Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5.3
It is common to think of the Beatitudes as popcorn statements that Jesus directs at the crowd of people who gather to hear Him preach on the mountainside. We envision Jesus turning to the poor in spirit and speaking a word of blessing, followed by a similar statement to the subset of the crowd that is well acquainted with grief, and so on. When we read the Beatitudes this way, we allow ourselves to gloss over the statements Jesus makes that might not especially appeal to us (I mean, let’s be honest, who really thinks of themselves as “meek” anyway?) and instead we latch on to the particular Beatitude that we think best describes ourselves. This, then, becomes OUR Beatitude. “I’m the peacemaker,” or “I’m the pure in heart,” and therefore the rest of the Beatitudes aren’t really directed at me.
I would suggest that this is a terrible way to read the Beatitudes. Clarence Jordan, in his book The Sermon on the Mount, argues that the Beatitudes should be read progressively; that is, each Beatitude builds on the preceding one. What Jesus seems to be doing is not directing specific comments to specific groups of individuals; instead, He is giving articulation to the eternal principles of the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus is calling us to repent toward: a life that is characterized by meekness and purity of heart and peace and poverty of spirit.
In this way, Jesus builds for us a “stairway”, a progression of steps into the Kingdom, the territory where God’s reign is fully manifest. But in order to enter this Kingdom, one must begin at a place of poverty and brokenness. Jesus begins with the poor in spirit because this is where we first receive the Kingdom. It is not in our proud moments; it is not in our victories; it is not when everything seems to be falling into place or going our way. No, it is in the broken places that the Kingdom comes to us. We find God when we reach the end of ourselves; when we realize that our best efforts still aren’t good enough; when will power has met its end…this is when God’s power becomes the overriding reality in our lives.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize our own frailties and iniquities; to be poor in spirit is to recognize that we stand in need of what only God can do for us. Its antonym is to be proud in spirit. The poor in spirit are ready to repent. The poor in spirit are ready to receive the Kingdom. This is where we all find our beginning.