Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Sermon on the Mount: Week 1

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Sermon on the Mount is the very blueprint for Christian lifestyle, and most scholars see it as the best summary of Jesus’ teaching. But we can’t understand this wisdom with the rational, dualistic mind; in fact, we will largely misunderstand it while convinced that we got it on the first try. As we saw last week, Jesus taught an alternative wisdom—the Reign of God—which overturns the conventional and common trust in power, possessions, and personal prestige. To understand the Sermon on the Mount, we must approach it with an open heart and a beginner’s mind, ready to have these normal cultural beliefs and preferences changed. Most people were never told this and tried to fit the Gospel into their existing cultural agenda.

The Gospel of Matthew sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus sees the crowds following him and heads to “the mountain” (symbolic for the new Moses giving a new “law”) with his disciples. This is his opening line, which necessarily must be central to his entire message; it is a key to everything else:

How blessed (or “happy”) are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:3

“Poor in spirit” means an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner’s mind, and to live without a need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is the “powerlessness” of Alcoholics Anonymous’ First Step. The Greek word Matthew uses for “poor” is ptochoi, which literally means, “the very empty ones, those who are crouching.” They are the bent-over beggars, the little nobodies of this world who have nothing left, who aren’t self-preoccupied or full of themselves in any way. Jesus is saying: “Happy are you, you’re the freest of all.”

The higher and more visible you are in any system, the more trapped you are inside it. The freest position is the one I call “on the edge of the inside”—neither a “company man” nor a rebel or iconoclast. The price of both holding power and speaking truth to power can be very great. You ricochet between being offensive and being defensive, neither of which is a contemplative or solid position. Further, you are forced to either defend and maintain the status quo to protect yourself and the group or to waste time reacting against it. My fellow teacher, Cynthia Bourgeault, calls this “pouring empty into empty.”

The “poor in spirit” don’t have to play any competitive games; they are not preoccupied with winning, which is the primary philosophy in the United States today. Jesus is recommending a social reordering, quite different from common practice. Notice also how he uses present tense: “the Kingdom of God is theirs.” He doesn’t say “will be theirs.” That tells us that God’s Reign isn’t later; it’s now. You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend. Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do. Admittedly, it takes a while to get there.

Eknath Easwaran writes that “the joy we experience in these moments of self-forgetting is our true nature, our native state. To regain it, we have simply to empty ourselves of what hides this joy: that is, to stop dwelling on ourselves.” [1] As we forget our false, floating self, we rediscover our substantial and anchored self—which is not very needy at all.

References:
[1] Eknath Easwaran, Original Goodness: On the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Nilgiri Press: 1996), 65.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Franciscan Media: 1996), 129, 130-131.

Image credit: Old Horse in the Wasteland (detail), by Charles Cottet, 1898, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan.
How blessed (or “happy”) are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:3

The work of the Center for Action and Contemplation is possible only because of friends and supporters like you!

Learn more about making a donation to the CAC.

FacebookTwitterEmailPrint