The first beatitude, “blessed are the poor” in Luke’s gospel, reads “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew’s gospel.
The long standing interpretation of, “to be poor in spirit,” means a person recognizes their need for God, is a little easier to take than Jesus simply saying, “blessed are the poor.”
Recognizing our need for God is definitely good, right?
But to glide past “blessed are the poor,” or to decide that the poor just need to recognize their need for God and all will be well is just too easy — unless of course you are poor.
One problem we have with these words is that for a long time we’ve let the word, blessed, be too small, too over used, perhaps to really get our attention. Many teachers and preachers, myself included, have said that “blessed” means, “happy” or “congratulations.” That’s technically correct, but it starts to make no sense when we say the sentence, “Congratulations, you who are poor” or to move to the second beatitude, “Congratulations you who mourn!”
So we have to let the idea of “blessed” become deeper and wider. Rob Bell, and several others, have suggested that when Jesus says, “blessed are you” he is really saying, “God is for you.”
God is for you when you are poor. God is on the side of the poor.
Is it possible that we have some cultural bias that makes us feel surprised that God is on the side of the poor? In a wealthy culture, do we have unconscious beliefs that people are poor because of their own doing or not doing? Do we think that doing or not doing is how we gain favor with God?
The beatitudes are not 8 ways to earn God’s favor. They are not advice on how to get into the kingdom. They are announcements about who God is for.
It’s interresting isn’t it?
“Blessed are the poor” is how Luke says it. But what about Matthew’s longer version, “blessed are the poor in spirit?”
Several other places in scripture talk about the poor as being down cast, oppressed, rejected, abused. In reality, poor people are down cast, oppressed by systems, rejected, and abused. Is it any wonder that people who are treated this way, who are stuck in these endless cycles where they can’t get ahead, might feel discouraged, low in their spirits?
The woman across town has to decide whether to buy groceries or medicine. She doesn’t quite have all the rent. The father in the next neighborhood gets only 32 hours a week, not because he is too lazy to work 40 hours, but the company doesn’t offer that many hours, because then they would have to, by law, add benefits to the man’s pay. Children’s feet grow fast and year-old, worn-out shoes start to hurt after a while. It would be hard not to have low spirits in these situations.
To these Jesus says, “God is on your side.”
Hopefully it encourages people who are poor to know that. But more hopefully, those of us who are not poor hear something else.
If God is for the poor, then shouldn’t I be too?
Shouldn’t I be on the side of the poor in the ways I use money, with the way I vote, with the things I get involved in? Shouldn’t the poor be a priority in my life?
Jesus is not telling people to be poor, or poor in spirit so they can gain the kingdom of heaven. He’s making an announcement — God is for the poor. The question for the church is — who are we for?