Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

The first beatitude teaches us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

The Gospel calls us to a paradox in its teaching on poverty. First, it bids us recognize in the face of the poor the face of Christ. Our culture is resistant to this idea and likes to hurriedly put emphasis on the words “in spirit” in order to distance ourselves from looking into the faces of the hobos, winos, toothless geezers, street kids with fleas, addicts, schizophrenics, brawling illiterates and smelly people who are, after all, what the word “poor” often refers to. To be sure (as we shall see in a moment) poverty of spirit is a good thing. But we should first note that Jesus himself is elsewhere recorded as pronouncing a blessing on the poor—period (Luke 6:20). Because of this, our tradition has always preserved what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”: the assumption that the poor, being among the most defenseless in our midst, not only require the care of the rest of society and not our contempt but, more than that, that they are “blessed”: that is, somehow set apart and above the rest of us by God, simply by virtue of the fact that they are poor. There’s no clause in there about their being virtuous, deserving, likable or hygienic. It is an act of pure grace and generosity by God.

We should linger over that fact for a while and not hurry on too quickly to spiritualizing the saying, still less to telling the poor to get with the program and pull themselves up by their bootstraps so as to stop being poor. To be sure, self-improvement is a fine thing and there’s nothing wrong with helping people improve their economic fortunes. But our Calvinist culture is overly quick to assume that the poor are the way they are because they are shiftless, etc. So our first impulse is to blame. The gospel does not take this easy route. That’s why Christ’s first words to the poor are words of blessing, not of blame or advice. He does this despite the fact that the Jewish tradition—especially in the book of Proverbs—is chockablock with all sorts of blame and advice for the poor, just as Christian culture is. He has something deeper to say: namely, that Christ, who was rich, became poor for our sake and so he identifies himself in a peculiar way with the poor and calls us to see himself in them. Our task, first, is to see that: to hold our tongues from the reams of blame and advice we itch to give the poor and to contemplate the reality that in encountering them, we are encountering Jesus Christ.

At the very same time, the gospel has no truck with the romantic leftist notion that the poor are automatically morally noble by virtue of their poverty. In other words, they are blessed, but they are not automatically saints. Suffering can sanctify, but it need not necessarily do so. As we ourselves know when we suffer, it is not the case that mere suffering automatically makes us disposed to hear and obey the Holy Spirit. The fundamental human dignity of the poor is that they retain the human power to choose beatitude or damnation. And so, for instance, a hundred years ago, a poor man whom Christ blessed along with all the poor roamed the streets of Vienna, struggling to keep food in his belly, living among the rat-infested underclass. His father had beaten him as a child and his beloved mother had died of cancer. Like countless young men before him, he dreamed of being an artist and he spent years in poverty as he strove to achieve his vision. But for all that, Adolf Hitler was not transformed into a saint.

That is the paradox of this beatitude. When looking at the poor, we must see the face of Christ who identifies himself with them. But we must not (especially in facing our own poverty) make the easy assumption that we identify ourselves with Christ. We may know for certain that our humble Lord is “God with us” in all the desert places of our life, but we dare not suppose that merely being poor is a guarantee of our sanctity. We must recognize our poverty—whether financial, emotional, spiritual or physical—as a great opportunity, but not presume from it that we are therefore paragons of virtue.

Here, then, is the twofold promise of this beatitude: You can spot a poor man easily, but you will never see his spirit. That’s why we are not to judge but are simply to assume that the poor we meet are Jesus and act accordingly. It is only in our own case that we and we alone have the power to bid the poor man to be truly poor in spirit. If we see Christ in the face of the poor and treat them like him, we shall be blessed. If we acknowledge our poverty and need of God and look to him to fill our need we shall be twice blessed.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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  • Warren Jewell

    If my soul has a throat, Mark Shea knows how to go for that throat time and again.

    Poverty in spirit requires, so primarily, that humility which Christ personified, lived and with which He faced both that ‘the Son of man has no bed to call His own’ (Matthew 8:20) and His sacrificial death. Perhaps it is best reflected in poor folks who wondrously don’t even seem to notice that they are poor. They are ready to share what they can with fellow unfortunates, and consider themselves fortunate for being able to do so. One might say that their very wealth is their graciously and cheerfully faced poverty because they are so well on the narrow way Home with their genuine openness and generous proclivity. And, they should shame those of us who are better off into joining in the eager aid and support of the needy.

    However that they are always with us, “the hobos, winos, toothless geezers, street kids with fleas, addicts, schizophrenics, brawling illiterates and smelly people” are kind of obvious in their sad states of need. The simple Christian humanist and natural-law directives of subsidiarity require each of us to respond to their need; for, “If not this he needs, what? If not to him or her, to whom? If not from me, from whom? If not now, when?” Our failures to respond, now going on ages long, have made for mistrust between the needy and the ready and willing givers that frustrates both terribly. So, part of the wino’s dependency on alcoholic oblivion is due to just adding to other more true needs not met by we who can meet them. So inclined to taking such unseemly ‘comfort’, he may doubt any real help for his needs for another’s desire and perverted “need to ‘feel-good’” rather than to have come out to meet his needs. And, the bulk of those who would help are not such saints that they will hazard being rejected again for trying to help.

    That mistrust at least has subtle effect with ‘victims’ convinced of the zero sum notion that they are led to believe, that they must be perennially robbed that another has success in our material world. That is, that they are ‘the poor’ simply because another is among ‘the rich’. That such folk may have a need or two is true; but, to cause the one need to seek others’ largesse over imagined needs can both misuse resources from those who truly need plus leave the demander a long way from looking like a beggar. The truest need of such demanding persons is not material as much as virtuous: they like all of us must come to realize that poverty of spirit is not rich or poor, not ‘he has’ and ‘I do not have’; it is understanding that “we both require God’s graces, and each of us must do what each of us can to live in God’s grace.”

    Alas, we are all too very human and not nearly enough Christ-like. Imagine Him being allowed a spot in the animal shelter overnight on the road, and His head being given a bag of grass for His head. It is not so difficult to imagine His smiling gratitude to the simple farmer who provides it. Imagine His coming upon a rustic yard full of bustling dirty little kids, whose parents are just over there trying to scratch up some vegetables together for supper; and His joy at pulling a couple of small loaves from the ‘team food bag’ and giving them to the kids with a sign not to say anything, but go show them to Mom and Dad after He was on His way again. He took the simple pleasure of responding to need, and permitting others to respond to His own.

    All hail the grand glory to our Father in the humble ways of His Son.

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  • kirbys

    As always, great column, Mark–and esp great to see Mr. Jewell’s comments. Thanks!

  • lkeebler

    No matter what the wealth or poverty, we must consider why Scripture says, “Poor in SPIRIT”. The poor in Spirit… those who are needy in strength, needy of Spiritual help. I remember discussing with a former employer all things Godly and his comment to me was “I just never needed God, I have been able to do it on my own just fine.” He was not weak (poor) in his own self, thinking he was strong. But those who are weak in Spirit are, “beggars before God” humbly acknowledging their need of Divine help” (from the Catholic Encyclopedia). Blessed are they indeed, to have and know this weakness, to cry out for Divine help.

    2 Corinthians 12:9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

  • laurak

    I respectfully disagree with Mark’s point of view. I do not think this beautitude is about the poor. I realize there are a lot of people who think this beautitude is about the people who live in poverty, but I disagree. I believe this beautitude is about the poor IN SPIRIT.

    The beautitudes as a whole are a beautiful thing, because Jesus is telling us that even though we suffer here on earth, it won’t be like that in heaven. We will experience the opposite in heaven, if we love God and try to live a life that is pleasing to God. He will turn our pain into joy. This isn’t all there is to life! It really isn’t going to be like this forever. Our suffering is temporary and we really do have something to look forward to at the end of our lives, that is so much better than what we have experienced here on earth. The beautitudes give us hope for the future. They transcend the present, showing us that the suffering we go through here on earth is like giving birth to a beautiful existence in heaven one day. Don’t let it get you down! The suffering won’t last forever and it really is worth it in the end. There are many delightful things in heaven just waiting for us to discover and God loves us so much that He has given us an eternity to do just that.

  • robertlifelongcatholic

    Mark, I beg to differ in your interpretation of this beatitude. It’s more like that Chris Kristopherson song, Bobby Magee, ” When you got nothin, you got nothin to lose.” I assure you won’t see Jesus in the majority of homeless, derelict and mentally ill addicts hanging-out on the corner bumming money from passerbys. Christ didn’t go around with a guilt complex and He wasn’t promoting one either. The poor in spirit are those who do not lay up for themselves, treasures on earth but strive for the kingdom and spiritual life found as one with God. The poor you will have with you always. As Christ said, “I and My Father are One.” As Bob Dylan once sang ” Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down, to look up at the world from a hole in the ground.” From the song Only A Hobo.

  • http://www.catholicexchange.com Mary Kochan

    I see plenty evidence here of the desire to so quickly resolve this into the realm of the spirit that Mark mentions. Despite the caveat that we should not see the poor as blessed other than by God’s favor in idenifying with them and that we should guard against any romantization of poverty, I think it true that by and large the materially poor tend to be the poor in spirit. They tend to have a keener sense of their dependency on God, as any of us would very quickly find were some disaster to make off with all our resources.

    However, “the poor” of Jesus day, do not really exist in the United States of America in any large numbers, except perhaps on some reservations and pockets of Appalachia. The poor in Jesus’ day were part of a permanent underclass, from which, if you were born into it, there was almost no hope of escaping. Today that kind of underclass is found mainly in other countries (although there are some powerful peoeple in the US right now who seem very determined to create such a class here).

    When people are born into and live in such a class, they are dependent upon God, not only for day-to-day sustanence, but for any hope at all in improvement of their condition — an improvement they know will come after this life. It is that beyond this life focus for fulfillment of their needs that really characterizes poverty of spirit. A recognition that true satisfation of the longings of the heart are not in this world and it is right there that we all must confront the depth of our poverty and stretch our begger hands to God’s mercy.

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