What did Jesus mean by ‘the poor in spirit’?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
‘Poor in spirit’ is an odd phrase to modern ears, outside religious circles anyway. The traditional explanation, especially among evangelicals, is that it means people who recognise their own spiritual poverty, their need for God. Blessed are those who mourn is taken to mean people who repent and mourn for their sins.
Now, this is all very true. God will not turn you away if you come to him like that. It is what Jesus taught in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Meanwhile, the tax collector hung his head saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner! Luke 18:10-14 CSB. Jesus tells us it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home right with God.
But I don’t think it is what Jesus is saying here.
If you look at the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus simply says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” Luke 6:20. No mention of being poor in spirit, just poor. Not only that, but the poor are contrasted with those who were rich “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” v 24. In the same way, Jesus contrasted the hungry with those who are full now, those who weep with those who laugh (verses 21&25).
This is the same word for poor in Matthew and is a very strong term. New Testament Greek has two different words we translate as poor. There is the day-to-day struggling to make ends meet (penēs), but the word here refers to the grinding poverty of the very poorest, the beggar bowed down by poverty (ptōchos).
Jesus is saying the kingdom of God belongs to those who are the poorest of the poor financially, people who are ground down by poverty, while those who are rich have already had their reward. This sounds radical, but it is very like another of Jesus’ teachings, one he repeated over and over “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30 also Matt 20:16 Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30).
If Jesus was siding with those who are financially poverty-stricken in the Beatitudes in Luke, who are the poor in spirit in the Beatitudes in Matthew? How can a human spirit even be poor?
Thankfully, there is no need to get into philosophical discussions of the nature of the human spirit. The descriptions in the bible of this inner part of the human being are much simpler, and when we see them, the people described are very recognisable.
When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, Mary described her spirit as rejoicing, literally jumping with joy, because of all God had done Luke 1:47.
Jesus described Peter’s spirit as being willing, though the ‘willing’ doesn’t really do the word justice. ‘Eager’ is closer. Jesus told him “Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.” Matt 26:41 CEB. Peter was eager in his spirit, determined to follow Jesus whatever the cost. But Jesus realised the rest of Peter wasn’t up to the challenge and that Peter would shortly betray him. Peter’s spirit was healthy and overflowing with enthusiasm and self-confidence. But his spirit was ‘writing checks his body couldn’t cash’.
On the other end of the scale here are some of the descriptions of the human spirit in the Old Testament (quotations from the Christian Standard Bible CSB).
Psalm 34:18 The Lord is near the brokenhearted;
he saves those crushed in spirit.
Isaiah 57:15 For the High and Exalted One,
who lives forever, whose name is holy, says this:
“I live in a high and holy place,
and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and revive the heart of the oppressed.”
Proverbs 16:19 Better to be lowly of spirit with the humble
than to divide plunder with the proud.
Isaiah 66:2 My hand made all these things,
and so they all came into being.
This is the Lord’s declaration.
I will look favourably on this kind of person:
one who is humble, submissiveª in spirit,
and trembles at my word.
ªFootnotes: Lit broken
Proverbs 15:13 A joyful heart makes a face cheerful,
but a sad heart produces a broken spirit.
Proverbs 17:22 A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a broken spirit dries up the bones.
Proverbs 18:14 A person’s spirit can endure sickness,
but who can survive a broken spirit?.
See also Job 7:11, Job 17:1, Psalm 142:3, Psalm 143:4 & Psalm 143:7
The human spirit can be full of joyful like Mary, eager like Peter, or they can be broken, crushed or oppressed. If Luke’s Beatitudes say the kingdom of God is for those bowed down by financial need and external circumstances, in Matthew, Jesus is welcoming those who are crushed and broken on the inside.
These Beatitudes aren’t about our need to God, however true that is too. Instead, it is about Jesus’ own compassion, his identification with the poorest of the poor, his reached out to the marginalised, the outcast and broken.
We cannot underestimate how important this is to Jesus, and how important it should be to us to as his followers. The gospels are full of accounts of Jesus reaching out to the poor and the outcasts. He shocked and horrified polite society and the religious elite by eating with tax collectors and sinners. The first thing we read of Jesus doing after the Sermon on the Mount is breaking the Old Testament purity laws by touching an unclean leper and healing him Matt 8:1-4.
I love the description of the Sermon on the Mount ‘the manifesto of the Kingdom of God’, but if that is his manifesto, then Jesus’ inaugural speech, where he announced his own commission from God his father, was when he spoke in the Synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, and read aloud from the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61.
Luke 4:16 (WEB) He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.
17 The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book, and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed,
19 and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
20 He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 He began to tell them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.“
See the parallels between the Beatitudes and Jesus proclamation of Isaiah 61, Jesus concern for the poor, the crushed and the brokenhearted?
The kingdom of God Jesus calls us to isn’t just about having our sins forgiven and getting to heaven. It is about the love and compassion of God for us, and this love being expressed in our lives, in the church community, and in society as a whole. It is about calling the oppressed to loving their enemies and forgive their oppressors, while challenging the injustices, discrimination and bigotry that oppress and marginalise. Jesus went on in the Sermon on the Mount to call his followers to be salt and light to the whole world. Reading from Isaiah 61 and announcing its fulfilment was just as radical. We understand it spiritually, but it was social too. For 1st century Jews, this prophecy was a declaration of the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8-55), with all its social demands of property redistribution, the cancellation of debts, freeing prisoners and slaves.
For the well-off and the well adjusted the Beatitudes are a challenge to how we welcome and treat others less fortunate than we are. To the poor and hurt, it is a radical expression of Jesus’ love and open-armed welcome to us in all our brokenness and pain.
While poor in spirit is not a phrase we use in normal English conversation, it may have been more understandable to Jews or the time. It is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (The War Scroll 1QM 14:7), where the poor in spirit are among those God will raise up to defeat the wicked nations.
(4) the God of Israel and joyously exalt His name together. They shall say in response: “Blessed is the God of Israel, who guards loving-kindness for His covenant and the appointed times
(5) of salvation for the people He redeems. He has called those who stumble unto wondrous [accomplishment]s, and He has gathered a congregation of nations for annihilation without remnant in order to raise up in judgment
(6) he whose heart has melted, to open a mouth for the dumb to sing [God’s] mighty deeds, and to teach feeble [hands] warfare. He gives those whose knees shake strength to stand,
(7) and strengthens those who have been smitten from the hips to the shoulder. Among the poor in spirit […] a hard heart, and by those whose way is perfect shall all wicked nations come to an end;
The passage does not explain poor in spirit, but they are in the company of people whose ‘heart has melted’, those with ‘feeble hands’, ‘shaking knees’, and those ‘smitten from the hips to the shoulders’, or as another translation of the last phrase puts it ‘the shoulders of the bowed’.