Jesus opens the Beatitudes with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3, NRSV).
The “In Spirit Debate”
Over the years academics and lay people alike have debated just what poor in spirit means. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes does not include “in spirit,” so many think Matthew is just spiritualizing things. Why? Perhaps the billionaire class of the 1st Century funded Matthew’s writing efforts in exchange for giving them a pass.
Others argue that earlier verses in Luke root his account firmly in the prophetic tradition. There the word poor speaks as much about humble piety as it does poverty. According to this theory, Matthew’s original audience lacked that information. Therefore Matthew added “in spirit” to make it dynamically equivalent to Luke.
Personally, when I read Matthew, I do not care what Luke had to say. Instead, I tend to look at each book individually and allow the author to speak. I assume every author in the Bible has a reason for what they say the way they say it. So given what we know of Matthew, and the Beatitudes, what might he mean? Why did Matthew write, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
The Rest of the Sentence
Our first hint comes in the rest of the sentence. Jesus doesn’t stop at the word spirit. He continues, “For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” If you recall, the Kingdom of Heaven describes life where the rule and reign of God is honored. In other words, Jesus draws an immediate contrast between the popular practice of his day and the divine desire.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers direct examples of this contrast. He tells his followers not to pray like the Gentiles who ramble on and on in their prayers (6:7). He also calls out the prayers of hypocrites who makes sure that everyone else sees them praying (6:5). But his examples go beyond how people pray. It also includes not drawing attention to yourself when giving to the needy (6:2). A little later he addresses those who make horrible faces while fasting to emphasize pious devotion (6:16).
In contrast to all this, Jesus calls his followers to appear as healthy as possible while fasting. He tells his followers to quietly give to the needy. Jesus invites the praying of simple prayers in secret. The whole section opens with the words, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1, NRSV).
But what exactly is the contrast Jesus is drawing? We already know that these teachings are not the Be-Attitudes. Jesus understanding of obedience is not a checklist of things to do. In other words, Jesus is not just correcting their external practice. Instead, he is saying that their existing practice is a denial of their spiritual poverty. That something is pride.
Power and Pride
A spirit of power‘s obsession is with how things appear. Pride is about building a facade that gives the impression you have it all together. Those who seek to draw attention to themselves typically do so because they are proud. They are proud of both their knowledge and their conviction in their rightness. They lack humility and a sense of awe at the nature of the divine.
To this end I often mock the haughtiness of my Masters degree. A Masters of Divinity sounds so arrogant. Hi, I’m Joe, and I am a master of the divine. Never mind that any deity a human being could master is far too small and limited. That only way to get a god like that is to craft one in your image.
Poor in Spirit, Rich in Love
In contrast, those with humility and awe embody a spirit of love. They are not afraid to be vulnerable about questions, doubts, and uncertainties that are authentic expressions of our humanity. This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God.
How would faith look different if we could just admit we were trying to make sense of it all? What if, rather than an obsession over right and wrong, we valued honest and vulnerable conversations? Could it be that in the end, we are all doing our best to make sense of God’s self-revelation?
In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God are the nation Israel. Their name literally means to wrestle. Moreover, God gave them that name after the Patriarch Jacob spent a night wrestling with God. From that point on, their journey with the divine is one of struggle.
A Different Way to Read the Bible
This is why I reject the Bible as a book written by God through human hands. Instead, people wrote the Bible as they sought to to make sense of their experience with God. God breaths through the Bible not in authorship, but through our engagement with the journey of others.
This approach fits in well with the Jewish method of interpretation, something called midrash. One scholar defines this mode of interpretation as one that, “not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line.” That is how I aim to teach here.
Everything we do at Abundance Reconstructed invites you to tear down the facades. Our hope is to guide you into an authentic expression of your truest self. We know that is the path to abundance. That is where you live by soul in a spirit of love.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.