Being Truly Poor in Spirit

Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathy CMF

Claretian Missionaries

Mt 5:1-12


The gospel today consists of the beatitudes. It is futile to attempt to make a reflection on the whole of the beatitudes in this small space. Instead, we concentrate on the first one, “Blessed are the poor.” It is hard to say in how many ways this beatitude has been interpreted.

Some interpret that the beggars, the exploited, were the kind of people God is pleased with and it should be ensured that all become like them! It is, of course, an absurd, deviant interpretation. The humanity dreamed by God is not the one in which his children are poor but one in which “no one is poor” (Acts 4:34).

Others believe that the “poor in spirit” are those who, while maintaining the possession of their property, are detached from them and generous in bestowing offerings to the less fortunate. But alms—even recommended in some (rare) biblical texts—do not introduce into the world the “new justice”; it does not solve the root problem of the inequitable division of assets because the concept believes in the existence of the rich and poor on earth.

The principle of “to each his own” that underpins our justice seems wise and sensible. But it stems from a false premise that something belongs to someone, while, in fact, everything is of God: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the universe and its inhabitants” (Ps 24:1). That someone is only an administrator of goods, and s/he will be called to render an account of this administration.

All possessive adjectives, that we use, express an erroneous conception of reality: if all is of God, it makes no sense to talk about mine, yours, and not even of ours because everything is of the Creator.

In respect to goods, Jesus never assumed the attitude of contempt that characterized the cynical philosophers. For him, the “dishonest wealth” also becomes good when it is distributed to the poor (Lk 16:19). However, although he never condemned it, he regarded it as a threat, “an obstacle—insurmountable for many—to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). The more a person is favored, the more goods one has, the more one is tempted to tie one’s heart with them to keep them for oneself and employ them selfishly.

From those who want to follow him—those who want to be holy—Jesus asks for total detachment. “None of you may become my disciple if you don’t give up everything you have” (Lk 14:33).

It is in the context of this essential requirement to share all that is available to us from God that the beatitude should be read.

Jesus does not exalt poverty as such. By adding the specification in spirit, he makes it clear that not all the poor are blessed. Only the ones who by free choice strip themselves of all and manage the assets according to God’s plan are blessed.

The poor in spirit are those who decide not to possess anything for themselves and make available to others all that they receive. Mind you: the poor according to the gospel is not the one who has nothing but s/he who does not keep anything for herself/himself.

Someone who is miserable need not be “poor in spirit.” S/he is not if s/he curses herself/himself and others, if s/he attempts to improve her/his own condition with violence and deceit, if s/he thinks of oneself by losing interest in others, or if s/he cultivates the dream of winning the prestigious position of the rich one day.

Voluntary poverty is for all; the renunciation of the selfish use of all property that one owns is not something optional, not a counsel reserved for some who want to be heroes or more perfect than others. This is what distinguishes a saint, every Christian.

The promise that accompanies the beatitude does not refer to a distant future. It does not guarantee entry into heaven after death but announces an immediate joy: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” From the moment one makes the choice to become and to remain poor, one enters the “kingdom of heaven,” and belongs to the family of saints.

This beatitude is not a message of resignation but of hope: no one will be in need when all become “poor in spirit,” when they put the gifts they have received from God in the service of others, as does God, “the Holy One” who, while possessing everything, is infinitely poor: he holds nothing back, gives everything, even his Son.

(Indebted to Fr. Armellini SCJ for the textual analysis. Image: