Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, and the Beatitudes begin with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
What is the Sermon the Mount?
The Sermon on the Mount, found in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, is not really a sermon. It is a summary. It summarizes what Jesus had to say to his followers as their teacher, and it is the most famous summary of his teaching.
The Sermon on the Mount challenges all its readers to sum up in their own words and actions the principles behind Jesus’ teachings and his life.
What is a beatitude?
Beatitude means blessing, promise, or true and complete happiness. Some translators have even translated the first beatitude as “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What kind of “happiness” (or blessing) can come from being poor?
If we understand the pursuit of happiness to be the pursuit of material prosperity, the first beatitude does not make a lot of sense. If, on the other hand, the poor, the hungry, and the grief-stricken can somehow be happy or will be happy, then we may need to look in a very different direction to pursue and to find happiness.
A lot depends on how we understand “poor in spirit.” Christian tradition has offered at least three definitions.
(1) Does “poor” mean those who recognize what they lack in their spiritual lives?
John Wesley in his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount defined “the poor in spirit” as those who recognized what they lacked spiritually, those who recognized their complete unworthiness in comparison to Jesus and before God.
The poor in spirit had no righteousness of their own, and they knew it. They knew that they had failed to live up to God’s law. They knew that any good deed they might possibly manage to do would be motivated by some selfish desire to impress God or someone else or to get something for themselves.
They mourned for what they were. They hungered and thirsted for God’s righteousness because they knew that they had no righteousness of their own. They knew that only God could save them from the self-centeredness and the self-righteousness that infected the human race.
Because of this awareness of their poverty of spirit, Wesley said, they were blessed. They were happy. They were happy and blessed because, in fact, God stood ready to save them. God was already saving them.
Already, the Holy Spirit was at work in them to release them from the prison of the human self. They were blessed because, unlike many human beings, they understood their true condition. They knew themselves as God knew them.
Like many Protestants going back to the beginning of the Reformation, Wesley read the first beatitude and the Sermon on the Mount, and he saw the classic Protestant teaching about salvation by God’s grace.
(2) Does “poor” mean those who give up the pursuit of material prosperity?
What about a way of life that gives up the pursuit of material prosperity and instead pursues happiness and blessedness in a different direction? What about voluntary poverty?
After all, how big does our house have to be for us to be happy?
How much expensive food and drink do we have to consume to satisfy our hunger and thirst?
Do we have to have meat in our spaghetti in order to have a nutritious meal and survive another day?
How many features do our cellphones have to have in order to communicate in an emergency?
Couldn’t we give up some of the things we have or would like to have in order to have enough income left over to help someone less fortunate than ourselves?
Couldn’t we demonstrate to a society dominated by money and things that a more successful pursuit of happiness would focus less on money and things?
Couldn’t we help our world to distinguish between what people really need and what they want but could give up?
What about being “poor in spirit” by our attitude toward material possessions?
So, “the poor in spirit” could mean those who voluntarily give up their attachment to the material world and find happiness elsewhere.
(3) Does “poor” mean those who do not have what they need to survive?
This is the plain, simple, and literal meaning of the word, “poor”:
those who don’t have enough income,
those who don’t have enough education,
those who don’t have a job,
those who don’t have a home,
those who don’t have enough to eat—not those who don’t have enough to overeat, but simply those who consume fewer calories per day than the number of calories they need to get thru a day.
This definition of “poor” has on its side a lot of scholarship about what Jesus may have originally intended and said before the gospel of Matthew or any other gospel was written down.
The gospel of Luke, chapter 6, gives a shorter and simpler version of the Beatitudes. Luke’s version has led a number of readers of the Bible to conclude that “the poor in spirit” originally meant “the poor” in the plain, simple, and literal sense of people who, for whatever reason, were deprived of income and the material possessions they needed to live.
When Jesus lived, most people were poor in some important material sense. Jesus himself was poor in the sense that he did not live in a palace and depended for food on fields that sometimes did not yield a harvest and fishing that sometimes did not yield a catch.
But, like many other people, Jesus also had skills. He was the son of a “carpenter,” someone skilled in making things with his hands and with tools. The concept of a middle class did not exist in Jesus’ day, but being part of the majority that lacked wealth did not mean being totally without resources.
When he said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” Jesus was most likely contrasting the majority poor to the materially wealthy of his day.
This would mean that, in Jesus’ teaching—according to the principle behind his words and the words of the gospels—the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven has a lot to do with raising up the poor of the 21st century as well as the 1st century.
The only way that people ground down by poverty and material deprivation can be said to be “blessed” or “happy” is if God has taken their side and will, in the end, win out over anyone who stands in the way of improving their lives.
Do we have to choose only one definition of “poor in spirit” and exclude the others?
Don’t we all need to focus on our own need for help from God in order to live less selfish and more generous lives?
Don’t we all need to give up some of our money or our possessions or our envious attachments to the things of this world?
Don’t we all need to participate in God’s lifting up of people less fortunate than ourselves so that the literally poor of our world will finally be blessed?