“Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” This is the first line of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s a great first line, and completely radical. I have trouble understanding how people don’t recognize just how radical it is. I suppose we have heard it so often it has lost its impact. Actually, it seems that Mathew chose to soften it a bit. In Luke you get this, “How blessed are you who are poor.” There is also a counterpoint, “Alas for you who are rich.” Remember when reading scripture you have to take into account who wrote it, to who, and why. Mathew wrote for a more middle class community, while Lue lke was writing for a lower class one. If you tell people with money, “blessed are the poor,” they are likely to leave.
The truth is still there in Mathew’s version. Poor is spirit means to live without a need for your own righteousness. That’s what the Pharisees did. They had convinced themselves that they could follow the law flawlessly, so they were righteous. They could do it on their own, so they didn’t need to depend on God. I still see this in legalistic Christians. They follow all the “rules” so they are the righteous ones. You know who I’m talking about. Poor in spirit is inner emptiness; no outer need for your own reputation. If you are truly poor in spirit, it won’t be long before you are really poor. You won’t care about money so much anymore because you will know better.
There are different words for poverty in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t use tapeinoi, which would represent about 80% of the peasant class. He uses the word ptochoi: the untouchables, the unclean. It literally means “the empty ones, those who are crouching.” So He is talking about the lowest of the low. The bent-over beggers everyone walks passed hoping they won’t ask for something. The expendable ones. James would use the same word in his letter. “Happy are you, you are the freest of all… it was those who were poor according to the world that God chose to be rich in faith, and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him.”
The first beatitude is crucial. It is the opening line, which makes it the key to everything Jesus is teaching.
You see the higher up you are in a system, the more trapped you are by that same system. The closer you are to being outside they system, the freer you are. The payoff for advancement is simple, you have to tow the party line. This is true of any government, corporation, or any organization. Even the Church. Priests have a joke, “A bishop never gets two things – a bad meal or the truth.”
Obviously if you are high up in a system you are expected to represent it, affirm it, and support it. You would be irresponsible if you didn’t. So Jesus simply says, “Avoid it!”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” blessed are those who don’t have to play any of these games. If we all listened and put this beatitude into practice in our lives the social order would be reversed. Not in a violent revolution, the system would simply fail for lack of participation. No one can force this. No government and no Church. This is the revalation I think all creation is waiting for. (Rom 8:19)
“The kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Notice the present tense. He doesn’t say it will be theirs. He is saying you are the free ones now, if you remain without anything to hold you down. The things you own end up owning you. They tie you down. You feel the need to protect them, to defend what you think is yours.