POVERTY OF SPIRIT.—According to the Matthaean version of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord pronounced the first Beatitude on the ‘poor in spirit’ (πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι). In the corresponding passage of Lk. (Luke 6:20
) the words τῷ πνεύματι are omitted; and there can be little doubt that this simpler form of the Beatitude is the more original. It may be gathered, indeed, from quotations in the early Fathers (cf. Polycarp, ii. 3; Clem. Hom. xv. 10; Polyer. 2) that the primitive reading in Mt. also was ‘Blessed are the poor,’ and that the qualifying words were introduced later, in order to define the sense more exactly. Though formally an addition to the actual saying of Jesus, they were felt to be necessary for the right translation of an Aramaic term which had come to bear a peculiar shade of meaning.
1. Already in the later OT writings we find poverty associated with a certain religious temper. The ‘poor’ are also the contrite of heart (Isaiah 66:2
); they are the ‘meek ones’ who lend a willing ear to the Divine message (Psalms 37:11, Isaiah 61:1
). This estimate of poverty is probably to be explained by historical circumstances. The foreign influences which began to operate in the period succeeding the Exile had chiefly affected the richer classes, while the poor still clung to the ancient traditions. Poverty thus acquired a moral significance, which was reinforced by the conditions prevailing in our Lord’s own time. As a result of the externalizing process which had long been at work in religion, the rich were in a specially favoured position from the point of view of legal righteousness. They alone were at leisure to study the Law and to order their lives according to its requirements. They were not exposed, like tradesmen and artizans, to a constant risk of Levitical defilement. They could afford to give alms, and offer the stated sacrifices, and cast much into the Temple treasury. The distinction of wealth and poverty had, therefore, come to be a religious as well as a social distinction; and the Pharisaic spirit of pride and self-sufficiency was chiefly prevalent among the rich. In their consciousness of strict obedience to the Law, they could lay claim to peculiar privileges, and look down with contempt on the ignorant ‘people of the land’ (John 7:49
). It must always be remembered that, when Jesus speaks of wealth or poverty, He is thinking not so much of a social status as of the religious conditions involved in it. Much in His teaching that has been supposed to bear on present-day economic questions, belongs properly to quite a different sphere.
2. It is thus apparent that the words τῷ πνεύματι, although not literally uttered by Jesus, are necessary to the right understanding of His thought. He pronounces His blessing on the poor, in so far as their spiritual temper corresponds with their outward condition. Their poverty was commonly assumed to entail certain drawbacks which placed them at a hopeless disadvantage in their relations to God. Jesus declares that, on the contrary, it was their privilege. It served to foster in them the disposition which could most readily understand the message of the Kingdom and respond to it. ‘Blessed are the poor who have allowed their poverty to fulfil its work in them,—who are poor in spirit as well as in worldly circumstances.’ The truth of the saying may be best illustrated by the historical fact that our Lord’s earliest disciples were drawn, almost wholly, from the poorer class. In this class alone He found those who were capable of entering into sympathy with Him and co-operating with Him in His work.
3. What, then, is the religious temper, the ‘poverty of spirit,’ which was associated in our Lord’s mind with actual poverty? When we examine the saying in the light of the general context of the teaching of Jesus, we can discover three main ideas which are implied in it. (1) In the first place, poverty of spirit is the receptivity for the Divine message. It corresponds, in this sense, with the teachable, childlike spirit to which the Kingdom is elsewhere promised (Matthew 18:2
ff.). The wealthier classes, in their scrupulous obedience to the Law, had become enslaved to custom and tradition. Before the new teaching could make any appeal to them, they had everything to unlearn, freeing their minds entirely of the prejudices and conventional ideas which had encrusted them. In the poor, the instinct for truth had never been perverted by mistaken habit and education. They could listen to Jesus with an open mind, and allow His message to make its own impression. From those who would enter into His Kingdom our Lord demands this receptivity, which in His own time He found, almost exclusively, among the poor,—the common people who heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37
).—(2) The idea of humility is likewise implied. Arrogance and self-complacency are at all times the peculiar vices of men of wealth; and in our Lord’s day these vices bore a religious as well as a social complexion. The rich man could boast, like the Pharisee in the parable, that he was not as other men, since he had fulfilled to the letter every demand of the Law. His pride as a rich man became, in the religious sphere, self-righteousness. Our Lord perceived that to such a temper of mind no true desire for God or right relation towards Him was possible. God could not bestow His gift on those who had never, in a deep sense of personal unworthiness, realized their need of it. The Kingdom of heaven was for the ‘poor in spirit,’—the poor who are conscious of their poverty, and so make their approach to God.—(3) A third idea, characteristic of the whole teaching of Jesus, seems also to be involved in the words. Discipleship is impossible without a renunciation of earthly possessions. The natural result of wealth is to hamper a man in his pursuit of the higher life, since he cannot help reflecting, like the young ruler, how much it is likely to cost him. The poor have little to lose, and need have no hesitancy. They can answer the call of Christ at any moment, with an instant, unquestioning obedience. It is not, however, an outward poverty that our Lord demands, but a ‘poverty or spirit,’ an inward renunciation. There may be no demand for a literal abandonment of worldly possessions, but the true disciple will hold them indifferent. He will not be retarded in any Christian service by the fear of losing them. Whatever be his outward condition, he will have laid aside every weight, detached himself from all earthly considerations, and will act in the poor man’s spirit of instant readiness at the Divine call.
The effect, therefore, of the added words in Mt. is to attach a deeper, moral significance to the original idea of poverty. Among the poor of His own land and time our Lord discovered the truest examples of the receptive, humble, unworldly temper which He demanded in His followers. The idea of social status was subordinate in His mind to that of an inward spirit, which is not necessarily confined to any particular class. By whatever process the qualifying words were introduced into the saying, they correctly interpret the real thought of Jesus, and are necessary to guard it from misconstruction.
4. The Beatitude as a whole is clearly reminiscent of OT passages which comfort the ‘poor in the land’ with the promise of Messianic blessedness (cf. esp. Psalms 37). As in the other Beatitudes, our Lord arrests attention by stating His idea in a bold paradoxical form. The poor, whom men despised and pitied, were the truly rich; a wonderful inheritance was reserved for them, and was already ‘theirs,’ in the midst of their seeming poverty. We may trace, likewise, an implied answer to current Jewish theories of worldly misfortune as evidence of God’s displeasure. The poor, so far from suffering a deserved punishment, were to be regarded as ‘blessed.’—Their hardships were the promise and guarantee of their entrance into the Kingdom.
5. This Beatitude is placed first in the versions of both Mt. and Lk., and evidently with a deliberate intention. Poverty of spirit is the fundamental requirement in the Christian life. It represents a condition of mind and heart without which a man is wholly irresponsive to the Divine influences. As Jesus began His ministry with a call to repentance, so He pronounced His first Beatitude on the ‘poor in spirit.’ He thus repeated, under a different image, the great declaration, ‘Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3
Literature.—Titius, Die NT Lehre von der Seligkeit, 1805, Part i. (esp. p. 72 ff.); H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theologie, vol. i. 181 f. (1897); Loisy, Le discours sur la montagne (1903); also works of a popular or homiletical character, e.g.: Dykes, Beatitudes of the Kingdom (1876); Gore, Sermon on the Mount (1904); Griffith-Jones, Sermon on the Mount (1903); Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness (1906; cf. ExpT
, p. 146 f.).
E. F. Scott.