Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1–12)
This passage comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A few verses before Jesus began his public, preaching ministry in the north of Israel, up by the Sea of Galilee. “Repent”, he preached, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
Now, these were religious people. As Jesus began proclaiming his message, it would have caught their ear. Here were a people longing to see the kingdom of heaven. Here were a people who longed to be rid of the Romans, to have God once more leading his people. Oh how they longed to hear once more a great prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah. For long centuries the voice of the prophets had not been heard, and here was one striding amongst them proclaiming that God was once more - finally - on the move. Something was about to happen.
The excitement surely would have mounted as Jesus then began gathering his disciples. First he calls two brothers: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. Then he calls another pair of brothers, and they immediately leave their fishing nets and follow him. This small band then go through the region, with Jesus preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the gospel. The sick are healed, and the news of this great work spreads throughout the region, even throughout Syria. People travel all the way up from Jerusalem to hear him, and even come from non-Jewish areas. “Great crowds” follow Jesus.
And then he goes up a mountain. By himself. Leaving them all behind.
His disciples followed him up the mountain, and found him sitting down. As they came up to him, he began to speak. Perhaps he was going to explain why he had walked away from the crowds, why he wasn’t making the most of the opportunity he had developed. As he opened his mouth, they listened, and heard a surprising phrase: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
“Poor in spirit”? What does that mean? And why should those who are “poor in spirit” gain the kingdom of heaven? Surely it should go to those who are rich in spirit! This is all rather odd, why abandon the crowds who have travelled so far to see you, go up a mountain and then start teaching your disciples about the need to be “poor in spirit”. What on earth is Jesus playing at?
First of all, it is important to understand what Jesus isn’t saying. He is not saying that we should be mean spirited. That’s not what is meant by “poor in spirit”. Nor is he saying that poverty is a great blessing. It is true that wealth can be an issue, which Jesus tackles in a number of places, but the phrase here is “poor in spirit”. There is a spiritual issue here.
So what is he saying?
The best way to understand the phrase to look at the remainder of the passage, where Jesus goes on to expand what life is like for those who have the kingdom of heaven. First of all those who mourn will be comforted. Now, it is important here to realise that the Greek word which is translated ‘mourn’ doesn’t just mean mourning someone who has died. In fact its main meaning is to be sad as a result of something happening. So you can mourn the loss of the local shop, or mourn increasing division in society. You mourn something which has happened, and is outside your control. To be one who mourns, is one who has a concern for those around them. To be a Christian who mourns, is one who laments the lack of godliness in wider society and the increase of people who reject the very existence of the God who longs to bless them.
Jesus then turns to the meek, those who are not overly-impressed with themselves. Those who are ready to consider the needs of others ahead of their own. Ironically, teaches Jesus, it is people like this who will go on to inherit the earth. They may not grab everything to themselves, but in the end it will come to them anyway. As Jesus will say later in the Gospel “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?“ (Matthew 16:26)
And then there are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. They will be satisfied. Those who are merciful? They will receive mercy. The pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called sons of God. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake? Like the poor in spirit, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
So what do we make of all this. If you look through these verses you see that the one who is “poor in spirit” is the one who recognises the fact that they are in need of God. You mourn because you cannot fix things, you are meek because you know that you don’t have all the answers, and you hunger and thirst for a righteousness which you cannot bring about.
If you are poor, and lack food, your hunger keeps reinforcing the fact that you need help. If you are poor in spirit, then you recognise your need of God. You are not reliant upon your own spiritual prowess, or goodness. You know you are dependant on another. And then the kingdom of heaven is yours. You can only enter empty-handed.
J C Ryle, one time Bishop of Liverpool and all around good thing, captured it well:
The Lord Jesus calls those blessed, who are poor in spirit. He means the humble, and lowly minded, and self-abased. He means those who are deeply convinced of their own sinfulness in God’s sight. These are they who are not “wise in their own eyes and holy in their own sight.” They are not “rich and increased with goods.” They do not fancy they need nothing. They regard themselves as “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Blessed are all such! Humility is the very first letter in the alphabet of Christianity. We must begin low, if we would build high.