Jesus begins his Beatitudes with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3). According to the standards of the world, to live a good life, to be truly happy, it is necessary to have wealth and independence. These characteristics are essential to what would constitute success today. However, Jesus counters this ideal of happiness with two aspects of one characterized as “poor in spirit.”
First, Jesus is saying that to be poor, to be oppressed, and to be destitute does not exclude one from the good life, but rather it is characteristically an advantage for those who desire to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Luke 6:20, 24). According to Hannah’s prayer, “The LORD makes poor and makes rich, he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes” (1 Sam. 2:7–8). This reversal of fortunes is echoed in the Magnificat of Mary, where she prays, “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). In other words, God deeply cares for the poor, the outcast, the refugee. And if one finds himself or herself in such a state, Scripture promises that God sees and God knows (cf. Ex. 2:25) and will make things right.
Second, Jesus is saying that to be poor of spirit is to rely fully on God for grace for the undeserving, justice for the oppressed, and mercy for the outcast. It is not merely to be economically destitute but to be spiritually destitute, which is to recognize a state of desperation for God, trusting in him for the redemption and restoration of all things. In other words, to flourish according to Jesus is to need him, to be desperate for him, to be absolutely dependent upon him for every breath. The opposite of this beatitude is to be one who is a wealthy oppressor of others (whether actively or through mere indifference) and arrogantly self-dependent, refusing to see one’s desperate state before God (which is the condition of every person).
Therefore, Jesus is calling people to recognize their own dependence upon God for every part of their lives and to contribute to the needs of others (both physically and spiritually). To be poor in spirit is true flourishing for “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” full participation in God’s reconciliation of all things to himself.
Graham Michael is an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute and chairs the history department at St. David’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina.