Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why Would Anyone Want to Be Poor In Spirit?

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

This blessing states emphatically that there are some people who already possess the kingdom of heaven. It is theirs, present tense, now. Who are these people?

Jesus began his “Sermon on the Mount” with a series of blessings, the first one directed at “the poor in spirit.” I am afraid this verse is badly misunderstood. It is too often preached that, One must strive to be poor in spirit in order to go to heaven. The blessing, it seems, is being twisted into an assignment. This misinterpretation assumes that by poor in spirit Jesus meant humble. Therefore, to earn heaven I have to act more humble.

Jesus does not use the word “humble,” however; and poor in spirit does not mean humble.

·         ptokhoi means “poor” (pitiful, destitute, afflicted, or powerless)
·         to pneumatic means “in spirit” (referring to one’s inner life, state of mind, or disposition)
·         tapeinos means “humble,” but this word does not occur in the “Sermon on the Mount.”

If poor in spirit does not mean humble, then what does it mean?

To be poor in spirit is to be spiritually defeated, lost, broken, and hopeless. I have been there at the worst moments of my life. And, honestly, I wanted out. I thought it would never end. I was bouncing a check on my own strength, desperate for even one glimmer of light. Why would anyone want to be poor in spirit? You have probably gone to a friend or pastor or psychologist to make “poor in spirit” stop. No one in their right mind wants to be spiritually bankrupt.

See how distorted the human mind can be? Jesus blesses people who are dying inside. Why can I not just celebrate that Jesus blesses these wounded souls? Why can I not bless them too by sharing their pain? Because, unfortunately, I am not always above selfishness and insecurity.

Worse, I am actually capable of worrying that someone else is going to get my share. I can actually worry that if he blesses someone else, it somehow robs me, or that maybe he will not have enough blessings to go around. This wrong-headedness reminds me of a noisy flock of geese all rushing for the same little crust of bread. Or a pack of wild dogs fighting over a single scrap. When did God get so poor and miserly?

How, moreover, do we justify turning a blessing into a work? Why do we automatically turn “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them now,” into, “In order to earn heaven I have to act more poor in spirit”? This is not just bad exegesis. It is our wrong-minded tendency to mistrust God’s good will toward us, and our hubris that falsely believes we can buy blessings and heaven by checking off items on a goody-two-shoes list. How can we read this gracious beatitude as, “You must be more humble, or else”?

I need to repent. If I believe this Bible stuff, and if Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven already belongs to the poor in spirit, then why can I not just celebrate this? Why can I not be glad for them, the poor in spirit, whoever they are, wherever they are? If anybody needs a blessing, they do. And, one day, God forbid, I may be poor in spirit once again, and on that day I may need Jesus' words as bad as others do today.

So in what sense does heaven belong right now to the poor in spirit? Is this announcement just fluffy talk? Is it mere consolation? I do not think so. What if heaven is not so much an afterlife reward (that you have to earn) as it is the present solidarity of God with you now, God for you now, God sharing your pain, addressing your pain when you are dying inside?

I like it that Jesus began his most famous “sermon” by sitting down with people in the grass and addressing first those who were hurting the most.