“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In the Bible, there are many states that are ‘in spirit’. The brokenhearted are “crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). The forgiven has a renewed spirit (Psalm 51:10). The righteous judge has a “spirit of judgment” (Isaiah 28:6). To have something in spirit is deep in one’s soul, a part of one’s very inner being.
It is easy to understand a phrase like “crushed in spirit”, but more difficult to understand poverty in spirit, for we are so opposed to poverty in all its physical forms. It is interesting that the only other place in the Bible which connects poverty and the spirit, apart from the beatitudes, is in the book of Proverbs: “It is better to be lowly in spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” (Proverbs 16:19)
Although the verse is short and devoid of a clear context, it is clear that poverty of spirit is connected with association with the physically poor. The term “lowly” is qal, often associated with poverty and a low social station. The term “poor” is anawim, which can also be translated as “outcast” or “insignificant.” Poverty in spirit, then, is keeping company with the rejected, retaining a social station that is considered to be inadequate by “normal” society.
This goes with the other beatitudes. The blessed are those who are mourning because of the difficulties of their lives. They are meek, thus vulnerable. They are merciful, and so associated with those who have need. They are persecuted, rejected by society at large. To be poor in spirit is to associate with the outcast. It is to be hated by association.
It is also hatred because of inadequacy. It is to be remembered that “poverty in spirit” isn’t just a spiritual state, but a physical state. When Luke translates the same phrase, he interprets it as, “Blessed are you who are poor.” (Luke 6:20). Blessed are you who have less than you ought to live.
Poverty is a human state, one which we all experience. We all, at times in our lives, experience suffering we cannot push aside. We all experience a sickness that doctors cannot easily solve. Most of us experience economic loss to such a degree that we cannot live on our own.
This poverty is the enemy of our lives. The majority of humanity rejects poverty and names it the enemy. They declare wars on poverty, to destroy it. This is a fine occupation for a government and a community. Poverty is to be seen as the true enemy of the state. But it is also a part of the human experience and by the individual should be accepted as such.
In his exalted state, Jesus experienced only exaltation, only greatness and respect. In his human state, he had to experience suffering, pain, disrespect and hatred, hunger and sickness. Instead of seeing this universal human experience as being evil, he saw it as an opportunity. Poverty and pain isn’t our enemy, but it is what drives us to dependence. And dependence is the doorway to blessing. If we did not have dependence, we would never receive anything. Never could we have the riches of God unless we had the opportunity to be poor, to be rejected, to be sick.
Poverty is the doorway to grace, thus it is a state of blessing.
Poverty is seen as our enemy because in this world it is exposure to shame. For an adult to be poor is to be a failure, to fail at one’s responsibilities, to be an inadequate husband, an inadequate mother. Poverty means that all one’s efforts to be self-sufficient have failed. And in the world, to be self-sufficient is what is means to be an adult.
To be poor is to be forced to be dependent. For this reason, poverty is blessed.