The Poor Matthew 5:3

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.—Matthew 5:3

1. Whom did Jesus mean by the poor in spirit? It is usually supposed that He meant the humble-minded, but this was probably not His meaning, as we see from the corresponding passage in St. Luke's Gospel. There we find the Beatitude in a simpler form: “Blessed are ye poor”; and this phrase must be taken in a literal sense of material poverty, because it is followed by the words, “Woe unto you that are rich!” and it is impossible, of course, to suppose that Jesus would have condemned those who are spiritually rich. We may feel tolerably sure that the very same people whom St. Luke calls simply “poor” are called by St. Matthew “poor in spirit.” But why the variation of phrase, and which of the two phrases did Jesus actually use? The latter question is beside the mark. Strictly speaking, He did not use either. He spoke Aramaic, the language which in His day had superseded Hebrew in Palestine, and the Gospels were written in Greek. Both phrases are therefore translations, and the actual words used are beyond our reach. There is reason, however, to think that St. Matthew's “poor in spirit” is the later, and St. Luke's “poor” the earlier, version of the saying.

We might illustrate our Lord's point of view by a reference to the Psalms. The Psalmist frequently speaks of the poor (the poor and needy) as if they were as a matter of course the servants of God. They are constantly identified with the godly, the righteous, the faithful; they suffer undeservedly; God has a special care of them and listens to their cry. There is a certain amount of truth, no doubt, in this picture of the poor which the Psalms draw. It is true to some extent nowadays. Poverty still has a tendency to wean people from worldliness. Poverty may, of course, be so grinding as to fill the mind continually with sordid anxieties and so make a spiritual life almost impossible. But poor people are often strikingly unworldly.

There is a tendency in all material possession to obscure the needs it cannot satisfy. A full hand helps a man to forget an empty heart. The things that effectually empty life are the things that are commonly supposed to fill it. The man who is busy building barns and storehouses is sometimes shutting out the sweet alluring light of the city of God and the vision of heavenly mansions. “Property” is not the best stimulus to faith. “Blessed are the poor.” There are fewer obstacles and obstructions between them and the Kingdom. They are not compassed about with spurious satisfactions. There are not so many things standing between them and life's essentials. There is one delusion the less to be swept from their minds. History bears all this out. If you look into the story of the Kingdom, you will find it has ever been the kingdom of the poor. They have ever been the first to enter in.

The poverty which was honoured by the great painters and thinkers of the Middle Ages was an ostentatious, almost a presumptuous poverty: if not this, at least it was chosen and accepted—the poverty of men who had given their goods to feed the simpler poor, and who claimed in honour what they had lost in luxury; or, at the best, in claiming nothing for themselves, had still a proud understanding of their own self-denial, and a confident hope of future reward. But it has been reserved for this age to perceive and tell the blessedness of another kind of poverty than this; not voluntary nor proud, but accepted and submissive; not clear-sighted nor triumphant, but subdued and patient; partly patient in tenderness—of God's will; partly patient in blindness—of man's oppression; too laborious to be thoughtful—too innocent to be conscious—too long experienced in sorrow to be hopeful—waiting in its peaceful darkness for the unconceived dawn; yet not without its own sweet, complete, untainted happiness, like intermittent notes of birds before the daybreak, or the first gleams of heaven's amber on the eastern grey.1 [Note: Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1858.]

2. Yet the picture which the Psalms put before us is, after all, an ideal one. It is very far from being true that all poor people are, or ever were, followers of righteousness and godliness. Our Lord felt this, just as He also felt the corresponding truth about the rich. He begins by telling His disciples how hard it is for them that have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God, and then He modifies the saying by restricting it to them that trust in riches. Exactly the same modification has taken place in St. Matthew's version of the Beatitude as compared with St. Luke's. The blessing is pronounced on the poor, not, however, on the actual poor, but on those who embrace poverty in spirit, even though as a matter of fact they are rich. The man who by the external accident of his position in life is rich is not necessarily debarred from the blessing, because he can be, and indeed ought to be, in spirit poor.
In saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” then, Jesus is saying, Blessed are the unworldly; blessed are they who, though in the world, are not of the world. The world says, Get all you can and keep all you get. Jesus says, Blessed are they who in will and heart at any rate have nothing. He does not say to every one, “Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” That is a counsel of perfection beyond the reach of the average man; it needs the spirituality of a Francis of Assisi to hear and obey that command. But He does say to us all, Do not cling to your possessions as though they were your own by some inalienable right. Be ready to resign them freely and cheerfully if need be. Remember that they are a trust from God. Be ready always to use them in His service and for the good of your fellow-men. If you can do all this, you are poor in spirit, and the blessing is yours.

So long as 1700 years ago a tract was written upon this subject by Clement of Alexandria, entitled, Quis dives salvetur? (“What rich man shall be saved?”). The teaching of this ancient Father is still to the point: “Riches in themselves are a thing indifferent; the question with regard to them being this, as to whether they are used as an ὄργανον of good. By those whom He praises as poor in spirit, Christ means to denote those who, be they rich or poor, are in heart loosened from worldly possessions, are therefore poor; and to this idea an admirable parallel passage might be found in 1Co_7:29, ‘They that possess, as though they possessed not' (comp. Jer_9:23); and in St. Jam_1:9-10, ‘But let the brother of low degree glory in his high estate: and the rich, in that he is made low.' ”1 [Note: E. G. Loosley.]

to be continued