“Blessed are the poor in spirt, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
As a parent of five, I have been meditating a lot on Jesus’s opening beatitude from his Sermon on the Mount, because I often feel very poor in spirit when all five of my children are loudly demanding that their needs be met at the exact moment I am about to merge onto the highway. While I’m sure Jesus had us parents in mind while delivering this benediction, the more precise meaning of the term ‘poor in spirit’ is maybe a little more nuanced. Dallas Willard wrote of this first beatitude that it refers to “spiritual zeros,” those of Jesus’s hearers who have found that they simply cannot live up to the standards of the Pharisaical law:
“And so he said, ‘Blessed are the spiritual zeros – the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’ – when he kingdom of the heavens comes upon them” (Willard, 100).
He goes on to argue that many translators of this gospel have had a difficult time translating “poor in spirit” as simply ‘deficient.’ Consider the fact that all the other beatitudes have a morally ideal quality that gets “blessed”: the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers… being poor in spirit, therefore, should be something we should all strive for, right? I’ll just hang my head a little, and if you stoop your shoulders and maybe cry for no reason every now and then, I think we’ll get it.
No, Willard argues instead that we are reading it backward. Jesus is describing a position that his hearers are already in and not one that they should strive for. In fact, what is so interesting about Jesus’s opening beatitude is that he blesses those who aren’t trying to be other than they are. It was the poor, the sick, the spiritual zeros, the left out, the ragamuffins, pick your term, who came to hear Jesus on that mountain, and he opened his sermon by blessing them.
“Those poor in spirit are called “blessed” by Jesus, not because they are in a meritorious condition, but because, precisely in spite of and in the midst of their ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Christ” (Willard, 101).
There are days as a parent when I stagger out of my kids’ rooms at night after putting them to bed exhausted from a full day of making every parental mistake in the book. I walk downstairs and pray as I go, “God, I really just don’t get this parenting thing. I grew up an only child, and you want me to parent five?” I don’t know what I’m doing!”
And that’s when I hear the opening beatitude in my head: “Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who recognize their own deficiency at doing any good by their own power – for that’s what the kingdom of heaven is for.” Yep, that’s me. This doesn’t excuse my parental flaws, and I have many, but it does take away the guilt and self-condemnation I often feel when I’ve made mistakes as a parent. I work under the faithful assumption that God gave me this particular family for a reason, and that he made me who I am for this particular family for a reason too. If that wasn’t the case, if my assumption is wrong, however, then the entire success or failure of my family depends entirely upon me, and the pressure of that thought would be crushing. It would be hell, in fact. But by this opening word of Jesus’s sermon, I know that the only way to have life is to acknowledge the fact that I can do nothing without his work in me.
That is the blessing Jesus has thus poured out to those of us who know we don’t have the strength to do it all. Thank God for that.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. (Harper-Collins, 2009). Amazon Link: http://a.co/fc8mCMP