Jesus begins the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That sounds like nonsense to most of us. We live in a society where leadership, success and fulfillment have nothing to do with being poor in spirit. Political candidates promise if they’re elected things will be better. They’ll lift our economy, bring on world peace, solve our health care crisis and improve education for our kids. Smart political candidates are optimistic and confident, not poor in spirit. We don’t raise our children to be poor in spirit either. On the soccer field we yell from the sidelines, “You can do it! Believe in yourself!” We don’t want our kids to cower in the face of life’s challenges; we don’t want them poor in spirit; we want them to have confidence. Our culture says, “Blessed are the people who have it all together, who are confident, independent, and think well of themselves.” So when Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed we don’t really believe that’s true.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It doesn’t mean to be financially poor. Living in a slum doesn’t merit favor with God. You can be materially poor and proud as a peacock. You can be rich in the world’s goods and poor in spirit. Nor does it mean to be poor spirited. Jesus isn’t saying the wimps of the world are blessed. He’s not promoting passivity of spirit or a certain cowering kind of personality. Nor does it mean to be poor in spiritual awareness. Jesus isn’t pronouncing a blessing on those who have no interest in spiritual things; who go through life without a second thought of God. Finally, to be poor in spirit doesn’t mean to be modest. It’s not the Academy Award winner who says, “Aw shucks, I couldn’t have done it without my supporting cast.” That may be a nice way to handle an award, but you can be modest in your manner yet proud in your spirit.
Being poor in spirit has to do with our relationship with God. In the Greek language there are two words for “poor.” One word describes those who live from paycheck to paycheck with just the bare necessities. That’s not the word used here. The word used here means to be afflicted and oppressed and look to God and God alone for help. Psalm 34:6 says, “The poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” To be poor in spirit means to recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and our deep need for God.
In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told a story to show what it means to be poor in spirit. Two men went to church to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood before God and thanked him he’s not like other people. He’s not a liar and a cheat in business, he doesn’t sleep around, and he doesn’t rip people off like this tax collector. He fasts on a regular basis and gives a tenth of his income to God. What he was saying was true; he probably lived an upright life. This is the kind of guy every church wants. This is the kind of guy other people look at and think, “If only I could get it together like him. He’s so disciplined, so spiritual.”
The tax collector couldn’t have been more different. Tax collectors were the scoundrels of the ancient world. They were Jews who bought franchises from the Roman government which gave them the right to collect taxes. Besides being traitors to Rome, they got rich by extortion. Rome had no standardized tax rates, so the tax collector could charge what he wanted, and skim whatever he could off the top. They were the scum of society. So when this man prayed, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. He didn’t even dare raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We say, “Well, he ought to be praying that! If anyone needs mercy, he does!”
By anyone’s measure, the Pharisee was better than the tax collector. If they were both running for election, we’d vote for the Pharisee. But Jesus closes the story with a statement that must have sounded like nonsense. He said the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went back to his house justified, right with God.
What’s going on in this story? We might say that the Pharisee’s problem was conceit. He really was a better man, he just needed to be more modest. Who would stand up at church and say, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other guys. I rarely miss church. I tithe. I witness to my neighbors.” But his problem wasn’t conceit, it was pride. Luke said something important to introduce this story. He said, “Jesus told this story to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on everybody else.” This tells me the difference between pride and poverty of spirit has to do with who you trust. The Pharisee didn’t trust in God; he trusted in himself. He didn’t really need God for anything. He wasn’t a beggar before God; he was confident in himself. But the tax collector came empty handed, trusting in God. We might say, “He had an advantage. He really was a loser!” But he could have practiced his own form of pride. He could have said, “Lord, thank you I’m not like this proud Pharisee. I may be a sinner, but at least I’m open and honest about it. At least I’m not a hypocrite.” He didn’t say that. Instead he saw his moral poverty and trusted God, not himself.
I think the reason he did that was how he measured himself. The Pharisee was proud because he measured himself against man. That’s why it says, “He looked down on everyone else.” He didn’t measure himself God-ward; he found a guy who would make him look good. Some of us aren’t poor in spirit because we really haven’t looked God-ward and identified the sin in our lives as sin. We’ve rationalized it and trivialized it. To be poor in spirit means to look God-ward and come to grips with our absolute moral bankruptcy in his sight. But it equally means to come to him out of that need; to cry out to him for mercy and to trust that he can and will supply what we need.
I had an uncle who married late in life and never had children. As a result, he treated my brother and me like grandsons. When he got older, his wife was in a care facility and he stayed in his home. Before he died, he shared with me that his home was in joint tenancy, and if he died first his wife would become the sole owner and her plan was to leave the home to some of her own relatives. But, if she died first, my uncle would leave the house to my brother and me, along with four other cousins. I remember the day he called me to tell me his wife had died. Despite the fact they never had a great relationship, he was full of grief and remorse. My first thought wasn’t to grieve over the loss of my aunt, but to rejoice over the fact that now I would inherit one-sixth of the house. There’s a sense in which in my spirit I could have killed her for the money. My uncle died just a few days later, but in that experience I saw how ugly and dark my heart really was.
What happens when we truly see our hearts and lives for what they are? We can try to deny what we see, or cover it up, or explain it away, or find someone worse. When we do that, we stay in our sins. Or we can come to God as a beggar, throw ourselves at his feet and cry out for mercy. It’s then, and only then, that we’ll know the blessing of being poor in spirit: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”