I was too poor to go to college. I barely graduated from high school, having played and slept my way through most classes until senior year. Then, due in large part to the dynamic ministry of Young Life, during the first month of 12th grade I crossed that line of faith in Christ. While my new-found faith spurred me on to get serious about my studies, I still graduated in the much lower half of my class. I did not qualify for any type of scholarship: academic or athletic. I came from a family that did not have the resources to even consider college. So, I worked, I learned how to walk in Christ, I threw myself into youth ministry, I got married and we started a family. By the time I was 23, I was convinced I needed to finally get myself into college, and carry my wife and 18th month-old daughter. But I was too poor to go to college, but only due to a poverty of money. I swallowed my pride and begged God to do what I could not.
Jesus had a knack for declaring truth without shying away in fear that someone might be offended by his declaration. This was certainly true when he launched into his Sermon on the Mount with, “Blessed are the ones who are poor in spirit”[Matthew 5:3]. Many Hebrews of the first century would have taken offense if you told them they were living in spiritual poverty, since Pharisees considered themselves wealthy in their birthright through Abraham, while Sadducees took pride in their relative superior financial & social status. Some will say that we should take comfort in our kingdom status and be self-confident in our spiritual wealth. That sounds like the advice that the early church of Laodicea followed when they pronounced that had all they needed, refusing outside help [Rev. 3:17].
In the face of those who found their security in themselves, Jesus stood on the shoulders of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah- “This is the one that I esteem, the one who is humble and contrite in spirit, the one who trembles at my word [Isaiah 66:2]. A consistent theme in the Older Testament is that some Jews, because of long economic and social distress had learned to place their confidence in Yahweh, and in Yahweh alone – “Since I am in pain and distress, may your salvation, O God, give me protection” [Psalm 69:29]. I take it, that in this context, being poor in spirit does not mean poor in courage, nor in material possessions, nor lacking the Holy Spirit, nor lacking spiritual awareness. Rather, Jesus seizes this Hebraic concept in its older prophetic framework to mean someone who is willing to admit their spiritual poverty, their total dependence upon the LORD, unable to save themselves. That is the kind of disciple Jesus is seeking to shape, lead and bless.
The blessing for the poor in spirit of Matthew 5:3 is usually expressed in English Bibles as “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [NIV, KJV, ASV, RSV]. This makes it sound like we take heaven as our possession, as if I can lay claim to the property title deed. One of the raging debates among the rabbis of the period was ‘what sort of people belong in the heavenly kingdom?’ Could Jesus be providing the answer to the question by indicating one of the premier character traits of those prospective residents? Could it be the people who acknowledge their need and will yield themselves to the authority of Him who rules in power & wisdom? What kind of people are citizens of the Kingdom? People who recognize and admit their spiritual poverty and turn to God to receive spiritual life. In other words, disciples who follow after God and find their source of life in Him alone. God's salvation must be received with the dependent humility of a little child. Therefore, right at the beginning, Jesus contradicted all human judgments & all nationalistic expectations of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is given to the poor, not to the rich; to the feeble, not to the mighty (unless the earthly rich ones and earthly mighty ones are willing to humbly find their identity not in riches or power, but in the cross of Christ).
When I cried out to God when I could not afford to pay for college, the LORD did not send me a celestial envelope full of cash singed by the fires of heaven’s altar. I admitted my physical need and also my spiritual need. Jesus heard my cry, then provided daily manna. I discovered that the true blessing was not the financial provision: the resources, providential jobs, surprise gifts, grants and eventually academic scholarships simply moved me along in my journey. The real blessing is that God was fashioning me into the type of citizen that inhabits His Kingdom.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
- The Message Version
“Blessed are those who admit their own spiritual poverty,
for the Kingdom of heaven is populated with people like this.”
- R.E. Joyner Version