This morning I felt poor in spirit, and Jesus kindly gave me God’s kingdom.
One reason I felt poor in spirit is that I did not have a ready definition for what it means to be poor in spirit. On Sunday, I will preach from Jesus’ Beatitudes, which begin with Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) I have preached the Beatitudes several times; I researched the Beatitudes by consulting several commentaries, and I still do not feel confident about my understanding of Jesus’ meaning. Does Jesus mean humble people “who know that they are poor,” which is how the New English Bible translated the verse in its first edition? Or does Jesus mean people who are so spiritually deprived they don’t have a clue about their spiritual condition, and yet Jesus blesses them? Or does Jesus mean something else entirely?
I take some comfort in learning that the New English Bible translators retracted their earlier translation and returned to the traditional rendering, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Perhaps my puzzlement puts me in good company.
The Scriptures themselves offer me the most help. As Gospel writer Matthew introduces Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he notes that the crowd surrounding Jesus includes “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.” (Matthew 4:24) Luke, who portrays Jesus preaching on a level place and saying simply “Blessed are you poor,” (Luke 6:20) offers a similar context. And both Gospel writers echo various passages from the Old Testament, especially concluding chapters from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 56-66 includes depictions of people poor in spirit, poor in resources, poor In all kinds of ways, and this group includes, to name only a few:
-a foreigner wondering if the LORD will separate him from God’s people
-a eunuch who says, “Behold, I am a dry tree”
-an outcast, whom the LORD gathers, with yet other outcasts to come
-those with humble and contrite spirits, who need reviving, also
-the broken-hearted, the captives, people bound in prison, and so on
Maybe I don’t need to define poverty of spirit; maybe I can learn to recognize it when I see it. And maybe I can join with Jesus in extending the blessing of God’s kingdom.
Jesus gave me God’s kingdom this morning by accepting my prayers and giving me some work to do. Jesus gave me God’s kingdom by including me in the royal priesthood he is forming. Jesus said to me, in effect: Get to work, because that’s your royal calling; and call on the Lord, because without that priestly intercession you can do nothing. As I contemplated Jesus forming us all into a royal priesthood, I thought a poem by the Polish Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz. Toward the end of his tender tribute to a dear friend, called “Elegy for Y.Z.”, Milosz writes,
P.S. Really I am more concerned than words would indicate.
I perform a pitiful rite for all of us.
I would like everyone to know they are the king’s children.
Peace, royal child of God,