Blessed the Beggar: Who Are the “Poor in Spirit”?

A couple years back, I was downtown in a big city (that will remain unnamed) rushing to get to a weekday morning Mass. On the way up the steps of the Cathedral I passed a homeless man asking for money.

I offered to buy him breakfast, but he refused to come with me, saying he wasn’t hungry. I invited him to come with me to Mass. He declined. I asked if he wanted to pray right there. He refused… telling me that God had abandoned him and that “if God was really loving He would never have let so many bad things happen.”

It was a gut-wrenching conversation that I told him I’d wanted to continue over coffee or a meal after church. I asked him to wait for me, as I’d be free to talk more in about thirty minutes. He declined that invitation, too.

Upon entering the church … still thinking about the soul I’d just encountered – I found myself seated next to a smattering of different people – a nurse between shifts, some elderly couples, a young mom wrestling with her little kids, a couple of nuns, some tourists and a handful of professionals starting their work day with God’s greatest act of love (which we call the Mass).

Moments after I sat, in walked another (slightly tardy) Catholic, out of breath and rushing in so as not to miss the Readings. I recognized him (as we had met on a few occasions) and motioned for him to sit next to me. He is a well-known and highly respected businessman, and a Godly husband and father. Incidentally, he’s also a millionaire (which is important to the story, stick with me).

Which man was poor?

Now, the man outside the church and the man sitting beside me could not be more different economically… one rich and one poor, right? The most intriguing difference between the two souls, however, was (the posture of) their souls.

Now, I am in no way judging either man… God alone is judge (2 Corinthians 5:10, Matthew 7:1). Based upon the conversations I had with each, though, I’d like to draw a comparison for the purpose of this blog.

In terms of spirituality, the millionaire praying beside me was far more impoverished, far more “poor in spirit” than the homeless man on the steps because true poverty extends well beyond the wallet.

God loves poor people more?

When our Lord gave us the Sermon on the Mount, He began with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) and in those Beatitudes He began with this proclamation:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ (Matthew 5:3)

This is one of those Scripture passages that many people ‘know’ (meaning, they’ve heard it before) but countless people fail to understand. My own parochial school teacher taught us that it simply meant God loves poor people ‘more.’

Ummm, to put it as charitably and bluntly as possible… no, that’s not what it means.

God does not love anybody ‘more’ than another. God loves the prostitute as much as the Pope, the pagan as much as the priest, the atheist as much as the greatest saint. God is perfect Love (1 John 4:8). Sin destroys the relationship, it deadens our capacity to both love and receive God’s love, but it does not, in any way, reduce His love.

That being said, physical poverty (material and financial) is often associated with holiness, yes. Jesus, Himself, praised the economically poor on more than one occasion (Luke 4:18, 7:22; Matthew 11:25) and He shared in physical hardship often living in a destitute way (Matthew 21:18, John 4:6-7, Luke 9:58). Truthfully, the Incarnation, itself, is a living example of poverty as God emptied Himself and took on flesh (2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:7-8).

Jesus even teaches that loving the poor is a condition we must fulfill if we are to enter into His Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46).

We are beggars.

Now, the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ speaks to an even deeper reality … beyond physical poverty … but to true spiritual poverty. To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our deepest human need for God and to grow in that longing and that dependence on a daily basis. It’s only when we realize how badly we need God and how we are nothing without Him that we become worthy of the Kingdom He promises us (Matthew 5:3); when we realize we are the beggars, our gratitude to the Giver (of life) becomes that much greater.

The Old Testament speaks in several places of this longing for God and His faithfulness in our spiritual poverty. Take a few minutes and pray through Psalms 34:6, Isaiah 61:1, and Zephaniah 2:3, to name a few.

The root of this teaching on spiritual poverty isn’t just reserved to the Old Testament, either.

Tell me, do you remember why the Rich Young Man went away downcast (Mark 10:17-31)?

Do you recall why the widow was so praised by Jesus (Luke 21:1-4)?

Do you remember what the apostles were supposed to take with them and rely on during their missionary work (Mark 6:7-12)?

Are you poor?

That day at the Cathedral I encountered great poverty, to be sure, both outside the church and within its walls. Poverty exists everywhere in our world, on park benches and in cardboard boxes as well as within penthouse apartments and suburban homes. Don’t pray for riches. Don’t doubt God’s love during times of great suffering, either. God’s love is constant, regardless of whether it’s a ‘sunny or rainy’ day for you on earth.

The key isn’t whether you have money or have it not, but whether you have God or have Him not. As the great St. Francis de Sales put it in his “Introduction to the Devout Life” (which is a must read, by the way):

“Woe then to those who are rich in spirit, for their portion will be hell. He is rich in spirit whose heart is in his riches, and whose riches fill his heart… if you possess them, preserve your heart from loving them. Do not, then, complain of your poverty (if you are poor), for we complain only of that which displeases us; and if poverty displeases you, you are no longer poor in spirit, for your heart would rather be otherwise.”

So, blessed are those who realize their constant need for God over, above and beyond everything else. Blessed are those not chained to the material and passing pleasures and luxuries of this finite world. Blessed are those free from anything and everything that would interfere with an ever-growing awe of God’s mercy and love. Blessed are those who recognize that no matter how their life is going in the eyes of the world, they are successful in heaven when they are faithful on earth. Blessed are those who need nothing more than God’s love and want nothing more than to share that love with all they encounter.

A soul with nothing to lose on earth is a wonderfully dangerous soul, a soul that will lead many to heaven.

Truly blessed are the poor in spirit.