Blessed are the Poor in Spirit – Matthew 5:3

In the first of the eight beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says those who are in a state of poverty possess the kingdom of heaven. But who are the poor in Matthew 5:3?

The word poor (ptōchos, πτωχός) normally refers to economic poverty, and this particular word refers to the poorest person in a society, people who are dependent on others to survive. There are other words Matthew could have used for poverty, but he chose a word to describe the lowliest of the low.

Jesus and the PoorJesus is using poverty here to describe a spiritual state, they are “poor in spirit.” In Luke 6:20 the saying only refers to the poor (the phrase “poor in spirit” is missing). There are several options for explaining the difference. First, Jesus may have said something like Matthew 5:3 on many occasions, adding “in spirit” sometimes and other times omitting it. Second, Matthew may have added the phrase to clarify what kind of poverty Jesus had in mind, or Luke may have omitted it for his own theological reasons. Third, both Matthew and Luke are trying to tease out what Jesus said in Aramaic and translated the word ʿānî (עָנִי or ʿānāw, עָנָו) with a slightly different nuance of meaning. McKnight calls the followers of Jesus the Anawim, the “poor ones” who are disciples of Jesus.

McKnight argues the “poor in spirit” here should be understood in the context of the ʿānî (עָנִי), the poor of Psalm 149:4, the Lord “adorns the humble with salvation.” But there are other texts which refer to the poor in the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 49:13, when Zion is renewed the Lord “will have compassion on his afflicted ʿānî (עָנִי)” (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2; 66:2). The noun has the sense of wretchedly poor. IN the context of Psalm 149, McKnight argues the word refers to the extreme poverty of the post-exilic community who still had not completed the task of rebuilding the temple and anticipated the coming of the messiah to render justice. This is a fair analogy, but the LXX does not always translate the noun the ʿānî (עָנִי) with πτωχός.

The Qumran community described themselves as the poor (Nolland, Matthew, 200). The noun ʿānî (עָנִי) appears some 25 times in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, 1Q28b Col. v:22, when the Lord renews his covenant with the Qumran community “to establish his kingdom forever,” the poor will be judged with justice and the “humble of the earth” will be judged with uprightness. This is at least some evidence of another Jewish group besides the followers of Jesus thought of themselves as “the poor ones” the Lord will adorn with salvation when the Kingdom of God finally comes.

In contrast to what might be expected by the Jewish or Greco-Roman world, these utterly poor people will be the ones who receive the Kingdom of God. For a Jewish person, a righteous person expected to enter into the future kingdom of God. One way to determine whether a person was righteous or not was observe their material blessings (remember Job?) After all, the Law says the one who kept the Law would be blessed, the one who does not is cursed. In both cases, this is a material physical blessing. A wealthy person may have consider themselves righteous because they had been blessed by God.

Jesus reverses this expectation in his daily practice of reaching out to the poor, the outsiders and people considered to be sinners by the righteous who expect to enter the kingdom. There are two important passages later in Matthew which illustrate this beatitude. First, in Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus says many will come from the east and west to sit at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the self-righteous Pharisees will be thrown outside where there is darkness, weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Second, in Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding banquet points out the ones who thought they ought to enter into the banquet (the coming kingdom) will be destroyed and not enter the kingdom they thought was theirs. Instead, the poor will be gather up and enter into the banquet.

Here is the problem for a contemporary application of this saying: The original Jesus followers really did live out a life of voluntary poverty. They left everything in order to follow Jesus, and continued to live out that life of poverty even after the resurrection. Acts 2:42-47 indicates the earliest Jesus followers sold property to meet the daily needs of the community. James the Just becomes the leader of this community and has a great deal to say about the dangers of wealth in the letter of James to Jewish diaspora communities. The earliest Jesus people often lived a life of voluntary poverty because they were following Jesus and living as he did.

But that is not the way contemporary Christian lives in the western world. For many in America, church is “big business.” So the poverty Jesus is talking about must be some kind of spiritual poverty (for example, this explanation from the Billy Graham website). Is that really what Jesus is talking about in these open lines of the Sermon on the Mount? How does a western Christian live out the ideal found in this beatitude?

9 thoughts on “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit – Matthew 5:3

  1. The word poor is based normally based on not having money or being less than others. But in the Bible poor are based on people that people view as dirty and unworthy. The poor are looked down up, people would despise them and see them as a burden. Luke 6:20 “Looking at his disciples, he said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20 is referring to the phrase, poor in spirit. Which is based on the people that are low and in need of God’s forgiveness, love, mercy or grace. The people that are first will be last, and the ones that are first will be last. At the end of our age, we will be judged based on how we lived our lives for Christ and if we accepted Christ into our hearts and if our words and actions displayed that. We will be judged with uprightness. The ones who viewed themselves lower than other people and put other people’s needs before theirs and treated them like royalty, then God will adorn them with an eternity of salvation. Our life on earth is to glorify God and not conform to the worldly passions. As Christians, we are too reach out to all the ones in need and show them the hand of God and lead them to something greater than what we are. We must leave everything to follow Jesus, giving up our lives for Him. We are too volunteer our time and hearts to assist this generation. Pouring our hearts out about the things that we are passionate about and also become passionate about the things that the people we are assisting are passionate about. Do not walk this earth thinking you are high and mighty compared to others but make others view you as a helper in times of need and also a light of Christ in a time of darkness.

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    • I found it very interesting that you pointed out how in our society now, being poor is based on money but in the Bible its mostly based upon your social status on weather or not you are worthy of something. Luke 6:20 was also interesting and it made me think about how Jesus was sent to earth not for the rich but for the poor, giving the fact that Jesus walked the earth with the lame and what the priest and people higher up believed was unworthy. Another point of yours that was brought to my attention was that you stated that at the end of our lives we will be judged and that will determine weather or not we will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, but kind of branching off of the poor in heart Jesus also told us to act like children. Children aren’t really for all the riches in life unless they are brought up in it. So I just found it interesting that we are also to be poor in heart just as children are when it comes to worldly things at a young age

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  2. It is human nature to want to be able to provide for ourselves and to not rely on others. This is why people feel “blessed” when they have a good amount of money and they are able to live comfortably. Pride is a huge problem for our society today and it all stems around the ability to be self-reliant. When Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is talking being humble enough to realize that we are broken people who need Christ. In Luke 9:23, Jesus says that we must deny ourselves in order to follow him. This is essentially the same concept. In order to acquire the kingdom of heaven, we must be poor in spirit; denying ourselves, so that we can truly follow Christ. I love what McKnight says, “Those who are poor now, who nonetheless trust in God…are and will be the ones who populate God’s kingdom” (p. 40). This is the concept that Jesus is trying to get across when he says “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

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  3. I think our culture cannot fully wrap our minds around the beatitude “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s the norm for us to have freedom, advancement, glory, etc. If we want something, we get it and we don’t let anything stand in our way. We are a culture with a mindset of “more, more, more.” What we don’t often think about is how opposite Jesus’ culture was. He lived in an age of oppression, holiness by effort, and significance received through bloodline. When Jesus came to earth he rocked this system and paved a new way forward for us. We now understand that we can never be perfect or holy by working hard for God, but only through His grace. I believe that when we choose to follow God he leads us to be poor in spirit in order to experience Him more fully. We have to be broken by our sinful nature to lead us to confession and repentance. In doing so we are being authentic with God and can more clearly see our sin for what it is. Which should naturally lead us on a path of pursuing God and asking for His guidance daily. Ephesians 4:22-24 talks about how we must desire to get rid of our old selves that are corrupted by deceit and to renew our minds by putting on our new selves to become more like Christ. I think this is partially what Jesus means when He says, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It is believers who see their sin, want to kill it, and find favor with God despite our circumstances because we choose to follow Him even when it is hard.

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  4. I think our culture cannot fully wrap our minds around the beatitude “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s the norm for us to have freedom, advancement, and glory. If we want something, we get it and we don’t let anything stand in our way. We are a culture with a mindset of “more, more, more.” What we don’t often think about is how opposite Jesus’ culture was. He lived in an age of oppression, holiness by effort, and significance received through bloodline. When Jesus came to earth he rocked this system and paved a new way forward for us. We now understand that we can never be perfect or holy by working hard for God, but only through His grace. I believe that when we choose to follow God he leads us to be poor in spirit in order to experience Him more fully. We have to be broken by our sinful nature to lead us to confession and repentance. In doing so we are being authentic with God and can more clearly see our sin for what it is. Which should naturally lead us on a path of pursuing God and asking for His guidance daily. Ephesians 4:22-24 talks about how we must desire to get rid of our old selves that are corrupted by deceit and to renew our minds by putting on our new selves to become more like Christ. I think this is partially what Jesus means when He says, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” It is believers who see their sin, want to kill it, and find favor with God despite our circumstances because we choose to follow Him even when it is hard.

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  5. Brian S Chesebro Jr

    When we talk about the word “Poor” in today’s society many of us relate this back to people being homeless. We throw around this word, but it really doesn’t have a specific meaning. When Jesus is using this word in this Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mathew 5:3) McKnight writes, “The poor in spirit describes and economically, physically impoverished or oppressed person who not only recognizes her or his need but also trusts in God or full redemption.” (McKnight, 38) So again, the word poor sort of correlates in the way that we think of it today. However, this version seems to have a bit more hope involved. If we are in “poor spirit”, and if we live by the way McKnight writes, we then have full faith and trust in God. So are we really poor?? We are poor in the world aspect where we might not have any money, but yet we have everything. We have the kingdom of Heaven. (For theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.) In this article it is written, “The earliest Jesus people often lived a life of voluntary poverty because they were following Jesus and living as He did.” To live this beatitude out, simply I would say that we truly are not poor. We may be worldly poor, however we are not poor. We have Eternal life through Jesus. And will be rewarded with Heaven.

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  6. As I briefly mentioned in an earlier post, that McKnight doesn’t give a definitive answer on which interpretation is correct but the book however does say that both might be true and both clearly apply to what Jesus’s seems to hope to achieve with the Beatitudes, which is to turn the cultural views of success on their heads. But coming away from it with my own perception, I don’t think it really matters which view is correct because at the end of the day all the verse is saying is that “blessed are” the people who have needs, who recognize that they have a need, and in turn rely upon God to supply the need. Matthew 6:30 talks about how if God bothers to care for the grass and feed the birds that He will certainly provide for the things He made in his very own image. God is just looking for our submission and reliance on Him, and says that those who do will be happy or “blessed”.

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  7. The word poor is associated today as one who is lacking in money or material items, but in the time of Jesus, followers chose to live a life of poverty to be more like Jesus as we saw in Acts 2:42-47. I think that, as it is noted in Matthew 5:3 that those who are poor in spirit are blessed, this line is not referring to the type of literal poverty we know. McKnight notes the question of whether Matthew was referring to spiritual neediness or poverty alone, but being ‘poor in spirit’ causes us to view it as more than economic oppression (McKnight, 39). Overall, I find that this encompasses both spiritual as well as economic neediness, and is referring to those who are constantly seeking to better their spiritual life and put their full trust in God during economic troubles. In Psalms 40:17, David writes of being poor and needy, and cries out to the Lord saying that He is his helper and deliverer, so I think that this is the same poor in spirit that is being discussed here in the Beatitudes. I think that a western Christian can live out this way of being ‘poor in spirit’ not by giving away all of their belongings and living on the street, but by striving to constantly be filled by the Spirit, and putting our trust entirely in the Lord to deliver us through any trouble or trial that we are facing, be it spiritually or economically and anything in between.

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