to say they are broken spiritually and depend on God. We need to admit that the things we have will not gives us complete happiness. We need to learn to fall to our knees and ask God to provide for us. Just like the lady in the car who was being rescued, no matter the helplessness of our situation, we want to cry out to God, “I can do it myself.” When we file spiritual bankruptcy with God, then we allow God to reign in our lives and fill us with blessing.
[i] Matthew 5:3
[ii] Luke 6:20
[iv] William Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew, Part One” The Daily Study Bible Series
[v] Erik Kolbell What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 1989) 30.
[vi] Eugene Peterson The Message, Matthew 5:13