“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
There are, of course, any number of entry points into the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, the richness and the familiarity of the text can make it difficult to know where to begin. Any one of the ‘reversals’ Jesus offers now is a gift, depending on your current experience and perspective. I only chose the first one because it spoke to me this week.
Now truth be told, I don’t necessarily like to think of myself as ‘poor in spirit’ — or for that matter, ‘poor’ in anything. This may be true in part because poverty of most any kind is not rewarded in the culture I call home and this may be why it is certainly not something I’ve ever intentionally cultivated. And yet. In Jesus’ sermon in Matthew we are urged to remember that what we count as valuable is not necessarily measured in the same way in the Kingdom of Heaven. And so in these last days because of Jesus’ words before us now and because of some of where my own journey has taken me, I have found myself going deeper and considering once more just what it is to be ‘poor in spirit.’ For in fact, in these last days I have found myself experiencing some ‘poverty of spirit’ — especially if we understand it to be the posture of exhibiting a kind of ‘humble dependence.’
For you see, last week I was awakened in the night with a terrible toothache. At first I managed to keep the pain at bay with ibuprofen, but the next afternoon I couldn’t wait any longer so I set my busy schedule aside and made an emergency appointment with the dentist. X-rays showed that it was abscessed and spreading. Sternly, my dentist explained that I was to stay on the antibiotics until they were gone — even if the pain should cease. We would do a root canal in a week.
And so I went and stood in line at the pharmacy and had my prescription filled. I slept on heat the next couple of nights and kept taking a double dose of ibuprofen. At one point in this stretch of time, the pain was so intense, the pressure so great, I believed I would do just about anything, pay any price, for it to simply go away.
Now here is the truth. I have always carried a certain amount of shame about my dental health. I brush regularly. I floss every day. I faithfully go for my six month checkups. Only, there are residual issues from all those fillings I had to have as a child. And while probably some of my challenges are inherited, the news of another cavity, the need for a crown, and the certainty of my receding gums always fills me with shame. And so this time when I was told I had a tooth abscess, that predictable reaction immediately kicked in again. Surely, I must be doing something wrong to have found myself at this point. Only no measure of guilt or shame — self imposed or not — could keep me from the dentist’s chair. I would admit to anything and do whatever had to be done to get it taken care of. And I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
As I’ve said, I am not normally the sort of person you would think of when you consider the ‘poor in spirit’ Jesus refers to in his sermon now. The poor in spirit, as I understand it, are those who live their lives fully knowing and demonstrating that they are utterly dependent on God. And while on an intellectual level I know this to be so also for me, I’ve spent a lifetime developing gifts and working on a persona of confident assurance which might just lead you to think of me as quite independent. I know that much of the time I would prefer thinking of myself in this way. And yet, all it takes is something as utterly humbling as a sudden toothache, or as complex and heart-rending as sorting out the medical issues of a loved one, or as startling as walking into work and being confronted by a problem I really didn’t see coming to realize that I am not as ‘independent’ as I’d like to believe. Indeed, life itself pushes me to remember that I’m really not up to doing all this all on my own. That I am dependent on a whole web of people smarter and more experienced than I to help me move forward. Life pushes me to that place. Jesus’ words now urge me to remember that at the very core of who I am, I am dependent on God to even be able to step up and out into the day. So yes, by this definition we are all poor. But to be ‘poor in spirit’ is not only to know it, but also to live like it is so.
It’s hard, at first, to discern just how this can be ‘blessing’ though of course. So yes, I find it helpful that Matthew offers Jesus’ next words to us now. The poor in spirit are, indeed, blessed — and specifically, they are blessed in this way. We are blessed by the gift of the very Kingdom of Heaven. And I expect at its core this gift of the Kingdom is ours in all of its fullness only when we realize that it is utterly and absolutely a gift. We can’t earn it or deserve it. Not if we floss every day and keep our six month checkups faithfully. Not if we do our best to be and do good. Not even if we are actually ‘good’ for our ‘good’ will never be enough. For the gift of the Kingdom comes to us only through the unfathomable generosity of God.
Indeed, in the same way that I would have given or done anything, cancelling any prior commitment to put my tooth abscess in the hands of a competent dentist, our life of faith works this way with us as well. At some point — and yes, I would say over and over again — I find myself there with God. I may do well and I may not do well — for my life is, indeed, a muddle of sin and righteousness. Either way, poverty of spirit is living in the certain truth that it is all up to God and it is not up to me. And when I find myself there? Only then do I have a sense of the gift of the Kingdom of Heaven. Even for me. The next step, of course, is to wonder about what that means for how I live.
- What does the Sermon on the Mount point to when it speaks of the ‘poor in spirit?’ What do these words mean to you?
- What does it mean to live with a ‘poverty of spirit?’
- Where do you find yourself on the journey? What has pushed you to acknowledge your own utter dependence on God? And what has that meant for how you live?