The Word Among Us

September 2019 Issue

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Empty yourself, and Jesus will fill you.

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit: Empty yourself, and Jesus will fill you.

What images come to mind when you think of a kingdom?

Maybe knights in shining armor, fair ladies dressed in fine silk, and a sturdy castle surrounded by a moat. Or perhaps you think of something a little more modern: the court of Queen Elizabeth, for example. But whether it’s medieval knights or modern-day monarchs, our images of a kingdom generally involve splendor, wealth, and intrigue.

Now, try instead to picture another kind of kingdom, one populated by laborers and peasants who gather around their king, an ordinary carpenter himself. Rather than listening to the music of a minstrel, they listen to this man telling stories about sowers and seeds and sons and fathers.

This is the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate. This kingdom is different in almost every way from an earthly kingdom. As Jesus described it in his Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God is a life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and of turning the other cheek. It’s a life of treating people the way we would want to be treated and of radical trust in God’s ability to provide for us.

And it’s no accident that Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes—a series of eight blessings that we receive when we live according to God’s values. In a way, the Beatitudes represent a “snaphot” of the rest of Jesus’ sermon, showing us how to live as citizens in the kingdom of heaven. But the Beatitudes also promise a reward: a life filled with happiness. In fact, the Greek word for “blessed” that begins each of the Beatitudes, makarios, means “happy.”

There is so much we could say about each of the Beatitudes, but this month, we want to focus on just three: blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, and the peacemakers. We want to see how we can put these Beatitudes into practice so that we can experience life—and happiness —in the kingdom even more deeply. So let’s begin with the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

A Life of Self-Giving. If we want to understand being poor in spirit, we could do no better than to look at Jesus himself. He, more than anyone else, lived this Beatitude fully and perfectly. Why? Because at its heart, being poor in spirit has to do with emptying ourselves before God and being willing to do whatever our heavenly Father asks of us.

Imagine Jesus, the eternal Son of God, seated on his heavenly throne, enjoying the worship of countless angels. Why would he ever leave that behind and enter a world full of sin and sadness? Because he was poor in spirit; he didn’t try to grasp tightly to his status. “Rather,” St. Paul says, “he emptied himself” and came to live among us as a man (Philippians 2:7). He entered his own creation as a helpless child and took on all the limitations of our human flesh.

Jesus’ willingness to be poor in spirit didn’t end with his birth. Every day throughout his life, he made sure he did only what his Father asked him to do. Rather than working independently from God, he spoke only what his Father gave him to speak. Rather than seeking acclaim for himself or advancing his reputation, he poured himself out—for the sick, the possessed, the poor, and the lost. Instead of demanding reverence because he was the Son of God, he told people about his Father’s mercy and he treated people with that mercy. Every moment of every day, he lived out his own words: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Even when his work ran up against the suspicion and threats of some of Israel’s leaders, Jesus continued to empty himself. “I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me,” he told them (John 8:28). Finally, when the time came, Jesus’ self-emptying reached its full conclusion: he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He emptied himself of everything, even to the point of telling his Father, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

The Kingdom of Heaven Is His. And because Jesus lived in poverty of spirit, his Father raised him from death and exalted him in heaven (Philippians 2:9). He gave his Son “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus . . . every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:9-10, 11). The word for “Lord” in this passage, Kyrios, is the Greek version of the name that God revealed to Moses in front of the burning bush. That’s how highly the Father rewarded Jesus for emptying himself. He literally gave him the kingdom of heaven!

Because Jesus emptied himself and willingly took “the form of a slave,” he had plenty of room for his Father to fill him throughout his life (Philippians 2:7). When he told his opponents, “The Father and I are one,” for instance, Jesus was testifying to how close he was to his Father (John 10:30). He was telling them, and us, that everyone who strives to be poor in spirit can have a close, intimate relationship with God. Whether we feel it or not, God always pours his love on us when we come to him empty and poor in spirit.

We may not be called to live in poverty as Jesus did or die in shame as he did, but we are called to live with the same abandonment that he had. Remember, Jesus didn’t empty himself only on the cross. It’s how he lived every day of his life. He relied on his Father for strength and guidance and sought his will in many ways, both big and small. Similarly, God wants each of us to rely on him for everything. He asks us to empty ourselves of our own concerns so that he can fill us with the grace to obey him and entrust our lives to him.

“Depart from Me, Lord!” We may sometimes think that because Jesus is the Son of God, it was easier for him to be poor in spirit. But Scripture gives us countless examples of other people who also learned the grace of poverty of spirit. St. Peter is one of the best examples.

From the very start, we see Peter as a hardworking man whose self-reliance and determination either backfire or fail to produce the results he is looking for. When we first meet him, Peter has been out fishing all night but has come back with empty nets (Luke 5:1-8). Then Jesus, whose fishing experience is but a fraction compared to Peter’s, sends him out again—and at the worst time of day for fishing. Still, Peter catches so many fish that his nets are strained to the breaking point.

Knowing that he has just witnessed a miracle, Peter is shaken by what has happened. Falling to his knees, he begs Jesus to “depart” from him (Luke 5:8). He recognizes not only his inability to catch fish but also his own sinfulness. But Jesus doesn’t leave. He does the exact opposite. He invites the fisherman to stay with him—and promises that if he does, he will end up “catching” people instead (5:10).

This was the first of many situations in which Peter comes up against his own limitations. Again and again, he tries to use his own strength to produce godly fruit: trying to walk on water, trying to convince Jesus to avoid the cross, promising that he would never deny Jesus yet only hours later swearing that he never met the man.

Yet with each attempt to assert himself, Peter’s sense of self-reliance fades a bit more. His struggles (even the ones that came with very good intentions) show him that he does not have the ability to be faithful to the Lord on his own strength. Gradually, he learns that only by coming to Jesus in poverty and emptiness can he be filled up. Only the poor in spirit can receive God’s kingdom—and the freedom to “catch” other people with the joy and hope of the kingdom of God.

Come and Be Filled. This is a core truth about being poor in spirit: it means coming to God empty-handed. It means offering ourselves to God, knowing that he isn’t expecting us to prove ourselves worthy. It also means being open to receive the abundant gifts that God wants to give us instead of trying to fill ourselves with things of the world. When we confess that our nets are empty, even after having “worked hard all night” (Luke 5:5), we find ourselves in a position to receive everything freely from the Lord.

Like Peter, you may find yourself facing your own limitations and self-sufficiency over and over again. You may be feeling frustrated by recent failures. You might fear that no matter how hard you try, you won’t measure up. Or maybe your efforts to do good for the Lord aren’t bearing the kind of fruit you were hoping for.

However you may be feeling, God stands ready to fill you with grace. So this week, come before the Lord in prayer and ask him, “Help me to be poor in spirit, Lord. What do I need to be emptied of so that you can fill me up?” As you take this empty-handed attitude before God, you’ll begin to see the blessing in your life that Jesus promised: his kingdom will become something you can recognize and live each day.