“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
The way some Christians talk and make comments about this verse . . . you’d think that Jesus said, “Blessed are the ones who recognize their spiritual poverty and got themselves together, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . “ NOT (at all)!
When we teach that Jesus meant that “we are all spiritually poor” we rob both the rich (the opposite of poor) and the poor (the opposite of wealthy) of God's word to them––no one ends up “Blessed.”
1) For the one, the poor, this is a text of hope and of life, that God's got their back and that the world (this present world) isn't all it seems to be; 2) for the other, the rich, this text is an awakener (more a judgment), that they are on the wrong side of God's history.
The rich are robbed of faithful discipleship when they think (and we teach them so), this text is about them. The rich-turned-follower of Jesus ought to read this text (and the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount) and ask, “How do I bring my life into alignment with the world Jesus envisions?” Not, “Phew, I get my spiritual poverty fixed, plus I get to stay rich AND inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Who wouldn't want a deal like that!
Spoiler alert: the rich were the only ones to inherit anything anyway, so in some way they already had the “inheritance.” In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, the elite and wealthy were the only ones to get the world to come. Inheritance was the language of the rich, not the poor, which would have indicated how subversive Jesus' vision of the world would have been.
The crowd Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount to seems mostly made up of the crowd he was just previously ministering to in chapter 4:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan . . . Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . (Matthew 4:23-5:3).
There is no doubt that both in the historical occasion (i.e., the scenes depicted in the text above) and for the "crowd” listening to Jesus' sermon, they understood to whom he was referring when he mentions "the poor.” Most likely "poor in spirit" reflects the Isaiah 61:1 that was promised and Jesus quoted to refer to Himself: "to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted."
So, to hear and apply this beatitude (as well as the rest), we need to stop taking the poor out of the poor and making it everyone (because, you know, everyone is spiritually poor before God–just stop it!). This only cheapens what Jesus said–and no one gets blessed.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.