It is easy to identify the central message of today’s liturgy: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This message is deeply rooted in the whole Bible, which repeatedly assures us of God’s special favor for the anawim, those who are poor, the lowly and the humble, the “little ones.” As far back as the days of the prophet Zephaniah (7th c. BC), the Lord promised to care for the “remnant of Israel,” the humble and lowly who seek their refuge in him.
In the New Testament, St. James puts it simply when he tells us that “God chose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him” (Jas 2:5). James’ point in saying this is that, since God favors the poor, so must we. We have no excuse for discriminating against the poor and favoring the rich. If anyone deserves preferential treatment, it is those who have the greatest need. It is a fundamental lesson of Christian faith that we must be “especially mindful of the poor” (Gal 2:10).
However, the Lord does more than favor the poor. He also becomes poor. This presents us with a much greater challenge. Most people believe in caring for the poor. We like doing a little something for those poor people over there when we have the time and some extra resources. But being poor ourselves? That is another matter! And yet, unless we ourselves are poor and lowly, we cannot enter the Kingdom.
In the eyes of God, we are already poor, for we are entirely dependent on him for everything. The world may honor the rich and the powerful, but God does not see things this way. He knows the truth of our absolute poverty. As Paul points out in today’s second reading, God even prefers to choose those whom the world considers absurd – “the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing” – to make it more obvious where all blessings really come from. Blessings certainly do not come from us, from our good will and hard work. What Paul spells out for the Corinthians should be obvious to us all the time: “mankind can do no boasting before God.” What can we boast about? Even if we have money, education, status or influence, we must admit that none of these things gives us a basis for claiming any credit before God. If we want to boast about anything, it must be about how much the Lord has done for us, despite our unworthiness.
The poverty we inherit simply by being creatures is not the kind of poverty that Jesus declares “blessed.” He is more specific: Blessed are the poor in spirit. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It is not a question of how much money we possess but of our inner disposition. Jesus gives us a profound instruction on this disposition at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount when he proclaims the Beatitudes. “The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. They express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (CCC 1717).
The Catechism says that Jesus is the One described in the Beatitudes; they “depict the countenance of Jesus Christ.” This means that by pondering them we are able to gaze upon the face of the Lord. And the more deeply we know him, the better we can learn what we are to be like. His invitation to follow his way – his poverty of spirit – is an invitation to be like him, and to see ourselves as he sees us, which is the foundation of true humility.
Poverty of spirit frees us from looking to the world and all its allurements for our satisfaction. The world constantly insists that we need so many things, and that if we do not have them all, we cannot be happy. The lie behind this urgent demand is exposed when we discover joy in the Lord, a consolation that endures even in times of sorrow, an inner fullness that overcomes all the hungers of our nature. Paul, aware of the richness of being poor in the Lord, tells us: “God it is who has given you life in Christ Jesus. He has made him our wisdom and also our justice, our sanctification, and our redemption.” In other words, if we have life in Christ, we are rich! We live in gratitude, not resentment. We truly have something to boast about. We have a message of good news for everyone: that it is a blessing to be poor in spirit because God loves the poor. He bestows on us the kingdom of heaven!
What is my response to the poor? Am I willing to become spiritually poor? What prevents me from fully embracing the way of spiritual poverty?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.