What Does It Mean to be Poor in Spirit?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

What a way to begin a sermon! It’s a good thing – a “happy” state to be poor!

The Poor, the Beggars

There are two words for poor in the Greek New Testament. Penēs refers to a person who provides for his own needs with his own hands. It describes a working man, a person who has nothing extra, but who is not destitute – the “working poor.”

The other word is ptōchos. It describes total, complete, abject poverty – one who has absolutely nothing, a beggar in rags. That’s the word Jesus used in this the first of the beatitudes!

Beggars are bothersome people. They’re disgusting and odious, offensive to the eye. Sooner ignored than helped, they’re dismissed, marginalized, regulated to the fringes of society, preferably out of sight.

There were a lot of people like that in Galilee when Jesus began His ministry. To be ptōchos was to be miserable and without hope. Yet that’s the word Jesus used to begin His sermon, and it relates to a Hebrew word familiar to all His hearers that day, anawim. Originally that word meant “bowed down” but came to refer to the needy, the destitute, the oppressed and downtrodden – to all those who had nowhere else to turn but to God.

The Audience on the Mountain

Picture that Galilean hillside that day, hundreds of people, many in rags, beggars starving for food and the lame hoping for some kind of relief. Matthew’s record of the day begins there. “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…”

Jesus knew what it meant to be poor. On one occasion He said of Himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8.20). He knew the struggles of the beggars, the outcasts, the people society would just as soon discard, and He began with them!

In some places they’re called the “untouchables,” the refuse of human society. But there’s a special place in God’s heart for the anawim and the ptōchos, the destitute and downtrodden. In the Law given at Sinai He made special provision for such people: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23.22).

The Spiritually Poor

As He began speaking that day, Jesus assigned a spiritual application to the term “poor.” The crowd understood what it meant to be physically poor. Jesus told them they must experience the same kind of poverty spiritually – to be totally bereft and utterly dependent upon God. To that vast crowd of voiceless people with no influence or power to change their condition, He offered the Kingdom of Heaven. But it would require the hopeless and helpless to place their complete trust in God for the vindication of their rights.

Human pride and arrogance is a deadly weapon in Satan’s arsenal. He uses our ego to alienate us from God. Just listen to the lyrics of our age:

“For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows –
And did it my way!”

Who needs God when we’ve got ourselves? “Believe in yourself,” “pamper yourself,” “indulge yourself,” “assert yourself.” That’s the message of the world. In stark contrast, Jesus implores, “Deny yourself!”

“Poor in spirit” doesn’t imply we have no value. Jesus, the only begotten of God, died to redeem each one of us. That gives us exceeding value!

Rather, “poor in spirit” means the complete and humble surrender of one’s self to God, just as the old hymn states, “Have Thine own way, Lord…Thou are the Potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will….”

Such poverty of spirit is an essential characteristic of God’s covenant people and the key to true happiness. “Happy are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 – Bill