Jesus goes up the mountain, sits down and then begins to teach the disciples. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Thus he begins the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus’ going up on the mountain brings the image of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the law of God. Jesus now offers a teaching on life that both challenges and consoles. The challenge is to live life in a manner proposed by the beatitudes. The consolation comes when we live the beatitudes.
At the heart of the beatitudes, which represent only the beginning portion of the Sermon on the Mount, is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The call to poverty of spirit is the call to humility. This first beatitude is the basis or foundation for all that follows.
The spirit of humility is one that recognizes God’s blessings now. Blessings to the world, to the community and to each person are acknowledged as a “blessing” or a “gift.” God is good and pours out his goodness to all in many and varied ways. Recognizing these gifts and the abundance of them is the first step toward poverty of spirit.
In recognizing that all life and love come from God, one is motivated to seek his will and to live it out. The prophet Zephaniah, in the passage that serves as the first reading for this Sunday’s liturgy, puts it this way: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility.” Those who seek the Lord “shall take refuge in the name of the Lord.” The Lord becomes their “refuge and shield.”
Zephaniah speaks of a “remnant” of Israel who are “humble and lowly.” It is a reminder that there are many who do not seek the will of God in their lives but instead their own will, desires and pleasures. In this the “many” are contrasted with the “few” (the remnant).
The second reading for the liturgy, from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, picks up this theme. Here Paul makes a contrast between foolishness and wisdom. In this the fools are the Christians, the wise are men of the world. His use of irony is clever and inviting.
He tells the Corinthians “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” No one would argue otherwise. Yet, “God chose the foolish of the world … so that no human being might boast before God.”
No, the reason for boasting is the Lord, for “it is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” Hence, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”
Living in the world today it is so easy to get distracted from a life of “poverty of spirit” or “humility.”
I saw a funny story the other day that went like this. Mark just was named a vice president of his company. It somewhat “went to his head,” and Martha, his wife, was getting annoyed and fed up. “Mark, why are you acting like this? It’s no big deal. Today everybody’s a ‘vice president.’ Why even the supermarket has a vice president for peas.” Mark was annoyed at this point and thinking to himself, “I’ll show you,” picked up the phone and called the supermarket. When the operator answered he said: “I’d like to talk to the vice president for peas.” The answer came back: “Which one? Frozen or fresh?”
Jesus calls us to be humble not just before God but also before our fellow man. Poverty of spirit opens us up to the wealth of God’s kingdom — “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (cf. Romans 14:17). So it is in this poverty we are truly rich.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.