“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3).
Jesus’ blessing of makarios is a scandalous blessing. It conveys the unthinkable blessing of salvation with all the riches of its benefits upon the least deserving, the poor in spirit. Those who are aware that they have nothing to offer God in exchange for his favor are indeed blessed with the greatness of his favor. The blessing is to be enjoyed in the present, for the blessing assures the recipient that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is received in the present tense.
But how does one become “poor in spirit”?
Can one choose to become “poor in spirit”?
Is it some kind of psychological result from therapy – Christian or otherwise?
Is it a change of attitude, arising from a powerful display of willpower?
Does it come from spiritual transformation, a consequence of prayer, fasting, and joining as many prayer groups as possible?
Does it take an expert in spiritual warfare to liberate you from the demon of self-righteousness and egocentrism?
Or how can you come to your senses – even in the middle of the pigsty?
Yes. Let’s take up the situation of the prodigal son.
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:17-20).
Coming to himself was a result of remembering his father’s gracious generosity to his servants. Truth is, most servants in Greek and Roman households were fed according to the services performed, or at least how their masters perceived their work. But the prodigal’s father was gracious and all the servants were fed abundantly, regardless of their work. In the father’s household, no servants perished, yet he was in the pigsty, perishing with hunger. When he remembered his father’s abundant generosity, the same that had given him his share of the inheritance, he was given the searing truth about himself: “I am no longer worthy.” He no longer regards his status as son of any value. Yet, it was his stomach doing most of his thinking. His father’s generosity is remembered to the degree his hunger triggers his memory. Yet, he’s about to realize that his father’s generosity far exceeds his ability to feed his slaves and his household. But the son is unable to think in those terms. But the father’s generosity stands out in his very limited recall of his father’s nature. And that is all it took to bring him to his senses. No matter how limited our human perception, it is the father’s mercy and generosity that breaks through the poverty of our pharisaic spirit. The father shouted his mercy through the recall of his son. The son heard the call of the father’s mercy in his own hunger ravaged memory.
Yet, that was enough. He came to his senses. Not through his own intuitiveness, but through the father’s abundant generosity.
It is the father’s rich mercy that supplies our need for poverty of spirit. “My God will supply all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
When the prodigal came home, he came to the kingdom of the father. This kingdom was much more than abundant bread and wine. The kingdom was the father’s embrace and kiss. The kingdom was the father’s mantle on his ragtag body. The kingdom was the ring on his finger reinstating him to rightful sonship status. The kingdom was shoes on his lacerated feet. And most of all, the kingdom was the feast of the fatted calf. Such prodigal spending on the wasteful son, blotted out completely the memory of the son’s thrashing his dad’s inheritance.
Thus “poverty of spirit” is not an ethical value we strive for. It is an act of God’s mercy spoken to the deepest recesses of our soul when it’s overwhelmed by God’s grace. It is the word of grace that causes the sinner’s “coming to his senses.”
“Poverty of spirit” is not an ethical value we strive for. It is an act of God’s mercy spoken to the deepest recesses of our soul when it’s overwhelmed by God’s grace.
It was the same with David. In the poverty of spirit Psalm par excellence, David, in great poverty of spirit, seeks forgiveness based on God’s graciousness alone.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:1).
This is the same poverty of spirit as the publican in the temple, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
David pleads for mercy not according to his own steadfast obedience, for he realizes his brokenness. He seeks God’s mercy only “according to thy steadfast love.” Here the Hebrew word is “chesed,” which means the surprising display of mercy based on undeterred love. David recalls God’s unfading love throughout the history of Israel. How God through mercy alone had chosen undeserving Israel as the object of his love. If God so loved Israel throughout its history of disobedience, surely God would forgive him in another act of surprising love notwithstanding his own disloyalty and betrayal. It was God’s graciousness throughout the history of Israel that spoke poverty of spirit into his own heart.
It was the same with the publican in the temple. There he remembered that God was that place of propitiation, or mercy seat, where sins were forgiven. The publican’s prayer was, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). But the word “merciful” in Greek is from “hilaskomai” and also related to “hilasmos” which means “the sacrifice which appeases.” It appears twice in the New Testament, both times referring to the blood of Christ (1 John 2:2, 4:10). The publican well understood the nature of his sin, and the “mercy seat,” that golden covering of the ark in the holy of holies (Ex 37:6). On the day of atonement, blood was sprinkled on that covering for the blotting out of sins of all Israel. The publican also knew the book of the Law. But he pleaded to the place of mercy in the book of the law: “God, please be the blood of my propitiation sprinkled on the mercy seat.” And he went home justified (Luke 18:14). In other words, he went home having entered the joy of the Father’s kingdom.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”