What’s it mean to be “poor in spirit?”

Jesus says “blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” He says the “meek shall inherit the Earth.”

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Do people who are “poor in cash” give us the clue? I think of people I know who are economically poor – people who live on ODSP, or welfare, or nothing. They’re all short of money of course, and don’t have as much “stuff” as I do. But we live in a society that is awash in “stuff,” and so even people with almost no money can acquire at least some things.

It seems to me the bigger issue is the humiliation of being poor. You are seen as a problem that needs to be solved. Your life is the subject of case conferences and social workers’ reports.  And your poverty gives even casual acquaintances permission to critique your life. They sigh over your spending decisions, your drinking habits, your romantic partners, your child-rearing practices, your housekeeping, your weight and your sanity. And maybe you agree with these assessments.

You cannot escape this humiliation because you are also dependent on others and their good opinion to get cash or services you need. You cannot fire WheelTrans when they drop you two hours before a meeting begins, and then pick you up before the meeting ends. There are no consequences for the attendant who towels you off so roughly after your bath that you are left with a rash. You cannot brush off the rude volunteer co-ordinator if you need her signature to get your $100 ODSP supplement.

When you are not surrounded by advisors and critics, you are ignored. On the streets people will refuse to acknowledge your presence. They will literally walk past you with their faces set, determined to neither see nor hear you.

And you have no security – no RRSP, no pension, no home equity; no confidence you won’t be evicted to make way for a condominium; no confidence you can pay the rent three months from now; no food in the freezer. If you do earn some extra money, you can’t keep it without the amount being deducted from your social assistance payments or housing subsidy.

Is this the call?

Is this what it means to be “poor in spirit:” to be humiliated, dependent and ignored, with no security or control over your future?

And if so, what does it mean to be “blessed?” Is Jesus simple confirming that, in His Kingdom, “the last” are actually “the first.”  (In which case, the rest of us had better smarten up and start treating the poor with a bit more respect.)

Or is it a call? I know that humiliation, dependence, insecurity and a lack of control are the very things that I strive to protect myself against. And how would I begin? I know full well that the life of voluntary poverty is nothing like the life of involuntary poverty. When you give up your things, you feel positively saintly, and maybe others see you that way too.

Friends, help me think this through. What do you think being “poor in spirit” means?  And my friends who are “poor in cash,” what is your advice for middle-class seekers like me?

More on vocation: Thank you to all who commented on “The Other Six Days.” I’m pondering your thoughtful remarks, and hope to return to this topic soon.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “What’s it mean to be “poor in spirit?”

  1. This isn’t going to be a really deep response, I know, but I will jump in anyways.

    While I can respect those who choose voluntary poverty, I must admit it has no appeal for me. While I find televangelists and other who preach up religion bestowing wealth to be repulsive, I see nothing wrong with being comfortably off per se, as long as you share your wealth.

    I don’t think I understand the Jesus quote any more than you do, Joy, probably less. Of course, I also probably believe less than you do that one specific person named Jesus actually said all of those things in the New Testament. Which makes understanding them word for word a bit less important! I also think the Kingdom of Heaven is just a metaphor, for how we ought to live our lives and live with one another.

    I think what you said about the problems and humiliations of poverty is very imporant and very powerful. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. elizabeth sherk

    I’ve always thought the blessing to the poor in spirit is the blessing of not being too attached to my own ego, the blessing of not thinking more highly of myself than I ought to, the blessing of being “zenfull”/attentive to the activities of daily living, willing to take the time to fix things, sew a button on, look behind before I leave a task & tidy up, not being so proud of my frantic ability to multitask….??

    “One thing at a time, and that done well, is a very good rule as many can tell.” One of my life’s refrains.

    It is a blessing to the one who is able to pray with Jesus, “not my will, but Thine be done.” It is a blessing to the one who is filled with God’s Holy Spirit, rather than one’s self spirit.

  3. Paul Connelly

    I think most of us have wrestled with this topic several times in our lives. I’ve never come up with a really satisfactory answer, but my current thinking goes something like this.

    The first approach to the issue that ever made sense to me was the ethos of Liberation Theology to embrace solidarity with the poor. I think this is a crucial insight, since an effort at solidarity is the effort to put yourself on the same side as someone. At the same time, I think for many people in the English-speaking world, the notion of “solidarity with” doesn’t quite have the same weight as in other cultures. For us, I think the equivalent notion is “identification with.”
    Joy’s blog evokes the humiliation and dependency of poverty. Just as we’re told the poor are always with us, the accompanying wrongs always show up as well. For example, here’s a mordant insight from Sirach, which is too true to be apocryphal: “The rich man does wrong and boasts of it, the poor man is wronged and begs forgiveness.” And injustices continue right through history, with Christians not exempt. Remember James’s attack on the practice of giving rich people a seat at the front and telling the poor to sit at the back.

    I think the notion of identification has power to confront this ongoing injustice. There is a powerful impulse in humans to identify with a group. I think it’s a genetically rewarded trait, dating back to the earliest days of humans on the earth, when the environment was unrelentingly hostile, individuals were relatively weak and reliance on the group was the only road to survival.

    Wanting to belong to a group is good. But there’s a downside too, which is the tendency reject someone who doesn’t belong to the group. There are too many examples that spring to mind, ranging from the harmless (i.e. the “battle of Ontario” between Leaf fans and Senators fans) to the deadly (Northern Ireland, anyone?). Even more dangerous, though, is the fear and anger against the individual who threatens the identity of the group. And this is where the poor come in. A poor person could be of the same ethnic group, same generation, same gender as a rich person. The existence of the poor right in our midst threatens us because they confront us with the possibility that there’s something wrong with our group, and therefore with us ourselves. So we need to look for other answers – they’re crazy, they’re lazy, they drink too much. Or maybe God is punishing them, because God surely rewards the righteous. We need something to hang onto that allows us to put the poor into a different group from ourselves.

    But then Jesus pops up with some inconvenient truths. The Kingdom of Heaven is already here. And whaddya know? The possessors of the Kingdom are the ones that identify with the poor. They’re the ones who mourn over the current unjust situation. They hunger and thirst for a world that ends the injustice. They want a world where “mercy” is the operative word instead of “revenge” or “punishment.” They seek peace, not one imposed by force of arms, but one where we’ve all overcome our fear of the other and instead found empathy. And wouldn’t all that be a beatitude?

    I’ll shut up now.

  4. Tim Gittins

    Brilliant last paragraph Paul.

  5. Love your article Joy. Right on.
    Paul’s response is stirring.
    It is humiliating to be poor. It is to be disconnected from the kind of resource most of us take for granted. Disconnected from friends who check on you when you’re ill, or lend you money when you run out. Disconnected from being among those who matter, who can advocate on your behalf when you get in trouble or who stand with you when you’re being shunned, picked on, discriminated against, persecuted, vilified.
    There’s a line somewhere about how no-one enters the kingdom of God without a referral from the poor. Were we to believe this – remembering that passage differentiating the sheep from the goats – our homes would ever be open to the poor, in the hope that Jesus come with them. To save us.
    Put another way, if our doors are closed to the poor, they are closed to Jesus as well, regardless of what we say we believe.

    • Paul Connelly

      John, I think the “sheep and goats” part of Matthew pretty well nails it. Just as you say, if there is no concrete action to assist the people that Jesus identifies himself with, including the poor, it doesn’t really matter what we say we believe.

  6. Julie MacLean

    I think the opposite of the poor in spirit are those who are priviledged and feel entitled.
    The poor in spirit expect nothing and they are blessed because they see that God provides for their needs. There was a guy who came to the Christmas clothing give away. He lived under a bridge and his tent had just burned down. As he came through a donated tent came in. I was amazed but he wasn’t -he told me when you have nothing you can see God’s provision-there’s nowhere else to turn.
    I don’t think this line is about the poor-its the poor “in spirit”.
    The poor in money are often rich in community and wisdom and joy and have a balanced and realistic world view and value system. They appreciate everything and don’t take anything for granted because they are used to being shunned rejected and ignored. Probably the poor are forced to be poor in spirit but they will be blessed eventually. The poor in spirit think and dream about heaven to get through their lives.

    • Love your remarks Julie.
      One point of variance – Jesus said ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew) and ‘Blessed are the poor’ (Luke). In both instances, the verb he used was ‘are’ not ‘will be’.
      The gospel rightly done is about the poor being blessed here and now by those who proclaim it. Otherwise we falsely console our indifference to them by deferring their care until after they die.
      Christ permits us no such luxury. We must clothe them now, feed them now, employ them now, visit them now…

  7. allan reeve

    Joy, what a great stream of thought here.

    How to be de-tached from the things my middle class lifestyle adheres me to?

    It all requires so much time and maintenance. If i were really wealthy i could hire a bunch of poor people to look after it all for me.

    Win win?

    Instead i borrow money from the bank to sustain this lifestyle. The same banks that’ll put the screws to me and anyone else in the name of growth.

    Credit Unions are for the poor in spirit.

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