“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
This opening statement to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most loving, astonishing and still bewildering scripture in his teaching and ministry. In the profound mystery of this beatitude lies the call of St. Francis to renew himself in the grace of God in his complete embrace of humility and poverty. The paradox of this blessing is perhaps why Gandhi devoted his adult spiritual practice to daily prayer of the Sermon on the Mount. Like all those who have been drawn to this text, I find it endlessly rich and revealing of the character of God and the amazing, radical, impossible to believe truth of our divine being and consciousness. It is in our suffering and humility that we empty ourselves of our human ego, and thereby can free ourselves of its enslaving will to power, pleasure and meaning that lead away from the kingdom of heaven. It is in our poverty of spirit that we yearn most sincerely and fully to be filled with the Spirit of God. I will return to the Sermon on the Mount again and again in these writings.
Who are the poor in spirit that Christ gives his kingdom of heaven to? The disciples and the crowd, the multitudes gathered before him that day who are among all those Jesus has touched with the joy of the Gospel, liberated and healed and blessed with wholeness of being through his salvation. They were chosen by the Father to come to the Son, just as the disciples were chosen by the Father for Christ to gather, due to their spiritual yearning to go beyond their present condition or circumstance, even to go beyond the most blessed and devout godly community of the Jews, which was held in God’s loving hands for over two thousand years, and still is. Yet within the hearts of the disciples and the multitudes this community, this practice, this life was insufficient despite its great riches in scripture, history, tradition and culture.
And so they yearned for grace in the ministry, caring and healing power of Jesus. The poor, the lame, the blind, lepers, all those at the margins of society, the strangers, the outsiders, and all “others” who were excluded even by the chosen and beloved people of Yahweh who authentically exemplified service and love of God and each other. We can scarcely imagine how astounding and challenging the call to Christ was without first appreciating how devout and faithful the Jewish community was, even given its human weaknesses and flaws. These were people of amazing courage, compassion and creativity in their faith, hope and love. How could Christ find any fault with them? How could he offer more than what they had persevered to grow and protect in struggle and victory for two millenia? Do you see how much more staggering Christ’s challenge is when you begin with being in the place and time of the Jews first encountering Jesus, on the other side of the resurrection, on the other side of the Pentecost and the infusion of the revealed and palpable Holy Spirit into the world?!
The fact of their near perfect faith community and practice is what is so utterly astonishing about Christ, that he came to fulfill, not abolish, the law and the prophets, and to thereby surpass this extraordinary life and world that had been for so long held in God’s care and protection. A people of God who in God’s will prepared the world for the incomprehensible, utterly unexpected, and unfathomable human incarnation of God through Christ, it would require people on the edge of such an amazing God-led society, people who were so devout in their faith, so trusting in God, and so utterly bereft of human delusion and comfort, that they felt the limits even of this received most perfect faith and world of the Jews. These are the poor in spirit of that time that received Christ’s blessing. And they received it in the immediacy of the present tense, here and now. And forever.
But the poor in spirit are also all of us, all the multitudes past, present and future. Christ calls all of us, especially in our solidarity with the suffering of humanity, to see and feel in our innermost being his joy when poor in spirit. Or, if rich in spirit, by simultaneously being in loving reciprocal relationship through empathy as a member of the body of Christ with those who are poor in spirit. We as children of God are never in just one pole of being and consciousness, either full of joy or full of sorrow, one way of being with God, but ever hold both together in the fullness of the divine. Both joy and suffering, both rich and poor in spirit, these extremes that cover the full spectrum of human experience, knowing each of these poles through giving and receiving across them, transcending the human limits of their polarity. Sharing each opposing experience and perspective intimately, trustingly with another is the very way of love and compassion. We thereby hold together and transcend both poles in the abundant life and agape love of Christ. This is the paradox, mystery and miracle of the cross, this sacred and triumphant union of suffering and joy, despair and hope, sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection.
And so Christ gives his kingdom to those in joy and suffering, rich and poor, able and disabled. As members of the body of Christ, we live and share and deeply empathize with people in the great variety of experiences, circumstances and conditions described by the creative relativity of these two poles. This polarity is the rhythmic heartbeat of faith.