“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Have you ever wondered just what it means to be “poor in spirit”? Or who these people who are “poor in spirit” are? It is kind of important that we know because these are the people who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven! If we want to to be these people, we need to know what it is that Jesus was asking us to do when he proclaimed the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus spends a lot of time comparing worldly examples to the Kingdom of Heaven so that we can understand, maybe just a little bit, what he means. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down. Now, you would think that if there were crowds of people, and Jesus had to go up a mountain in order to speak to them, that he would be standing. He would want to be seen by all and be able to project his voice over the crowds, right? Wrong. He sits down in the traditional Jewish posture of a teacher. Matthew 5:2 tells us, “He began to teach them,” and us! But, what was he trying to say? What were they, and we, supposed to learn from his teaching?
In his book Divine Mercy, Stephen J. Binz states that this first of the Beautitudes “describe[s] our relationship with God. The ‘poor in spirit’ are those who admit their poverty and acknowledge their total dependence on God. Those who cultivate this trust in God will begin experiencing the kingdom of God in their present lives.” The notes in the New American Bible, Revised Edition support this idea, saying that, “In the Old Testament, the poor (‘an awim) are those… whose confidence is in God… Matthew added in spirit in order… to extend the beatitude to all, of whatever social rank, who recognized their complete dependence on God.”
When I read this reflection on the Beatitudes by Stephen J. Binz for the first time, it opened my eyes. It stuck with me. This first Beatitude means that the kingdom of God belongs to those who acknowledge their total dependence on God. Of course. Why didn’t I see it before? How many times has Jesus said this in different ways? He wants us to trust him and depend on him, his (and our) heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Later in chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Jesus telling about “The Greatest in the Kingdom”. Jesus gives an example of just who these “poor in spirit” are – children! …and those who have child-like trust and dependence on God. “At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever received one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
Jesus did not mean that only children can enter heaven. He meant that we need to become like children. So what does this mean? First, let’s think about the qualities of children.
They are totally dependent on their parents for every need: food, clothing, shelter, protection, comfort,and guidance. When children need something, they go to their parents. When they get an independent streak and try doing things on their own, they often get into trouble. When my niece and nephew were toddlers, my sister’s time of greatest concern was when they were quiet because she would be concerned about what they had gotten into on their own. This is how it is with God. When we try to be completely independent, doing things without his help and guidance, we often get ourselves into trouble.
Isn’t THIS what Jesus is telling us? If we are to be God’s children, we need to go to Him for every need. We need to trust that he will take care of us. Yes, we often go to him when we are struggling, in pain, and in need, and this is what he wants us to do. But he wants us to do more. In the morning offering prayer, we say, “I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.” He wants us to give Him everything… and TRUST that He will take care of it. And he WILL give us everything, and then some! In chapter 7, Matthew relates that Jesus assures us that, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
Total dependence on God, that’s what it takes to be “poor in spirit” and inherit the kingdom of God. In order to accomplish this, Jesus tells us in Matthew chapter 6, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you than not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Matthew 6:25-34) In order to be “poor in spirit”, God wants us to let go of all worry and anxiety about the future. Worry is not from God; trust is from God. When we take His hand, we trust that He will not lead us astray. When we recognize our total dependence on God, we realize that He’s got this. He’s got it all. We just need to depend on Him instead of on ourselves and our own efforts.
When we depend only on ourselves, we are not trusting in God. We are handling things ourselves… just in case. We want to feel secure. We want to make sure we, and our families, are taken care of. We want to know that our needs are met. God wants all of these things for us, and more, but He wants us to depend on Him, not ourselves. If we are truly “seek[ing] first the kingdom [of God]” (Matthew 6:33), we are putting our trust in God first and giving him everything – “our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day.” We are trusting that “Father knows best” what we need, and so we have to trust that even now at this moment he is working to make sure we have everything we need, even those things we ourselves don’t know we need. As parents know, most often parents know better than children what is in their best interest. This is but a tiny example of the way our heavenly Father knows better than us what is in our best interest. Proverbs 3 tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely. In all you ways be mindful of Him, and He will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) Blessed are those who have total dependence on God, for they will inherit the kingdom of God. They are the “poor in spirit”. Take God’s hand, and let Him lead you. Be “poor in spirit”, and trust in Him.