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Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

“Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy Cross I cling.” — Augustus Montague Toplady

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is Matthew’s version of our Lord’s sermon; Luke has simply “Blessed are the poor.” When we lack financial resources, people say we are “needy” and “broke.” When we lack spiritual resources, people says we are “needy” and “broken.”

I tend to agree with Philip Yancey, who says when our Lord was in the desert, being tempted by the Devil, he was not at a spiritual low-point, but a spiritual high-point. “None of self, and all of Thee” only comes when we drown out all other voices, and are alone with God, fully trusting in him for our daily bread, and our every breath. No money could buy what he needed most, and self-reliance would only create distance from the source of all life. Oh to be that needy, that poor, that broken!

I view the beatitudes like a well-cut diamond: every time you turn it, the light refracts in a different, yet equally beautiful way. Different angles, but all light. All true.

ANGLE 1: THE SPIRITUALLY DESTITUTE

Just imagine, says Dallas Willard (quoting Simon and Garfunkel), God blessed the “sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.”  The spiritually destitute. The spiritual zeros. Spiritually impoverished, bankrupt, and deprived. The non-elites. The pitiful. 

I view the beatitudes like a well-cut diamond: every time you turn it, the light refracts in a different, yet equally beautiful way. Different angles, but all light. All true.

Isaiah 61:1 claims the Spirit of the Lord has anointed and sent the Messiah to preach good tidings to the “anawim”—a term sometimes translated as “poor.” But this word may not fully do it justice. When the enemies of Israel conquered God’s people, they hauled off as prisoners anyone who proved useful. Those they left behind were called the anawim. Think “pathetic,” writes Randy Harris; think “worthless.” Picture the last person in the schoolyard picked for the kickball team. The cheated on and the despised, those who feel hopeless and lonely. “I want you to imagine what you would have thought if you had heard those words,” writes Harris. “For all your life you’d been told that you’re too pathetic, you’re too pitiful, you’re too worthless for God’s love, and the first words out of Jesus’ mouth is to affirm God’s love for you.”[1] There will always be more “have nots.”

If this is your lot, hope awaits.

Isaiah 61:1 is a good place to look for the hope that awaits. Jesus declares himself to be the fulfillment of this very passage in his synagogue sermon (Luke 4:16-21), and refers to it as proof of his ministry (Mt 11:5). There is good reason why some translations prefer “oppressed” (NRSV) or “afflicted” (NASB) to “poor” here. “‘The poor’ referred to the social and religious outcasts,” writes Guelich, “the rejects of the rich and righteous of Jesus’ day, who out of desperation turned empty-handed to God by responding positively to Jesus’ ministry.”[2] By turning to Christ, the down-and-out become the anawim of Isaiah 61.

The first Beatitude, therefore, declares that any who in desperation turn without pretense to God through the person and ministry of Jesus Christ are ‘blessed.’ They have received God’s promised redemptive acceptance and intervention for their lives. They stand in a new relationship with him and with others, a relationship made possible through Jesus Christ. Such a posture is life-changing.[3]

Maybe some added support comes from Isaiah 61:3, where the Lord promises to provide hope for those of a “faint spirit.” Just as being “pure of heart” tells us where the purity lies (but doesn’t change the normal meaning of “pure”), you could argue that “poor in spirit” just tells us where we are crushed, bruised, and battered—in our spirit. We lack energy and power–down to our very bones. “The poor in spirit are all people, at all times, and in all places,” writes Davenport, “who are victims and bondservants…who see no way out, those for whom life has become a dead end, those who have passed over the edge of desperation and no longer have enough energy left even to be desperate.”[4]

On this reading, “poor in spirit” is neither a virtue, nor a welcomed circumstance. In the honor/shame culture of the first century, it refers to those on the bottom—the unwelcome and unwanted by any “kingdom.” It is the sad description of the refuse of the world. It says nothing good about the object in view. But this is good news because of the subject. God—the Creator God—is coming to help the victims of the world. The kingdom of heaven is being given to the down-and-out spiritual nobodies. The kingdom comes not because of spiritual poverty, but in spite of it. For God loves to help those who have nothing—I mean nothing—to offer.

ANGLE 2: THE FINANCIALLY IMPOVERISHED

What outsiders perceive—that the community of disciples is full of the riff-raff, the down-and-out nobody’s—is not far from the truth. For one thing, it was true about all the non-elites, which made up almost all of the populace. When Babylon conquered God’s kingdom people, 90% of Judeans were poor. The Persians, with their taxes, only increased the number. And by the first century, 97% of those living under the rule of the Roman Empire belonged to the “have nots.”

This reality created a new story line for Israel. “It was no longer possible to maintain the older vision according to which the righteous prosper and poverty is a consequence of a bad life,” writes Ratzinger. “Now Israel recognizes that its poverty is exactly what brings it close to God; it recognizes that the poor, in their humility, are the ones closest to God’s heart, whereas the opposite is true of the arrogant pride of the rich, who rely only on themselves. The piety of the poor…grew out of this realization.”[5]

Secondly, the church often drew from the lowest of the low. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” writes St. Paul; “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26). Those called came, most often, from lowly beginnings, only to find that the call of Christ was one of total surrender of even what little one has. Basil the Great (330-379) interpreted “poor of spirit” to mean voluntary poverty—“those who have become poor for no other reason than the teaching of the Lord who said, ‘God, sell all you have and give to the poor’ (Mt.19.21).”

Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) agreed: “Do you wish to know who it is that is poor in spirit? It is the one who has exchanged material wealth for riches of the soul, who is poor because of his spirit, who has shaken off earthly riches like a burden, so that borne aloft through the air he may float upwards, as the Apostle says, airborne on a cloud in company with God (1 Thess 4,17).”

Ambrose of Milan (337-397) was a contemporary of the Cappadocian Fathers. In his Treatise on the Gospel of Luke, Ambrose considers Jesus’ woe: “Woe to you who are rich.” He acknowledges that “there are many allurements of delights in riches,” but counters that “there are more incentives of virtues.” For Ambrose, choosing riches (with its connection to the loss of virtue) is not worth the risk:

He who thinks that he has ample riches in this age will recognize the poverty of his faith in that which is to come and, macerated by an eternal hunger for faith, will know that the food of unbelief which he has belched forth in his lifetime is the cause of so great a punishment.

Aquinas offered a literal reading (being poor by choice) as one viable possibility, believing Christ “places beatitude in the contempt of riches.” Aquinas shares the same sense as the Cappadocian fathers and Ambrose, that the way of riches is an unsafe course:

Others neither have, nor desire riches, and this is safer because the mind is drawn away from spiritual things by riches. And these are properly called poor in spirit, because the acts of the gifts, which are above the human manner, belong to a blessed man: and that a man would cast away all riches, so that he also does not desire them in any way, this is above the human manner.[6]

For this second reading, the phrase “poor in spirit” would be understood as “poor through one’s spirit” or “poor through the Holy Spirit”, and align with Luke’s simpler phrase “blessed are ye who are poor.” Even Dale Allison, who does not support this reading, makes a telling admission when he says ‘“Although ‘the poor’ has a ‘spiritual’ meaning in 5:3, it has a more literal sense everywhere else in Matthew,” citing Mt. 11:5, 19:21, and 26:9-11.[7]

Will we learn the lesson? Pinckaers asked us, provocatively:

Do we dare to believe that this very poverty can open up to us, contrary to all our epectations, a road to happiness and the Kingdom of heaven? The choice is difficult, for poverty runs counter to the instinctive possessiveness which is so deeply rooted in us. Urged on by a kind of fear of emptiness and by the anxiety which springs from our neediness, we try to acquire all sorts of goods and accumulate things endlessly. We even attempt to possess people, so that we can use them for our personal designs or simply for the pleasure of power. We are grudging about our time, our efforts, even our smiles. Above all we want to possess ourselves, to be our own masters and to do as we wish. This is self-love, pride speaking. Poverty places us at a crossroads. We can rebel and choose refusal and self-reliance—and this will harden us—or we can accept the suffering and let ourselves be shaped by poverty as we open ourselves to God and others. The decision is crucial.[8]

ANGLE 3: THE VIRTUE-SEEKING HUMBLE IN HEART

So far, I have listed two rather different interpretations of “poor in spirit,” and I’ve suggested that both readings are helpful. The Beatitude offers layers of rich meaning, and there is no reason to deny the powerful connotations and secondary truths that emanate from our Savior’s words.

But the primary meaning of Matthew’s beatitude refers to the chosen inward disposition of humility—at least according to the vast majority of interpreters in the Christian tradition.[9]

Biblical language bears this out. The term “poor” is sometimes synonymous with the meek (Isa 11:4; 29:19), and the brokenhearted captives who mourn (Isaiah 61:1). The term is set in parallel with the righteous and afflicted (Amos 2:6-7), the devout (Psalms of Solomon 10:6), and those who keep the law (Zeph 2:3). In Revelation, the poor is used spiritually, contrasted with those who ‘need nothing’ (Rev 2:3). According to this reading, “poor in spirit” is the opposite of being “proud in spirit” (Ecc 7:8), and is comparable to “contrite in spirit” (Isa 66:2), “crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18), “lowly in spirit” (Prov 29:23), “humble and lowly” (Zeph 3:12), “upright in heart” (Ps 11:2; 32:11), “pure in heart” (Ps 24:4; Mt 5:8), or, as Jesus declares of himself in Matthew’s gospel, “meek and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:5).

The clearest parallels come from Qumran, where the exact phrase “poor in spirit” is clearly understood to mean “humble,” as it stands in contrast with a “hardened heart” (1 QM 14:7). The “poor” are equated with the faithful, and contrasted with a haughty heart (4Q427, 7i&ii).[10]

You can see the connection between humility and purity of heart in the Psalms. In both Psalm 32 and Psalm 119, both concepts appear at the beginning and end, each psalm concluding with the thought with which the other opens (see Ps 32:1-2, 11; Ps 119:1-2, 176).

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) says even the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ call to spiritual poverty by assuming (incorrectly) a literal interpretation.[11]  Jesus means the term “poor” broadly, including those who chose the path of humility, despising honors of this world, pursuing chastity, and seeking righteousness.[12] Clement is interested in “living well,” through a disciplined life that is irrespective of one’s economic status.[13] Love of wealth affects the soul, but literal poverty can create anxiety as well, both of which can get in the way of necessary spiritual detachment.[14] Jesus is concerned with the love of money—the inordinate affection for things—but does not condemn the possession of money, nor does he call for the renunciation of it.[15]  Similarly, for Hilary of Poitiers (310-368) it means abandoning human ambition to become “beggars” before God, regardless of one’s economic status.[16]

Gregory (335-394) is a key interpreter in the Christian tradition who “transforms the pagan conception of virtue” by placing great emphasis on the humility of Christ, and centering his thought on “the Christocentric character of the ideal.”[17] He is not the first, of course. Origen had earlier claimed that humility (tapeinophrosune) was the central Christian virtue and pride the central Christian vice.[18] But Gregory, following the New Testament, speaks of humility as the imitation of Christ, and does so in his homily on the first beatitude:[19]

And no one should imagine that the achievement of humility is effortless or managed with ease. On the contrary, of all the things needed for virtue this kind is harder work than any other whatsoever. Why?…there is no evil so afflicting our species as the disease which is caught through pride. Just because the sense of superiority is ingrained in almost every member of the human species, the Lord makes this the starting-point of his beatitudes; he evicts pride from our character as being the prime source of evil.[20]

For Ambrose (337-397), [21] the issue is not about literal poverty, since “poverty is neutral.”[22] “He condemns not those who have riches, but those who know not how to use them,” writes Ambrose. “The offence consists not in the wealth, but in the attitude.”[23] Instead, “a man poor in spirit” is “not greedy,” “not puffed up,” and “not exalted in the mind of his own flesh.”[24] Jesus has in mind “the man poor in offence, the man poor in vices, the poor man in whom the prince of this world finds nothing.”[25]  “Virtuous poverty” involves taming “your disposition,” and choosing to be “destitute of vices.”[26] The first beatitude, according to Ambrose, comes from having “laid aside every sin” and taking “off all malice.”[27] He clearly sees poor as spirit as a reference to the regulation of conduct that comes about through a proper attitude imitating that of Christ; the poor in spirit is “the poor match of that Poor Man, Who, although He was rich, became poor for our sake.”[28] I know I have complied with the first beatitude, suggests Ambrose when “I have laid down my sin, I have tempered my conduct.”[29] His concern is with the conduct conducive to humility since he makes the precise comparison: “It behoves you to be poor in spirit, for humility of spirit is riches of virtues.”[30] He likens poor in spirit with purity of heart and spirit.[31]

For John Chrysostom (349-407), the term refers to “the humble and contrite mind.”[32] “He blesses them first,” writes Chrysostom, “who by choice humble and contract themselves.” It is “lowliness of mind” in view, something akin to a “contrite heart,” echoing Psalm 51:17.  Humility is “the mother of all virtues,” and “the principle of all self-command,” writes Chrysostom, just as “pride is the fountain of all wickedness.” It is for this reason that “He begins with this” call for humility, “pulling up boasting by the very root out of the soul of His hearers.”[33]

He, preparing a remedy suitable to the disease, laid this law first as a strong and safe foundation. For this being fixed as a base, the builder in security lays on it all the rest. But if this be taken away, though a man reach to the Heavens in his course of life, it is all easily undermined, and issues in a grievous end. Though fasting, prayer, almsgiving, temperance, any other good thing whatever, be gathered together in you; without humility all fall away and perish.[34]

For Augustine (354-430), “the poor in spirit is the humble man.”[35] He shares the view that pride is “the” sin, or “the beginning of all sin.”[36] In like manner, the beginning of all virtue is its opposite: humility. Just as “presumption of spirit” (variant on the Vulgate of Ecc 1:14) is pride, poverty of spirit is its opposite. “The poor in spirit are rightly understood as the humble and the God-fearing—that is to say, those who do not have a bloated spirit,” writes Augustine. “And it would be entirely unfitting for blessedness to take its beginning from any other source, since it is to reach the summit of wisdom.”[37] “The humble seem as though they were aliens from a kingdom,” but Jesus offers the first beatitude because “humility is suited for obtaining possession of the kingdom of heaven.”[38]

Among writers in the Middle Ages, Theophylact (1055-1107)[39] and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)[40] may be called as further witnesses. Aquinas considers the translation “humble” as “those who possess little of the spirit of pride.”[41] “To these poor is promised in return, a kingdom,” writes Aquinas, “by which is understood the highest excellence. And given that this will be granted in return to any virtue, nevertheless, it is especially given to humility, because ‘whosoever shall be humble himself shall be exalted’ (Prov. 39:23).”[42]

Moving to the Reformers, we find more agreement. Martin Luther (1483-1546)[43] is adamant the beatitude refers to the “spiritually poor,” since one’s economic status is not in view.[44] “Physical poverty is not the answer,” writes Luther. “There is many a beggar getting bread at our door more arrogant and wicked than any rich man, and many a miserly, stingy peasant who is harder to get along with than any lord or prince.”[45] Luther is against the kind of renouncement of money and property that makes one a burden on others.[46] Instead, Luther thinks of poverty of spirit as parallel with “meekness.”[47]

Jean Calvin (1509-1564) shares the interpretation of “humility”: “Many are pressed down by distresses, and yet continue to swell inwardly with pride and cruelty. But Christ pronounces them happy who, chastened and subdued by afflictions, submit themselves wholly to God, and, with inward humility, betake themselves to him for protection … There can be no doubt that the appellation poor is here given to those who are pressed and afflicted by adversity. The only difference is, that Matthew, by adding an epithet, confines the happiness to those only who, under the discipline of the cross, have learned to be humble … [H]e only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit: for they who are broken or overwhelmed by despair murmur against God, and this proves them to be of a proud and haughty spirit.”[48]

“Without question,” adds John Wesley (1703-1791), “poverty of spirit belongs to the humble—those who truly understand themselves and are convinced of their sinfulness.”[49] Jesus is laying down the first beatitude, the foundation stone “for the entire structure of Christianity.” Thus it cannot refer to voluntary poverty or the denial of covetousness; it refers to the kind of humility that recognizes ones utter helplessness and need for God.”[50] “This spiritual attitude is true, genuine, Christian humility. It flows from a sense of God’s love brought to us in Christ Jesus. In this sense, poverty of spirit begins where a sense of guilt and of the wrath of God ends. Poverty of spirit is a continual awareness of our total dependence on God for every good thought, word, or deed. It is the conviction of our utter inability to produce any good thing, unless ‘every moment God waters it.’ Poverty of spirit is an aversion to human praise, knowing that all praise is due only to God.”[51]

Blessed are those who have little to nothing invested in the kingdom of this world. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. tell the world

For Barton W. Stone, the poor in spirit refers not to spiritual zeros, but a class “which forms the character of Heaven’s favorites.”[52] The humble seeker after God “sinks in the dust as infinitely unworthy of such favors, adores the hand from which they flow, and pants for praise to his name. This is the nearest approach to God and heaven on earth—this is only enjoyed by the poor in spirit.”[53] “Had this temper prevailed in the Church,” continues Stone, “that domineering spirit among the bishops, that thirst for parties, and strife for party establishment would never have been known; nor will the Church ever be converted to unity again, till each member becomes poor in spirit.”[54]

Clarence Jordan finds an illustration of being “poor in spirit” in the Pharisee and publican story (Lk 18:10-14). We do not know how much, or how little, each character possessed in financial terms. “The point is that regardless of outward circumstances, the Pharisee expressed an inner need for nothing—and that’s what he got. The publican, admitting his sin, expressed a deep need for God’s mercy—and that’s what he got. Each received what he felt he needed.”[55] “[I]t is neither wealth nor poverty that keeps men out of the kingdom,” writes Jordan, “it is pride.”[56]

Central to this reading is the emphasis on character, not circumstances or even personality. Our world admires self-reliance and self-confidence, the “do it yourself” resolve, and the “self-made” businessman. But here, “right at the beginning,” writes Stott,

Jesus contradicted all human judgments and all nationalistic expectations of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is given to the poor, not the rich; the feeble, not the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast that they can obtain it by their own prowess. In our Lord’s own day it was not the Pharisees who entered the kingdom, who thought they were rich, so rich in merit that they thanked God for their attainments; nor the Zealots who dreamed of establishing the kingdom by blood and sword; but publicans and prostitutes, the rejects of human society, who knew they were so poor they could offer nothing and achieve nothing. All they could do was to cry to God for mercy; and he heard their cry.[57]

ANGLE 4: THE KIND OF HUMILITY WHICH LEADS TO FINANCIAL STRAIN

So far, I have suggested we have good reason to see value in both the physical sense of poverty and the inward call to spiritual impoverishment. It is also intuitive to assume a relationship between the two. After all, it is very possible to see Matthew and Luke as presenting two different sermons, highlighting both truths.[58]

But an even stronger connection is possible, which is one reason why many in the tradition have tried to make Matthew and Luke say the same thing—either advocating relinquishment of physical goods (having Matthew speak of poverty by means of the Holy Spirit) or development of a humble spirit (having Luke bless the spiritually poor). But in the first-century environment of Jesus’ audience, these would not have been far apart.

Let’s be honest. Are they so far apart in our world as well? Ambrose rightly cautions that “We must drive far from us worldly cares which sting the spirit and singe the mind.”[59]

Humility “does not simply equate to a state of material poverty,” writes Mattison, but it “may of of course be more prevalent in the material poor.”[60] This is why attachment to material goods is so often the test-case for one’s spiritual condition. If poverty of spirit is related to purity of heart, it is interesting to note that elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus claims that where your treasure is, your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). “Treasure” can have a spiritual connotation, but in context is not far from the explanatory phrase “no one can serve both God and wealth” (Mt. 6:24). Jesus illustrates this very point in Matthew 19:16-22, where the rich, young ruler is told that to be “perfect” (cf. Mt 5:48), and to have “treasure in heaven” (cf. Mt 6:21), he must “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.” Yet, instead of following Jesus, he “went away” from God, precisely because “he had many possessions” (cf. Mt 6:24). What the man needed was humility; the fact he did not part with his possessions is how we know he lacked it.

Similar stories about. The widow who offers two mites into the treasury, giving up “all she had” (Mark 12:38-44). Jesus even follows the story of the rich young ruler with a diatribe stating that the wealthy struggle to enter the kingdom of heaven, finding it virtually impossible (Mt. 19:23-24). Even the book of James speaks of the poor and humble fighting against their rich oppressors (James 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 4:13-5:6).

The way to rise in the kingdom of heaven is to “sink in ourselves.” — C. H. Spurgeon

“Being humble and refusing to cling to material possessions as the source of happiness” are clearly both in view.[61] In some ways, they are one and the same. This is why those at Qumran seeking true piety chose “the poor of grace,” “the poor of redemption,” or simply “the poor” as their self-designation. They did so, writes Ratzinger, to identify themselves as the true Israel.[62] Matthew and Luke bring this forward, beginning their respective gospels with stories involving pious people (such as Mary and Joseph, but also Simeon, Anna, Zachariah, Elizabeth, and the Bethlehem shepherds) whose character stands in marked contrast to others. “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God,” writes Ratzinger. “These are people who know their poverty also has an interior dimension; they are lovers who simply want to let God bestow his gifts upon them and thereby to live in inner harmony with God’s nature and word…They come with empty hands.”[63]

This combination approach takes into account that the absence of goods does not equal purity of heart. But it does suggest an association. “The poverty of which this tradition speaks is never a purely material phenomenon,” writes Ratzinger. “Purely material poverty does not bring salvation … But the heart of those who have nothing can be hardened, poisoned, evil—interiorily full of greed for material things, forgetful of God, covetous of external possessions. On the other hand, the poverty spoken of here is not a purely spiritual attitude, either.”[64]

Glen Stassen prefers to translate the first beatitude as “blessed are those who are poor and humble before God, for theirs is the reign of God.”[65] It is reasonable to connect God’s special regard for any and all who are poor, recognizing their constant need for help, along with their vulnerability. “If you are poor,” writes Stassen, “just one illness, just one divorce, just one addiction, or just one job loss can keep you from paying your bills, get you evicted, and even make you homeless.”[66]

But if character development is in view—and if the “blessings” speaks to the pathway leading to a flourishing life—then the incredible resolve and spiritual integrity found among the pious poor stands out as the pinnacle of complete and total dependence on God. This allows us to favor a “both/and” approach. As several authors have noted, the beatitude must include both the economically poor and a spiritual condition.[67] The poor in spirit “describes an economically, physically impoverished, or oppressed person who not only recognizes his or her need but also trusts in God for full redemption.”[68] “Our conclusion,” continues McKnight, “is that the ‘poor in spirit’ is a perfect blend of the economically destitute who nonetheless trust in God and put their hope for justice and the kingdom of God in God.”[69]

This combination approach not only includes our last two readings, but the first one as well. The anawim were, in fact, the economically disadvantaged (Ps 149:4; Isa 49:13; 61:1; 66:2).[70] But, according to McKnight, the anawim had 3 features: (a) the economically poor who trusted in God, (b) found their way to the Temple as a meeting place, and (c) longed for the Messiah, who would finally bring Justice.[71]

It also highlights the Isaiah 61 theme. In Isaiah 61:1, writes Guelich, the term anawim “was applied specifically to God’s People who had remained faithful to him and his Law in spite of their predicament and affliction in exile. … ‘The poor’ of Isa 61:1 was the designation applied, most likely in Jesus’ own ministry, to the collection of disciples, the sick, sinners, and possessed who responded to God’s work through his person and ministry on their behalf.”[72]

A number of authors in the tradition see the value of this both/and comprehensive approach. For Tertullian, this beatitude speaks to “every stage of lowliness” where “there is provided so much of the Creator’s compassionate regard.”[73] In a sermon entitled “On the Beatitudes,” Augustine spends almost the entirely of the sermon dealing with the dangers of riches and the way in which giving away some of the load of wealth provides ease to be poor in spirit.[74] Wesley found the literal blessing of poverty (as given in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes) to find a parallel in Matthew 5:42.[75]

FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

What does it look like to give your sole allegiance to one kingdom? To rise in the ranks and enjoy the blessings of the Roman kingdom, you had to play by the rules of that kingdom. But the way to rise in the kingdom of God, said Spurgeon, “is to sink in ourselves.”[76] When we give our allegiance to the kingdom of God, we lose the benefits which come from giving sole allegiance to the kingdoms of this world. When we say “yes” to the path of Christ, we say “no” to the allurements that keep us full of ourselves, satisfied with our gain, and distracted from our goal. Calvin noted “how prone men are to be intoxicated by prosperity, or ensnared by flattery.”[77] Rubel Shelly offers a provocative line: “Why do humble people receive the kingdom of heaven? The answer is extremely simple. They are the only ones who seek the kingdom.”[78]

The poor in spirit are not the proud in spirit,” writes Clarence Jordan. “They know that in themselves—in all mankind—there are few, if any, spiritual resources. They must have help from above. They desperately need the kingdom of heaven. And feeling their great need for the kingdom, they get it. ‘For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Nobody else ever gets it, for the simple reason that they don’t want it. God does not force his kingdom upon anybody but gladly gives it to all who know they’re losers without him and humbly seek his help.[79]

I once heard a preacher read the story of the rich, young, ruler. Then, looking up from the pulpit, said “now, you are wondering…does the Lord require me to do the same thing? To sell everything I have and give it to the poor?” The crowd looked nervous. “The answer is no,” said the preacher, much to the church’s content. “Unless, of course, my saying ‘no’ made you feel content. Unless, of course, losing all your worldly goods is the one thing you hoped the Lord would NOT require of you. What does the Lord require of you? The thing you want to keep the most. That is what he requires of you.”

“What kind of poverty is he talking about?” asks Clarence Jordan. “If you have a lot of money, you’ll probably say spiritual poverty. If you have little or no money, you’ll probably say physical poverty. The rich will thank God for Matthew; the poor will thank God for Luke. Both will say ‘He blessed me!’ Well, then, who really did get the blessing? Chances are, neither one.”[80] Why? Because both are saying “I don’t need.”

Blessed are the needy. The broke and the broken. Those who have little to nothing of the kingdom of this world. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

[1] Randy Harris, Living Jesus, p. 30.

[2] Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 98.

[3] Guelich, p. 100.

[4] Gene Davenport, Into the Darkness, p. 52.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1, p. 75.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, p. 147.

[7] Dale Allison, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 45.

[8] Servais Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness, p. 47.

[9] See William Mattison, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology, p. 27; Allison, p. 44-45. “[T]hroughout exegetical history the idea that God calls people to recognize their spiritual poverty, their inner need for the transcendent, has been enthusiastically promoted. For although monastic texts often take 5:3 to praise the life of literal poverty, most interpreters, including the early fathers and the Reformers, have instead rightly found in our text the acclamation of humility” (Allison, 45). “The interpretation of poverty of spirit in a manner not limited to a state of material want certainly dominates pre-twentieth-century commentaries” (Mattison, 28n.38).

[10] Charles Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount, p. 50.

[11] Clement of Alexandria, Quis dives salvetur,  Ch. 20. See Meredith’s article in Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes, p. 108.

[12] Clement, Stromateis IV 6, 26.4ff. See later: “For it is to the humble that Christ belongs, who do not exalt themselves against His flock.” “Therefore Christ, who trains the soul, reckons one rich, not by his gifts, but by his choice.”

[13] Clement, Stromateis IV. 6, 32.1. See Kovacs’ article in Gregory of Nyssa, p. 318.

[14] Clement, Stromateis IV. 6, 31.5. “For not riches only, but also honour, and marriage, and poverty, have ten thousand cares for him who is unfit for them.”

[15] Clement: “For instance, the covetous, who were invited, responded not to the invitation to the supper, not because of their possessing property, but of their inordinate affection to what they possessed.”

[16] Hilary, Commentary on Matthew 4.2.

[17] Meredith in Gregory of Nyssa, p. 108.

[18] Origen, Hom. 9 in Ezechiel (section 2), citing Luke 18 parable of the Pharisee and the publican.

[19] Meredith in Gregory of Nyssa, p. 105.

[20] Gregory, Homily I, sec. 4 [83-84], p. 27.

[21] Ambrose, Gospel of Luke 60.2, p. 205.

[22] Par 53, p. 173.

[23] Par 69, p. 179.

[24] Par 53, p. 174; Par 62, p. 177.

[25] Par 53, p.174.

[26] Par 54, p. 174.

[27] Par 54, p. 174.

[28] Par 53, p. 174.

[29] Par 56, p. 175.

[30] Par 60, p. 176.

[31] Par 68, p. 178.

[32] Chrysostom, Hom. On Matt 15.2.

[33] Chrysostom, Hom. On Matt 15.

[34] Chrysostom, Hom. On Matt 15.

[35] Augustine, Sermon 53: On the Beatitudes, pp. 211-212. See also Our Lord’s Sermon on Mount 1.3.10.

[36] Augustine calls Pride “THE” sin at Enchiridion 45. Also quotes Ecc 10:15 this way: “pride is described as ‘the beginning of all sin.’ (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.3.3, p. 22)

[37] Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.3.3, pp. 21-22.

[38] Augustine, Sermon 53: On the Beatitudes, pp. 217-219.

[39] Theophylact: Jesus “lays down humility as a foundation. Since Adam fell through pride, Christ raises us up by humility; for Adam had aspired to become God. The ‘poor in spirit’ are those whose pride is crushed and who are contrite in soul” (Commentary on Matthew). “This is right interpretation” (Allison, p. 45).

[40] Aquinas, ST I-II 69, 3 & Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 415-16.

[41] Aquinas, Comm on Matt, p. 146.

[42] Aquinas, Comm on Matt, p. 146.

[43] Martin Luther, (in Works 21), pp, 12, 13, & 17.

[44] Luther, p. 12.

[45] Luther, pp. 12-13.

[46] Luther, pp. 14-15.

[47] Luther, p. 22.

[48] Jean Calvin, Harmony, pp. 260-261.

[49] John Wesley, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 44.

[50] Wesley, p. 43.

[51] Wesley, p. 48.

[52] Barton W. Stone, Works of Elder B W Stone, ed. Mathis,  p. 221.

[53] Stone, p. 221.

[54] Stone, pp. 222-223.

[55] Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 21.

[56] Jordan, p. 22.

[57] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 40.

[58] For example, John Wesley (NT-Notes, pp. 28, 223). Ambrose suggested, “Saint Matthew provoked the peoples to virtue and faith with rewards, and Saint Luke deterred them from transgressions and sins by warning of future punishments” (Ambrose, Gospel of Luke 72, p. 180).

[59] Ambrose, Gospel of Luke 81, p. 183.

[60] Mattison, p. 28.

[61] Mattison, p. 28

[62] Ratzinger, p. 74. See Gnilka, Matthausevangelium, I, p. 121. Also in the Psalms, the poor recognize themselves as the true Israel. See 4Q434 f1 i:2): “…[the] humble He has not spurned, and he has not overlooked the needy in trouble. He has kept his eyes on the weak, and paid attention to the cry of orphans for help. He has listened to their cry, and because of His abundant mercies, has shown favor to the meek. He has opened their eyes to see His ways and their ears to hear.”

[63] Ratzinger, p. 76.

[64] Ratzinger, pp. 76-77

[65] Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, p. 43; See also Stassen & Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, pp. 38-39.

[66] Stassen, p. 44.

[67] Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, p. 39. See also Guelich: “The Old Testament concept of the poor included a dual reference to the socioeconomic condition of the individual as well as the religious dimension of resultant dependency upon God for help and vindication” (97); “Matthew has maintained the ‘external’ as well as the ‘internal,’ the ‘physical’ as well as the ‘spiritual’ connotations” (75).

[68] McKnight, p. 23

[69] McKnight, p. 40.

[70] See J. D. Pleins, “Poor, Poverty,” ABD, 5:411-13.

[71] McKnight, p. 39.

[72] Guelich, pp. 97-98.

[73] Tertullian.

[74] Augustine, Sermon 11—Morin: On the Beatitudes, pp. 358-364

[75] Tore Meistad, Martin Luther and John Wesley on the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 148-150.

[76] Cited in Stott, p. 40.

[77] Calvin, p. 268.

[78] Rubel Shelly, The Beatitudes, p. 18.

[79] Jordan, p. 22.

[80] Jordan, p. 21.

 

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photo credit: Cosimo Rosselli, Sermon on the Mount (1481-82), fresco, Sistine Chapel

Nathan Guy

Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.

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