By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit; the reign of God is theirs.”
There are three basic ways of understanding the first Beatitude: what Matthew meant by ‘poor in spirit’, how this Beatitude affects us, and how this teaching of Jesus is counter to the culture where we live.
In the time of Matthew, ‘poor in spirit’ meant the economically poor class - the lowly ones who depended on others for help: orphans, widows, strangers. As scripture scholar, William Barclay writes, this is ‘poverty which is beaten to its knees.’ Today we see this kind of suffering in people who are homeless, refugees, in anyone who is treated as a second class citizen, locally or globally, and so forth. People in this situation are forced to either depend desperately on God for assistance or they despair.
Secondly, we are living this Beatitude when we realize our creature hood in a spirit of humility. Again, quoting William Barclay, “Blessed is the one who has realized his or her own utter helplessness and who has put their whole trust in God.” Being poor in spirit in this sense means being divested of control, of security – be it in the area of our health, our financial situation, or any ‘anchor’ we cling to in our materialistic world. God does not ask us to abandon all things, only to ultimately put the Creator as the basis of all.
Thirdly, the Beatitudes are counter-cultural. ‘Poor in Spirit’, for example, places a high value on human weakness and vulnerability. Neither is to be looked at as something to be ashamed of as St. Paul discovered when he begged God to remove what he called his ‘thorn in the flesh.’ God’s response to him was, “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection”
(II Corinthians 12:7-10).
And what is this ‘reign of God’ that the ‘poor in spirit’ receive? Here, too, we find three levels of meaning – The first level points to the end-time, to eternal life when God’s rule will be all encompassing. The reign of God was inaugurated by Jesus the Christ and was at the heart of his ministry. This is the second level of meaning. It is not a geographical space but a state of mind and heart, a place of deep inner peace. And, the third level refers to our participation in furthering the ‘reign’ in our daily lives, by being people of strong character with firm ethical principles that are not swayed by earthly temptations. Theologian, Don Gelpi, explains: “We are to live in a state of preparation for the (final) coming of the Son of God. Readiness means the practical living of the Gospel.”
(October 2008 Newsletter)