The Word Among Us

February 2023 Issue

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Learning the Way of Jesus

By: Fr. Jacques Philippe

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit: Learning the Way of Jesus by Fr. Jacques Philippe

I would like to offer you a reflection on the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In Jesus’ speech to the crowds at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he speaks as the new Moses, who proclaims the new law of the kingdom of God.

Let’s read this text together:

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.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:1-12)

This passage is very beautiful because it contains a great promise of blessing, of happiness. But it is not very easy to understand, because it describes a happiness that does not quite correspond to the image that we usually have of a happy life.

This teaching on true happiness and blessedness lies at the heart of the gospel, and I believe it is essential for us today to understand and live this message. Our world is sick because it is often ruled by the search for power, domination, wealth, and immediate pleasure. In contrast, these words of Jesus offer us a way of healing, of happiness, of peace and freedom.

Poverty: The Way of Jesus. The Beatitudes are, first of all, a portrait of Jesus himself, especially in his passion. When Jesus was on the cross, he was poor, completely poor and suffering. He was gentle and humble, thirsty for justice, merciful and forgiving, pure in his love for God and his people. He was a peacemaker, reconciling us with God, and he was persecuted for justice. And when he rose from the dead, he opened heaven and gave us full access to his Father.

But the Beatitudes also give us a portrait of the mature Christian who allows himself to be configured to Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is someone who no longer lives according to the wisdom of the world but according to the gospel, who has acquired a true human and spiritual maturity.

I believe that the first Beatitude is the most important, for it contains within itself all the other Beatitudes. That is why I want to dwell only on this one first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit (or the poor in heart), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

What is the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom is the infinite richness of life with God. It is the abundance of his love, his mercy, his light, his wisdom, his glory. But the only way to access this richness is through the path of poverty of heart.

How can we understand this? How is it possible for poverty to become a richness? This is what we will try to understand.

The Poor in the Old Testament. To understand Jesus’ words, we need to go to the Old Testament. Jesus uses a vocabulary that he did not invent, but one that he received from the tradition of Israel, from the spiritual experience of God’s people in the Old Testament.

Of course, the Scriptures contain many different approaches to the theme of poverty. There is a negative view of poverty because it is often the result of injustice, against which we must fight. We can see this in the very virulent words of the prophets on this theme. For example, God condemns the people of Israel for oppressing the poor and needy instead of caring for them (Amos 5:11-12; 8:4-6).

But it is interesting to note that there are several passages, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem and after the exile, in which a certain positive notion of poverty is developed. This kind of poverty is not only a factual situation, but it becomes an inner attitude and disposition that pleases God—one that we can choose regardless of our objective situation.

We see this especially in the psalms, which reflect the spiritual experience of Israel. There we find a wide vocabulary about poverty and the people who experience it: the poor, the humble, the small, the weak, the needy, the lonely, the afflicted, the brokenhearted.

Cry Out to God. Who is this poor person the psalms are talking about? We can give the following definition: he or she is a human person who, for many different reasons, is going through a difficult time and, because of this, can only rely on God. He is alone and fragile. He has lost his human securities and does not know how to get out of his situation; he is no longer in control of it. In the end, there is only one thing left to do: to cry out to God, to rely upon God. This can happen to poor people in the usual sense of the word, but it can also happen to people who are materially wealthy.

We see this poverty in King David after his sins of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:13). We see it in Queen Esther, when she risked her life to intercede with King Ahasuerus for her persecuted people (Esther 11–16). These people are rich but find themselves in need. In fact, they are in such critical situations that they are obliged to beg the Lord to help them, to have mercy on them. We can say that the poor person is someone who can only count on God. From a human point of view, being poor like this is not a very desirable situation, but it may become a tremendous grace!

The Lord Loves the Poor. The beautiful message of Scripture is that God has pity on the poor. He hears their cry, and he comes to help and comfort them. We could quote many different verses from the psalms that express this; here are just a few examples:

  • The needy shall not always
    be forgotten,
    and the hope of the poor
    shall not perish for ever. (Psalm 9:18)
  • This poor man cried, and
    the Lord heard him,
    and saved him out of all
    his troubles. (Psalm 34:6)
  • The Lord is near to the
    and saves the crushed in
    spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
  • I am poor and needy;
    but the Lord takes thought
    for me. (Psalm 40:17)
  • He raises the poor from the
    and lifts the needy from
    the ash heap.
    (Psalm 113:7) 

We could give many other examples. This is the fundamental message: God is faithful and merciful; he hears the prayer of the poor person and comes to save him. In this way, poverty of any sort leads us to a beautiful experience of God’s salvation.

Waiting on the Lord. It is also true, however, that between the moment when the poor person cries out and God comes to help him or her, there is often a long wait. There is a time of questioning “why,” a time of waiting, a time of patience and prayer. This is another form of poverty, expressed also in the psalms:

How long, O Lord? Will you
forget me for ever?
How long will you hide thy
face from me?
How long must I bear pain in
my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart
all the day?
How long shall my enemy be
exalted over me?
(Psalm 13:1-2)

God is good and faithful, and his coming is certain, but it cannot be planned. There is this painful and mysterious time of waiting, of patience, of prayer, of hope—sometimes despite the apparent silence of God.

God wants us to understand that this waiting is not a negative time because it purifies our expectations, deepens our desire, and deepens our prayer. God will surely answer us, not according to our human expectations, but according to his wisdom. This is difficult to understand, but in the end, his wisdom is richer and more merciful than our human plans, which we must learn how to leave aside.

Losing and Finding. Our Lord reveals to us that a happy life, a blessed life, is not measured by what a person owns or his influence or success. On the contrary, the blessings of God’s kingdom belong to the poor. Whether we are monetarily rich or poor, we experience poverty when we find ourselves in a situation in which we can only rely on God. That’s when we discover true riches in the goodness and salvation of our God. That’s when we discover the blessedness of the kingdom of heaven.

Fr. Jacques Philippe is a retreat master, spiritual director, and a member of the Community of the Beatitudes in France. Scripture translations are from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.