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.