“Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of God,” reads the first beatitude found in the Gospel according to Matthew. Although the passage is not used in today’s liturgy, the beatitude is very much present. The “poor in spirit” are represented in the Scripture passages for today’s liturgy. Each reading gives us an example of those who are “poor in spirit” and certain dispositions to cultivate in ourselves so that we too can be “poor in spirit.”
In the Gospel passage from St. Luke we hear Jesus tell the story of two people praying in the temple. The two unnamed characters, a tax-collector and a Pharisee, are placed in contrast. The basis of the contrast is their disposition before God. The tax-collector cries out in a plea to God: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The Pharisee, on the other hand, prays: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
The hubris of the Pharisee contrasts with the humility of the tax-collector. The irony lies in the typical mindset of the Jews of Jesus’ time. In this mindset the tax-collector would be cast as a sinner by virtue of his position while the Pharisee, keeping the requirements of the law, would be praised as being righteous. There is no question that the tax-collector considers himself a sinner – he states it clearly in his prayer. The Pharisee, on the other hand, considers himself righteous.
The twist comes as Jesus points out that it is the tax-collector who is justified before God, not the Pharisee, as he says: “I tell you, the latter (tax-collector) went home justified, not the former (Pharisee); for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The tax-collector is truly “poor in spirit” for he recognizes his need of God’s mercy. His position before God is one of humble reliance and dependence on God.
St. Paul provides another example of being “poor in spirit.” One might not think this if we read only the first part of today’s second reading. Here Paul speaks of himself in glowing terms: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me….”
It may sound, on first hearing, as if Paul is being proud, boastful and presumptive (of divine favor). Yet, as we read on, it becomes clear that Paul is truly “poor in spirit.” He says: “…the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
St. Paul recognizes all the good that has been done through him has its origin in the Lord who stands by him and gives him strength. Paul confidently places his life in the hands of the Lord saying, “the Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.” Finishing his praise he says: “To him (the Lord) be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul humbly recognizes that much good has been done through his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. He recognizes that he has been faithful to the mission entrusted to his care. He recognizes that he has endured sufferings and trials. Most importantly he recognizes that all this was possible because it was the Lord who made it happen. Any praise to be offered is to be offered to the Lord, not to Paul. Paul is “poor in spirit” as he gives praise to God for his gracious love, protection and strength.
The psalmist also gives witness to being “poor in spirit.” The psalm is a song of praise to the Lord for his goodness to those who rely on Him: “When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them,” and “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves. The Lord redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.” The Lord protects those who put their faith in Him, especially those in the most need.
Our responsorial refrain is, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” The poor are identified in the psalm as those who are lowly, those who plead before the Lord, those who are just, those who are in distress, those who are brokenhearted, those whose spirits are crushed, those who are His servants. The poor find refuge and protection, relief and consolation, strength and hope when they rely on the Lord.
Finally Ben Sirach gives witness that the “poor in Spirit” are those who serve the Lord in humility for “the one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches to the heavens” and “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.”
Sirach is giving an exhortation to rely on the faithfulness of God. No matter what oppresses the weak or lowly, the Lord will hear their cry. The call for trust in the Most High is the call to be “poor in spirit.”
Some scholars say that the first beatitude sums up and encompasses all the others. Some might even say that it even sums up the entire Sermon on the Mount. The readings for today’s liturgy capture the essence of being “poor in spirit” even though that language or phrase is not used.
The readings today give us good examples of how to be “poor in spirit” by relying on God’s faithfulness, His justice, His love and His mercy.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.