Jesus begins his well-known, yet widely misunderstood, “sermon on the mount” with a list of Beatitudes, or Blessings. These Blessings are not an ethics of strict morality. Rather, they are an ethics of grace: a life driven by the power or energy of God’s grace. They are, first, about what God has done in Jesus Christ. Only then are they, second, about what we do.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
To be “poor in spirit” is to be in a helpless state of being. It means an emptying and a confession of living not by one’s own labor but on the means of others. As Americans we find this condition deplorable, horrifying even. We consider the blessed, the blessable, to be the self-assured, self-sufficient, and self-reliant—the very opposite of poor.
If we said this was the Un-American Dream, we wouldn’t be saying something that was quite true. No one really dreams of being poor or helpless. But if we said this was an American Nightmare, we would be saying and describing something true about each one of us: the fear of either being unable to live up to and make the American Dream real, and so being a complete failure in the eyes of others, or of admitting that we can’t make it on our own, and so humbling ourselves before others.
Yet, Jesus says precisely that: the only true blessing is reserved for people who see and know they are destitute and helpless. This is hard to swallow, to sell, to believe.
We all live functionally believing that there are some who are more undeserving of blessing than others. Without our realization or with it, there are kinds of people, or a kind of person, that when we see or hear or smell them something inside us bristles. We are put off, turned off. These are unblessable.
So we discover that we are not “poor in spirit” at all. We are actually quite proud in spirit.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of His death and resurrection, takes root in our hearts when and only when it has destroyed, eradicated, pulled out by the roots, this pride and belief that we are better than others. In fact, until we see, hear, and smell ourselves and bristle, the grace of God has yet to penetrate into our heart.
But when grace does begin to penetrate our hearts and we begin to know ourselves as those who are “poor in spirit” and no better than others before God—as those who are not momentarily helpless but in a continual state of being helpless—we begin to change, to put on a new self, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:9-11). This image is not ours or one we make or create or mold for ourselves. It is the image of Christ Jesus into which we are being made and made new.
As Christians, then, new creations in Christ, “poor in spirit” but rich in grace, we no longer look down on others. We no longer regard anyone and make any distinctions according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:16): according to someone’s political view, religious faith, social upbringing, life worldview, etc. Why? Because Jesus loved the world, not only Americans, not only Christians, and not only people we agree with and like. He loved the world, and He died for the world, and because of the cross and the empty grave, even the worst of the worse are blessable with a new life in Him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).