Poor In Spirit and Poor in America

Poor In Spirit and Poor in America November 13, 2018

I have another example to share of a cultural blind spot that affects how we read a famous beatitude.

I have a great deal of time thinking about the differences between Matthew’s “poor in spirit” and Luke’s “poor,” but less about the more puzzling part, for a reader in a rich country, namely the meaning of “poor in spirit.” Isn’t it more appropriate to say that it is the rich in spirit who are blessed?

But teaching my class on the historical Jesus and thinking about the saying once again, and how it might perhaps be synonymous to having a broken, crushed, or downtrodden spirit, I realized for the first time an assumption that I do not consciously assent to, but which impacts my reading nonetheless.

I had been assuming that poverty – including poverty of spirit – is the poor person’s fault.

At least, I think I had. Why else would I persist in assuming that there is something odd about pronouncing a blessing upon the poor in spirit? I don’t think that it was just that phrases like “full of the Holy Spirit” suggest that abundance rather than poverty is better, although I am sure that was a consideration too.

What do readers of this blog think? Is the expression “blessed are the poor in spirit” only problematic for American readers (and others reading within a capitalist cultural context)? Do others simply assume that the poor in spirit have had their spirits robbed, abused, and diminished through no fault of their own? Or is the socioeconomic context in which I find myself a major influence on how I’ve read this text, even though I am a detractor from the economic system in question?

If I’m correct that the latter is part of the picture, I think it is worth mentioning, since it illustrates that we can be influenced by our culture even when we consider ourselves critics of that culture in precisely the aspects under discussion.

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  • C A Butler

    I think it’s only problematic to those who have consciously or unconsciously become adherents to this misconception of man’s inate moral goodness.

    Today’s people tend to believe, as a whole, that human beings are generally good and decent at heart. Even if one forgets history might have something to say about that. The statement is antithetical to the gospel message of the fallen state/nature of humankind.

  • John MacDonald

    Here’s my guess (lol):

    James said:

    What do readers of this blog think? Is the expression “blessed are the poor in spirit” only problematic for American readers (and others reading within a capitalist cultural context)?

    1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4 has Paul talking about the wisdom of God (which is from the Spirit of God, and which we can’t grasp unless we have God’s Spirit) with the folly of the world. He contrasts “the Spirit who is from God” with the “spirit of the world” in 2:12.

    Maybe Matthew is pointing out the “poor in spirit” are poor in the “spirit of the world,” and hence are open and ripe for “the Spirit who is from God.” The “poor in spirit” are left empty by the world (spirit of the world), and hence are ready and receptive to the “Spirit who was from God.”

  • BruceOcala

    I’ve had a recent opportunity to spend some time with the Beatitudes. Matthew likes qualifiers in several of the Beatitudes couplets rather than the simpler, more general expressions in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Accepting that “poor” means material poverty as Luke did, and being unaware of any other metaphorical use of the word by Matthew, then “in spirit” specifies a quality of that poverty. Since “theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” is the result – the key expression that begins and ends the Beatitudes – then this is not ordinary poverty. This is poverty which gains them the Kingdom as opposed to those who are simply impoverished. I believe that there is a spiritual commitment being referred to. It could be devotional poverty like Acts and the community of shared goods, or an individual devotional action that makes one poor by conversion of wealth, or it could refer to the materially poor who have made the spiritual commitment to the Kingdom, or perhaps a combination. It would make little sense for Matthew’s persecuted community to suggest that the common poor receive the superior blessing of the Kingdom simply because they are poor. His community’s persecution derives from their spiritual commitment; that matters greatly. For Matthew, the poor in general may be blessed by God as traditionally understood throughout the Hebrew scriptures, but for those destined to the Kingdom, an explicit spiritual commitment is needed.

    As you stated, the capitalist cultural preference for “broken, crushed, downtrodden spirit” avoids dealing with poverty, but “poor in spirit” is definitely stated positively given the result and given the statement’s role as the opening couplet in the Beatitudes. I don’t think fault of the poor is a question that applies.

    I think Matthew has an eschatological prism through which the Beatitudes should be viewed and that spiritual decision – repentance and turning toward Jesus’ “surpassing righteousness” – is a priority.

    • While I do not think that Jesus’ message was simply “show how much money you have, and I will show you your eternal fate,” the element of reversal of the status of the literally rich and poor seems to come across very clearly, especially for instance in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

      • BruceOcala

        Agreed – also Matt 25: 31ff. It’s clearer in Luke’s view of Kingdom reversal – ‘Blessed are the poor – Woe to the rich.’ Matthew is more precise. His version emphasizes spiritual decision and commitment from those who stand to gain the Kingdom of heaven. It’s the first couplet and the first step toward the Kingdom for the disciple, including the “poor” disciple, however their material poverty is defined.

  • Here’s what I said about it:


    Growing up in an evangelical/fundamentalist tradition, “poor in spirit” was usually a designation for a certain disposition of the heart. It was a concept that was entirely spiritualized/emotionalized. Very wealthy people could still be “poor in spirit,” which was usually defined by being generally humble.

    I’m not sure the passage is teaching spiritual emulation of the poor, but if it is, like my evangelical brothers and sisters said it did, then I’d offer that someone would truly need to plumb the depths of what it meant to be poor before they could spiritually adopt such a disposition. It would entail a lot more than being humble.