Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5: 3 – NAS)
“Blessed” is not a term we use much in our daily lives. It really is “church talk” for many people, because it just doesn’t seem to convey anything we are familiar with in the mundane, outside-church activities we engage in. So perhaps, before we go further (especially since the Sermon on the Mount begins with a whole string of statements using the term) we should define what the word means to us.
The Amplified Bible gives some variations for the translation – “happy, to be envied, spiritually prosperous [that is, with life, joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions].”
Really? Let’s look a bit more closely at these terms.
“Happy.” In the end, using “happy” as an alternate translation makes it all read like “pie in the sky” spirituality. Happy according to whom? Because the condition Jesus talks about, “poor in spirit” seems to indicate someone who certainly isn’t happy in the eyes of the World.
The same goes for “to be envied,” at least on a worldly level. Again, envied by whom? For those who do not seek a spiritual life, or a serious walk with God, why would they even care about the spiritual condition of others? On the other side of the fence, for a believer ... well, we can come back to that in a moment.
“Spiritually prosperous” is the next suggestion The Amplified Bible makes, and this seems a bit more promising. It at least addresses the sense that Jesus is talking about something that may not be visible in “ordinary life,” except in the behavior of this “blessed” person.
So, I turned to the plain ordinary dictionary (actually, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary which I keep at hand for writing purposes), and found the following tidbits: “held in reverence, venerated; honored in worship; beatific; of or enjoying happiness, especially enjoying the happiness of heaven; bringing pleasure, contentment, or good fortune; used as an intensive.” Well, that’s quite a lot to bite off.
“Held in reverence.” Now that’s unusual. That describes the act of giving respect to others. It’s not something we usually think about in our daily lives. At least it seems that way, given how rampant rudeness is. But worth keeping in mind. “Beatific” is another “church-word” and doesn’t help us define “blessed” for daily use. “Enjoying happiness,” well, we’ve met that already. I don’t think that Jesus is talking about behaving like an aggressively bouncy cheerleader. However, there might be something to “enjoying the happiness of heaven. “Bringing pleasure or contentment” might be what could fit, although in the following verses, Jesus mentions some very unpleasant experiences, things loaded with lack of contentment. And “good fortune”? Again, according to whom?
“Enjoying the happiness of heaven” perhaps is the closest to what Jesus means. But it still bothers me, mainly because I once heard a speaker make a distinction between “happiness” and “joy.” Happiness, the speaker contended, is something that “just happens” to us, and is an emotion. As an emotion, it ebbs and flows depending on circumstances. And I don’t think that Jesus means that there is an ebb and flow to God’s blessing. But this particular speaker went on to say that joy is a choice. To have that sense of well-being that is joy is something we can choose for ourselves. If we take that back to the sense of what being “blessed” means, then, perhaps we can say that such people gain that internal benefit of joy, and they get it by choice.
Wait! By choice?
Interesting possibilities. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What does it mean to be “poor in spirit” then, especially if the reward or benefit of that state is the “kingdom of heaven”?
We usually think of “poor” as meaning those who are severely economically deprived, but that’s not what Jesus means, because He made sure to add “in spirit” to the description. So, He’s really talking about people who feel spiritually poor, who feel they have such an emptiness where their relationship with God is concerned.
Now there might be quite a lot of people who really are “poor in spirit,” who have a great emptiness in their relationship with God. But I think Jesus is speaking of those who will actually admit they feel deprived of that relationship.
People do not like to admit that they are in need. It doesn’t matter what sort of need it is, we generally don’t want to appear incompetent or lacking or (seemingly worse) an object of pity. Even when we are. We live in an age where Pride rules. We don’t like to humble ourselves to admit we lack something.
What Jesus says here is that those who know they do not have enough of God, those folks are blessed and the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
And that’s another interesting point. These needy folks are not just in the kingdom of heaven. They possess it. They have the power and authority that belongs to the kingdom of heaven. Because they know they need God. And because they can admit that they need God, they are also blessed, they are also making a choice in favor of joy about their need.
This really makes for quite a different picture as to what this person looks like to an outsider. We’ve gone from someone who is feeling so bad about him- or herself that they were all “poor me,” to someone who is so needing God’s presence they have turned their face to God, seeking Him, and in that seeking they have found Him, carrying the kingdom of heaven with them wherever they go.
Do we as believers really admit how much we need God? Or do we consider it “enough” that we spend time in prayer, for others and for ourselves? Do we think it “enough” that we go to church, are involved in church activities, that we may work with a charity or two? Isn’t that enough contact with God?
If we think we have “enough” of God, then we’re not “poor in spirit.” Because “enough” means we neither need nor are seeking more.
So then... what Jesus recommends here is that we try to be people who know how much they need God in everything they do, because they will have the power and authority of the kingdom of heaven in them, which will bring them the joy of a connection with God. It’s a choice.