Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

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There is no other way to be raised up to God but by constantly looking upwards and having an unceasing desire for sublime things, so as not to be content to stay with what has already been achieved, but to regard it as loss if one fails to attain what lies above.

ουκ έστιν άλλως προς τον θεόν υψωθήναι μή αεί προς τα άνω βλέποντα και την των υψηλών επιθυμίαν άληκτον έχοντα, ως μή αγαπάν επί των ήδη κατορθωθέντων μένειν αλλά ζημίαν ποιείσθαι ει του υπερκειμένου μή άψαιτο. St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes.

Ascent to God is the teaching of this great Father of the Church. So he takes his cue from the fact that Jesus spoke the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), and he invites us also to ascend and receive from the Word messages of goodness and hope.

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Beatitudes – μακαρισμοί: μακάριοι… οι πτωχοί τω πνεύματι… (Matthew 5:3, etc.) Beatitude is possession of all things that are good. The person who is called μακάριος is one who totally enjoys what he has and what is set before him/her. This is a happy person.

God exists in beatitude/bliss. Human beings are in image and likeness of God, so beatitude, blessedness, happiness, are also what God intends for us when we join ourselves to God’s will. Some of the Beatitudes sound difficult: poor in spirit; pure in heart. Some don’t sound too happy: those who mourn. And yet, every single Beatitude says something about the human condition that goes counter to common perceptions and society’s values.

The Beatitudes are the core of Jesus’ teaching, and that is why the Orthodox Liturgy uses the Beatitudes as the third antiphon in the Liturgy, before the priest enters with the Gospel book. The Beatitudes announce the Gospel, they prepare us for the entry of the Gospel into our hearts and minds. If we can immerse ourselves into the mind of Christ that we see in the Beatitudes, everything else falls into place. The Word of God speaks to us – the incarnate Word of God.

Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke has: Blessed/Happy are you poor. Matthew’s version is more meaningful. A poor person has a hard time feeling happy or blessed, because material poverty is not something people choose for themselves. But poverty of spirit is something that is voluntary, something that is chosen. And when you choose something, you are happy about it.

So Jesus can say, Happy are the poor in spirit – those who have chosen to be poor in spirit. Humility is one way to understand poverty of spirit. But humility is so limited. And Christians talk about humility too much and never practice it. Poverty of spirit goes deeper.

Poor in spirit means you shake off pretenses of self-sufficiency. To the church in Laodicea, Jesus wrote: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). But to the church in Smyrna he wrote: “I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich” (Revelation 2:9). God’s measure of wealth and poverty is different from human measure.

The goal of Christian life is to become like God. The apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming in terms of poverty: For us he became poor that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

The Son of God laid aside the weight of divine glory in order to teach us to lay aside all those things that drag us down and keep us from ascending. The Lord became poor so we will not be afraid of spiritual poverty. He became poor though he reigns over all creation. So if we become poor with him, we will also reign with him: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

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