“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or in the CEB, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Matthew 5:3
What the actual what is this about? Happy and hopeless are not synonyms…
As usual, Spirit is way ahead of me. You see, I’m reading Henri Nouwen’s Show Me The Way, which is a Lenten devotional. In today’s reading, Nouwen says that the way of Jesus is the descending way. Jesus chose a life devoid of home, wealth, strength. He lowered himself to the place of the beggar. Nouwen says,
“God has descended to us human beings to become a human being with us; and once among us, descended to the total dereliction of one condemned to death.” (pg. 17)
He goes on to say that the descending way of Jesus is also how we can find God, that we can only find God’s presence when we become deeply aware of God’s absence. This reminds me of St. John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul. St. John says that to feel God’s presence, we must come to the place where “both sense and spirit are stripped of all perceptions and flavors. The soul is made to walk in darkness…” (Starr, Mirabai; Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, (c) 2002, pg. 94, for any who are interested.)
I read Nouwen and St. John before beginning today’s SOTM study, and when I opened my Bible, I realized I was being Spirit led, pretty much by the nose.
The word translated as ‘poor’ in the KJV is ‘ptochos’, which means to crouch and cower, as a beggar bent with their hand out. It means to be completely without wealth, influence, power or position. It doesn’t mean to be merely poor – it means to be completely destitute.
The word ‘spirit’ is ‘pneuma’, which means breath, wind, and Spirit. So the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ really means those who are absolutely spiritually destitute and have no connection with God. They are spiritually breathless. Dead.
Well, that’s harsh, isn’t it?
Perhaps not. I think Jesus is talking about the dark night of the soul. About not being able to sense God – about feeling spiritually cut off, which makes us hungry for the presence of God. It’s only when we are so desperate for divine presence that we are willing to let the light shine in the darkest of places, so that connection and healing may happen.
(As an aside: I love the paradox. “Full of the divine are those who are completely bereft of the divine.” Jesus was a master wordsmith, his sayings full of nuance and stacked meaning. “Spiritually large are you when you are spiritually empty!” His koans would make a Zen master proud.)
When we are aware that we are devoid of God’s presence, then – and only then – can God make God’s voice known. If we are filled to the brim with our own sense of righteousness, if we assume that our decisions and actions are God driven, we have closed our ears, and cannot hear God. But those who are bent in two with the knowledge of their own spiritual destitution may hear God, and thus enter into communion with the divine.
It’s not enough to be individually aware of our spiritual poverty. Are we aware as a church? As a community? As a nation? Do we know and acknowledge that we are spiritual beggars, bereft of the voice of God? Nouwen says,
“God’s way can only be grasped in prayer. The more you listen to God speaking within you, the sooner you will hear that voice inviting you to follow the way of Jesus.”
We can’t listen if our ears are stopped with the words of false prophets – including our own. If we – individuals, churches, communities, nations – are puffed up with our own righteousness, we are deaf. Destitute. Dead.
It’s only when we stop the self-righteous chatter and hear the resounding silence of the absence of God, when we acknowledge our dire poverty, that we can begin to hear God.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit…